Quillwork is a technique practiced for centuries in many parts of North America and was the primary form of artistic expression by Dene women in regions where porcupines could be found. Quillwork requires a high degree of patience, dexterity and attention to detail.
Around 1840, quillwork began to decline as beads became available in the NWT. Dedicated to ensuring this traditional art does not disappear, there are still artists in Dehcho region who continue to use this intricate technique of decoration on tanned hides and birchbark baskets.
A healthy adult porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills on its body. The pure white quills of a young porcupine turn yellow as the animal ages. Quills can be easily removed from a dried porcupine skin with bare hands, gloves or pliers. The quills vary in length from ½ inch on the face to 4 inches on the back of the animal. Most of quills on the side and tail measure between 2½ to 3 inches in length.
After the quills are gathered they are washed in warm water and detergent. At least nine changes of water are needed to remove the natural grease. Proper cleaning and rinsing is necessary to prevent the quills from yellowing over time. The rinsed quills are spread out over towels or newspaper to dry before dyeing.
Before commercial dyes were available, berries, flowers, plants and lichen were used to create dyes. Quills are soaked in the dye for about 30 minutes to allow them to pick up the vibrant colours. Dyed quills are rinsed with vinegar to help keep the colour from fading.
Once the quills are dyed, they are allowed to dry for several days before the root end of the quill is carefully clipped to allow the air to escape. Quills are made pliable by placing them in a damp cloth or in the mouth and allowing the natural action of saliva to soften them. If required, the quill can be flattened by pinching it and forcing the air out. Properly handled quills should be shiny indicating they have not been damaged.
Each quill must be softened again just before it is used. The quills dry and harden quickly so the artist must work fast. Traditionally, quillwork was done with sinew. However, thread or dental floss are more commonly used today.
Quills can be woven into decorative bands using a bow loom strung with sinew or thread. The artist weaves coloured quills with intervening threads to create a design. Zig-zag and diamond patterns are the most common. Bird, animal or floral designs are rare. New quills are added as colour changes are desired or the length of the quill runs out. The quill band will lie flat if even tension has been maintained during weaving. This demonstrates the skill and experience of the weaver.
Embroidered quillwork is usually found on hide clothing or accessories. Designs are drawn directly onto the hide either freehand or from a pattern.
There are several traditional techniques of quill embroidery and many variations. Basic quillwork stitches include zig-zag (overhand), straight (band), line, checkerboard, rick-rack, sawtooth, diamond, triangle, and circle quilling.
The basic zig-zag technique involves folding flattened quills over two parallel lines of thread. A quill is inserted under the first stitch, and folded over and inward so the thread is hidden. This is repeated, back and forth, between the parallel thread stitches as the quilling pattern emerges. New quills are placed under the old allowing different colours of quills to be added into the design.
Quillwork on Birchbark
Birchbark baskets are commonly decorated with quills. After the design is drawn, small holes for the quills to go into are punched along the edges of the design with an awl. Coloured quills are flattened and inserted into the holes in a zig-zag pattern to create the design. On the underside, the quills are pushed down and the ends are hidden with an inner piece of bark.
Other Types of Quillwork
Other types of quillwork are less common. These include Tipi quilling, quill wrapping on rawhide and quill plaiting. Sometimes bird quills are used in edging decoration.
For more information on quill work, download the brochure.