NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Natural Dyes for Porcupine Quills
by Tara Prindle

Commercial dyes are often used to today to color quills, these dyes are easy to obtain and even easier to use. Why more natural dye recipes are not used is perhaps from lost knowledge or even laziness. The quality of an infinite number of natural dyes traditionally used by Native Americans leaves nothing to be desired! The vibrant and varied colors of quills produced using natural dyes are still highly desired today, but their recipes are known to a very few. Simply knowing the ingredients used to produce a color is not enough, as many dye recipes required the specifics of times and temperatures or the addition of an ingredient at just the right moment.

DYEING QUILLS IN THE KITCHEN…Some examples of naturally dyed quills and the materials used in the dye process. The liquid in the mason jar is indigo – note that the solution itself is yellow until it hits the air, where oxidizes and turns blue. Quills immersed in the solution will not turn blue until you remove them from the dye! The blue flower pedals in the plate behind it are larkspur (Delphinium sp.), which give a nice colorfast blue/green dye. The yellow lichen in the middle is fox moss, which grows on pine trees in the west, and gives a bright yellow, almost chartreuse color, requiring no mordant. The orange and red quills in the foreground are dyed with bloodroot and cochineal respectively.

--Photo and description contributed by Nancy Fonicello

Colors and some Natural Dye ingredients:


Sunflower, Gold thread (Helleborus trifolis), Cone flower petals with decayed oak bark or cattail root, Black willow roots, Fox moss (Evernia vulpina), Yellow or curled dock root, Cottonwood, Lichen (Usnea barbata), Oregon Grape (Berberis repens), Osage orange wood


Choke cherry or wild plum, Tamarack bark, Spruce cones, Sumac berries, Alder, Hemlock inner bark, Poke berry, Bloodroot, Sassafras, Red Bedstraw, Buffalo-berry (Lepargyrea), Squaw current, Red Osier Dogwood, Red cedar.


Wild grape (Vitis, cinera and vulpina), Maples, Burr oak, Elderberries, Hazel nut bark combined with powdered brown stone


Hickory or Walnuts gathered green and turned black, Rushes (Juncus belticus)


Blueberries, Blackberries, Elderberries, Northern dog whelk (Nucella lapillus), White maple.


Larkspur, Beech, Wire Birch, Indigo.


Prince's Pine, Moosewood, Evergreen (Arbutus menziesa), Copper mixed with ammonia (urine).

In addition to the coloring agents of dyes, mordants are often added to keep dyes from fading,, or to brighten, deepen, or dull a color. Depending on the particular recipe and on the desired effect, mordants can be used before, during or after the dye bath. Acidic mordants like currants or gooseberries (even vinegar) can help make colors more permanent. Deeper colors can be achieved by adding (female) dock root. Other natural mordants include birch, oak (especially black oak soaked in standing water for 2 years), iron oxides (ground hematite), and hardwood (or cedar bark) ashes.

Modern commercially available mordants include iron sulfate/Coppreas (dulls/gray tones), tin (brightens), chrome (stronger/browner tones), copper sulfate/blue vitriol (green tones), alum (yellow tones) and cream of tartar (deeper tones). Be aware that some mordants are toxic and great care should be taken when they are used in steaming dye baths.

When ready for dying, a vessel is filled with water, the dye and quills added and (barely) simmered for 1/2 to 3 hours or more. If boiled, or left unattended the quills can become soft, brittle, or they can even dissolve into a glue. After dying, the quills are strained from the bath (sometimes rinsed in cold water) and are left spread-out to dry in the air. Quills rubbed with animal oils after they've been dyed have a longer life, as they do not dry out and become brittle.

Here's an interactive game you can play to learn about dyes,
Matching Game: Natural Dyes and Porcupine Quills

Porcupine Quillwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
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