Quillwork is probably the oldest form of embroidery used by the Native Americans of the Plains. They used birdfeather quills and porcupine quills to decorate their items. Later, after the Europeans brought glass beads, quillwork was not done as much because the beads came in more colors and were easier to use.

What did the Native Americans decorate with quillwork?

They decorated their everyday articles, such as clothing, bags, knife sheaths, tool holders, baskets, wooden handles, pipestems, etc...

How did they get the quills?

To collect the quills, women would sneak up on a porcupine and throw a blanket over it. As a defense the porcupine would raise its quills into the blanket. The quills would get caught on the blanket, and the women could pull them off of the porcupine. The women would then remove the blanket and pick the quills out.

Were there different kinds of quills?

There were four sizes of quills found on a porcupine. The large, coarse quills from the tail are best for filling in large areas, wrapping handles, pipe stems, or fringes. Quills from the porcupine's back are good for loom work. The fine quills from the neck are ideal for embroidery. The thinnest quills found near the belly are used for delicate lines.

How were the quills prepared?

The quillworker flattened the quills by drawing them between her teeth or with a quill flattener. Quills were dyed with plant dyes. They often were dyed in bright colors, but reflecting the tones of the earth. In some cultures only some women who have undergone special ceremonies were allowed to do quillwork.

How were the quills applied to the articles?

The quills were sewn, using their own points, into a buckskin in various designs. Wrapping, braiding, and weaving were other techniques. The bow loom was used for weaving.

To see samples of different quillwork techniques, click on: