Native American moccasins with quillwork.
Native American moccasins
with beautiful quillwork.

Porcupine quillwork is perhaps the oldest form Native American embroidery, and was a widespread form of decoration for Great Lakes and Plains peoples living within the natural range of the porcupine.

The quills are folded, twisted, wrapped and sewn using a wide range of techniques to embellish articles of clothing, bags, knife sheaths, baskets, wooden handles and pipe stems.

To collect the quills, women approached an unsuspecting porcupine and threw a blanket over the animal. As a defense mechanism, the porcupine raised its quills into the blanket.

The quills caught on the blanket. Then then Native American women removed the blanket and retrieved the quills.

Porcupines produce four quill sizes, each size used for specific quillwork:

  • Large, coarse tail quills were desired for filling in large areas, wrapping handles or pipe stems and covering fringes.
  • Back quills worked best for loom work.
  • Fine quills from the neck were ideal for embroidery.
  • Thin quills found near the belly were used for delicate lines.  

Traditionally, quills were dyed in large pots using plants to give them rich colors. Lakota (Sioux) women had to watch the quills carefully to ensure the pieces did not boil and become glue.

Colors were often bright but reflected the hue’s true Earth origin: plants and berries produced mauves, purples and engorged reds; lichen provided pale yellows.

After dying, the quills were spread out to air dry. Once dry, they were rubbed with animal oils to keep them from drying out and becoming brittle.

The quills were traditionally sewn on hide or birch bark with sinew stripped from tendons on each side of a buffalo or deer’s backbone.

Though the intricate art of quillwork is fading with the elders, quillwork does still exist.


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