to Quill, Birch bark and Split Ash
Porcupine Quill Work
The craft of QUILLWORK predates the arrival of the Europeans to North
America. Quillwork, both porcupine and bird, was used by the Native Peoples to decorate
their clothes and utensils. Glass beads were introduced into North America by the
Europeans as a trading item and quickly replaced the harder to use quills as a means of
decoration to the point where the craft of quilling was almost totally lost.
Then in the late l9th century, a group of concerned Ursaline nuns, seeing the
impoverished state of the Native Tribes, worked with a small band of Ojibway to revive
this lovely craft in the form you see today.
Research on the Victorian era indicates that beautiful Indian handicrafts were very
much in vogue and one of the most popular was a Porcupine Quill, Birchbark and Sweet grass
Today a handful of Native women tenuously keep this beautiful craft alive.
One tiny quillwork basket requires hours of intense concentration, mathematical
precision and painstaking attention to detail and design; not to mention the time and
skill required to collect and prepare the raw materials.
Porcupine Quills must be stripped, washed and sorted according to size (note the
evenness of the quills on your basket) and then are left natural and/or dyed according to
the design intention.
Sweet grass for the rim holds an honored and sacred place among many Native cultures
especially the Plains and Woodlands peoples, where it features prominently in all their
ceremonial traditions. Sweet grass (sarastana odorato) is collected from late June to mid
August and a year's supply must be prepared by the artisan for storage by blanching and
Many Indian people carry braids of Sweet grass with them and place it in their homes
as a symbol of wholeness, happiness, freedom and strength. The beautiful scent of this
sweet grass will last for many years to come. To revive the scent simply spray with a
little warm water.
Birchbark can be collected only in the early Spring and requires precision and skill
to strip the fresh young bark and leave the tree intact.
Now the basket shape is cut and the design carefully and mathematically drawn with an
awl. The quills are worked wet for greater pliability. Designs may be floral, geometric,
star and animal. Many designs are rooted in history and tradition and have been passed on
from generation to generation.
The craft of quilling is from a bygone era in its simple purity. Today in the
sophisticated world of computer technology, space exploration and global communications
this lovely craft has all but disappeared.