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Porcupine Quillwork Class

We were a small but fun group on Saturday when we met for the Porcupine Quillwork Class.

What is Porcupine Quillwork, you might ask.  And it’s a very good question, because few people today know of this ancient art form.

Long ago, pre-European contact, the people who lived on this continent had many forms of art, all based on using the natural materials they could find around them.  When it came to decorating clothing or containers, there were no beads, no ribbons, no embroidery floss.  There were natural dyes, there was wood, and there were porcupine quills.

In the northeast, it was common to decorate birch bark boxes and containers with quills colored with plant dyes.  Using awls made from splintered deer bones, small holes were punched into the bark and quills were inserted, kind of like staples.  The patterns were mostly floral, and they were beautiful.

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As you moved westward, quills were used more for decorating clothing, horse gear. and other daily items.  Some were embroidered directly onto the leather, while others were wrapped around rawhide or braided into “ropes” that could then be wrapped around objects, like handles.  The work is very intricate and labor-intensive.  Floral and geometric patterns predominate.

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When trade began with the Europeans, beads, needles and thread were introduced, and clothing decoration became much easier!  By the 1900s, porcupine quillwork was already nearly a “thing of the past.”  A few women still decorated containers for sale to tourists, but the art form was beginning to vanish.

Fortunately, as with so many of these things, there were some people who knew the intrinsic value of the skills needed for doing quillwork, and they learned how to do it and passed the knowledge along.  A handful of books are available today to help novices discover this art form.  And, joy of joy, thanks to the internet and YouTube, you can find videos to help you learn, too!

At Dahlem, this last Saturday, we had a class to introduce participants to the art of using porcupine quills for decoration.  We had two projects lined up:  making a medallion on birch bark, and making a pair of earrings.  Everyone chose to start with the earrings.

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The program started with an introduction to the porcupine, a rodent of our northern latitudes.  How in the world anyone ever decided “hey, let’s use those quills for decoration” is beyond me!  They are sharp and potentially dangerous, but when used for decoration, the barbed tips are removed.  Inside each quill is a spongy material.  The quills are soaked in water to make them pliable.  Traditionally, the women would hold them in their mouths to keep them wet.  We used bowls of water instead.

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Each earring started with what is called a decreasing brickwork pattern, which can be a bit of a challenge for those who have never done any beading.  After that foundation is completed, it is a fairly simple task of just stringing beads and quills on in the desired pattern.

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Although our group worked diligently for 3.5-4 hours, no one completed a full set of earrings (they all took supplies home to complete their projects), and we never did get to the birch bark medallions.  Interest in doing the latter, however, was keen, and we plan to offer that class again this winter.

If you are interested in learning more about porcupine quillwork, look for our winter class, or contact Ellen here at Dahlem!

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