A meticulous skill that has been passed down for generations, quillwork is a form of embellishment that uses the quills of porcupines to decorate bowls, boxes, bags, shoes, knife holsters, and more. Quillwork was popular among both Indigenous Peoples and European Americans in the seventeenth century for its vivid, beautiful patterns. The craft flourished until the 1800s, when glass beads became more popular for decoration. Today, some historic quillwork artifacts are still preserved and, in some cases, auctioned off.
Native-American quillwork is an art form that is taught and used today. It can be done using a variety of techniques, one of which begins with a birch-bark base. The bark must be taken at a precise time so as not to hurt the tree, then scrubbed smooth with water and sand. It is then flattened and dried. The prepared bark is cut into a shape that becomes a base for the container, and holes are poked into the bark to create different patterns and designs.
The next and most important steps involve harvesting, cleaning, and dying quills. They are usually plucked from deceased porcupines, which can have up to 30,000 quills on their bodies, and sorted into categories based on their size. In order to change the shape of quills, they must be soaked in water to soften them in preparation for bending and weaving. Both ends of the quills are then poked through the holes in the birch-bark base and manipulated to stay in place.
Porcupine quills are known to retain color, giving quill artifacts a lasting, signature vibrancy. Traditionally, mahogany, white birch, alder, and other types of wood were boiled with natural ingredients to form vibrant hues. Today, either commercial or natural dyes can be used. The quills are submerged in dye and left in the solution until they reach a specific color. Hues range from bright reds and blues to more neutral tones, such as oranges and greens. Some quillwork artists prefer to leave the quills in their natural white, beige, and brown hues.
The Museum of Ojibwe Culture in St. Ignace displays a collection of quilled artifacts and has some to sell in their museum store. Visitors to the museum will find an abundance of information about the steps that go into quillwork, items that were commonly made with porcupine quills, and different types of wood that formed the foundation of traditional dyes.
The museum also hosts an annual Native-American festival in St. Ignace, where experts demonstrate the art of quillwork and other traditional skills, such as weaving birch-bark baskets. To plan a trip to the Museum of Ojibwe Culture, call (906) 643-9161 or visit museumofojibwaculture. net.
Caption: A porcupine quill bowl on display at the Museum of Ojibwe Culture. (All photos by HSM staff.)
Caption: Some information on dying quills.
Caption: Porcupine quill boxes.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||FACTS & FINDS; art method and display at Museum of Ojibwe Culture in St. Ignace, Michigan|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2018|
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