Quillwork, or the use of dyed, flattened porcupine quills as a means of decoration, is unique to the indigenous people of North America. The porcupine's habitat ranges from Maine to Alaska, and quillwork decoration emerged in most places his quills could be found.  Dyed with aniline dyes or in "teas" made of natural materials, the quills are softened in the mouth and then wrapped around thread or sinew stitched to tanned leather. Designs can be simple or complex, and there are many ways of wrapping and plaiting the quills to achieve different patterns. Examples of Quillworking have been found that are at least 400 years old, and quillworking toolkits dating to the 6th century AD. The Wyoming State Museum presents examples of quillworking here and in "Unbroken Circle," our permanent exhibit of Native American history at our museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Northern Cheyenne. Sometimes quills are taken from a blanket thrown over a living porcupine, sometimes the porcupine is skinned and the quills are plucked from the hide. Some modern quillworkers use quills from roadkill.

Sioux, Brule. Next, the quills are sorted by size and dyed. Here, a zigzag pattern of quills adorns a ladle made from buffalo horn.

Sioux. Before synthetic dyes were available in the 1850's, quills were dyed with natural pigments. Blue could be made from earth pigments, purple from chokecherry, yellow from bark and red from marsh bedstraw.

Arapaho. Spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence and mass spectrometry reveal methods for creating different colors varied from region to region. Aniline dyes made creating bright colors faster and easier.

Sioux. Lines of red quillwork tend to be associated with woman's moccasins and were largely made by the Dakota Sioux tribes in the late 1800's.

Sioux. Quillwork is usually done by women, who begin to learn the skill around age 10. Induction into a quillworking society is considered a privilege.

Sioux. This moccasin shows a "parallel band" quillwork stitch on the vamp and a "zigzag" stitch on the tongue.

Sioux. Parfleches, or rawhide bags, were often painted, but this one is decorated with both quillwork and beadwork. Beadwork has become more common as beads are commercially available, but quillwork is still practiced today.

Northern Plains. Quilling was not only used on clothing. Here, quilled bars are attached to a tin cup by leather ties.

Possible Arapaho or Sioux. Given the time intensive nature of quillwork, decorations could be removed from worn-out articles and attached to new ones.

Bag with quillwork, unknown tribe.

Although quillwork declined in popularity after the introduction of glass beads, it has enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades and is still practiced today. This time and labor intensive art repays the patient artist with a a piece which is "totally and completely ours, the genuine article... found nowhere else in the world." -Norman Moyah, quillwork artist.

Credits: Story

Organized by the Wyoming State Museum.

Bibliography:

Cole, Christina and Heald, Susan. "The History and Analysis of Pre-Aniline Native American Quillwork Dyes." Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. Paper 14 (2010).

Halvorson, Mark J. Sacred Beauty: Quillwork of Plains Women North Dakota: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1998

Horse Capture, John D. et al. Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts. Washington DC: National Museum of the American Indian, 2001

Green, Pamela Sexsmith et al. "Quillworking: Traditional Artwork Is Being Resurrected." Saskatchewan Sage volume 2 issue 8 (1998).

Orchard, William C. The Technique of Porcupine-Quill Decoration Among The North American Indians. New York: The Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, 1916.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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