Using the quills of the porcupine, this intricate art is used to decorate hide, fabric, and birchbark.

A healthy adult porcupine has approximately 30,000 off-white quills. The quills are collected from the porcupine, which has either been killed for food or has been destroyed by road kill. The quills are carefully pulled out with bare hands or with a leather glove. Pliers can easily crack the quill. The quill cannot be dyed properly if the air inside escapes. Each quill has a barbed tip and once it gets into your skin it an be painful and hard to pull out.

After the quills are pulled, they are washed in hot soapy water. It takes at least five changes of water to remove the natural grease. Once cleaned, the rinsed quills are spread out on towels to dry. Medium and large quills are collected and sorted into separate piles, while damaged quills are thrown away. The large quills are used mainly for jewelry. Small bundles of medium quills, about one inch in diameter, are soaked in warm water for five minutes to soften the quills and then dyed. Large bundles of quills do not dye evenly.

Nowadays, quills are coloured using commercial dyes. Before commercial dyes were available certain vegetation was relied on to acquire the desired colours.

  • Yellow came from Wild Sunflowers or Coneflowers
  • Red came from Buffalo Berries or Sumac Berries
  • Black came from Wild Grapes
  • Brown came from various Lichen
  • Purple came from Blueberries
  • Pale Purple came from Larkspur

Years ago only water was used when dying quills, sometimes the water was made acidic by boiling currants or gooseberries. This would help prevent the colours from fading. Dock root was also added to produce brighter and stronger colours.

To use commercial dyes you need to mix one tsp. of Rit® dye in water. Bring to a boil, add small bundle of quills to dye mixture. Simmer for three minutes . If it simmers for too long the quills will go flat and have to be thrown away. Keep stirring so that the quills will dye evenly. The quills are taken out of the dye mixture and rinsed in a bowl of vinegar to help keep the colour from fading. The dye can be set aside and used again. The quills are spread out on a paper towel to absorb the excess liquid. The quills can be placed into a resealable plastic bag while still damp if they are going to be used shortly after. Do not store the quills in the plastic bag for more than two weeks because they will get moldy. To store the quills for a longer period of time, spread them out on paper towel or newspaper until they are thoroughly dried, then put them in plastic bags.

Each quill must be softened again just before it is used. Quills are made pliable by placing them in a damp cloth, or in the mouth to allow the natural action of saliva to soften them. Make sure the barbed end of the quill is facing out.

There are several things to note when looking at a piece of quillwork. The quills should be shiny, indicating they have not been damaged. Rows of quillwork should be even and black quill ends should not be visible unless they are part of the design.