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( Article orginally published September 1962 )
Quill-work is the invention of the North American Indian. It has been his exclusive province in the field of decorative art.
How long ago it was developed and to what extent it was in use in prehistoric times can not be known, because, like so much perishable material created in pre-Columbian America, prehistoric examples have disappeared. But we can assume, because of perfected techniques and variety of uses existing when it first came to white men's attention, that it had been "growing" for a long, long time.
True quill-work involves the use of porcupine quills. Bird feather quills, shiny grass, coarse moose hair, and corn-husk strips have been used in some of the ways porcupine quills were used, but decoration with them is not quill-work.
Basically quill-work uses porcupine quills softened by moisture, flattened, and ,dyed. The fact that such quills take dye easily and well is what created their use for colorful decoration.
The porcupine is a northern animal; hence quill-work was not used south of the Mexican border. He ranges throughout Canada and Alaska (except in the extreme north), and in the Northeast Quarter and Western Half of the United States. His back is covered with quills from an inch to around five inches long, hollow of course, and, as many a creature, including man, has discovered, barbed at the tip.
Originally quills were boiled with some sort of natural dye, usually vegetable. About 75 years ago commercial aniline dyes came into use, and from time to time the Indians, observing that colored cloth ran when new, utilized the fact to boil it with quills.
There were a number of ways to use the colored quills.
Perhaps the simplest was with slender objects such as rawhide strips, whistles, and pipe tampers. These were covered by simply wrapping the quills around them, fastening with knots on the way.
In sewed quill-work, sinew or commercial thread was caught in the leather at intervals, and the quilling wrapped around the thread as the sewing progressed. Different effects were obtained by use of single or double threads and by methods of folding the quills "en route."
Double threads resulted in a band of quilling, but the surface of the band varied with the way of wrapping, and with the use of one or two quill elements.
Braided quill-work produced a very neat and interesting appearance, but created a comparatively narrow cord. It is most familiar wrapped around pipe stems.
Using quills of different colors enabled the decorator to produce patterns, some to suit his fancy, but oftener according to tribal fashions, in geometrical, conventional floral, or pictorial forms.
It was these patterns that gave a start to, and continued to influence the nature of beadwork, using trader's beads. In fact beadwork never got far from original ideas developed in the past of quill-work.
Like beadwork, quill-work was done loosely or tightly. Quill-work could, however, be much more tightly fashioned than even the smallest closely sewn beads would permit.
The ultimate in this was in Canada, where some tribes wove their quill-work, the result being very fine and tight, with the designs giving the impression of very small checkers; perhaps the inspiration of a similar effect in Blackfook style beadwork.
The favorite designs of different areas are similar to those of beadwork; floral in the Woodland Indian areas, and angular or geometric on the Plains.
Besides being wrapped around objects and sewn or woven to buckskin, quills were much used to decorate birch-bark articles. The ends of the quills were tucked through holes and covered inside with a lining. Designs varied from close to outright pictorial, to conventional presentation running into scrolls and arabesques.
Most of the quilling was done by Canadian tribes and Plains and Northeastern and Great Lakes Woodland tribes in the United States, Pacific Coast and Southwest tribes all but ignored it.
Although quill-work is much older than beadwork, probably prehistoric in origin, and was nearly superseded by beadwork, its use continued, and it is not quite a "lost art" today, though of less appeal, apparently to hobbyists and modern Indian craftsmen than the somewhat easier beadwork.