NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Porcupine Quillwork
Multiquill Plaiting Techniques

contributed by Nancy Fonicello

Strip of multiple quill plaiting used as shoulder strips on an Upper Missouri style dress. This type of work is extremely flexible and it is easy to see why it was used so widely on clothing. Note also the use of pony beads to compliment the quillwork.

Multiquill plaiting is the term commonly used to describe a type of quillwork which has the appearance of being "woven" with many quills at once. It was a technique used extensively amongst the people of the upper Missouri River in historic times and can be seen quite clearly in the paintings of such artists as Karl Bodmer and Paul Kane who traveled extensively in the west in the early 1800's. This quillwork technique looks more complicated than it is - it is actually one of the speediest to execute once the basic skills are mastered. It uses the single band or zigzag technique, the only difference being that many quills are used across the work instead of just one or two at a time.

This page will introduce you to the basics of the multiquill technique. I recommend you review the techniques of zigzag and single band technique before you begin, as these are the two stitches that you must know in order to do the multiquill technique.


Multiquill plaited quillwork on a horse headstall made by Nancy


Perhaps the most difficult part of doing multiquill plaited quillwork is the beginning and the ending! At first glance it looks as if you must work with 10 or 12 quills all at the same time, but in reality, you can only sew down one quill at a time. The following instructions will show you how to begin a piece of multiquill plaiting:



First determine how wide you want your strip to be - this will determine for the most part the number of quills you will need in order to fill the space. Obviously the wider your strip, the more quills you will need.

When you are just starting out, you may not want to make your strips any wider than your longest quill. As you get more advanced, you will learn to splice new quills in in the middle of the work, but for now, we will just add quills on either edge.

In my example I have drawn an area about 1.25 inches wide. I know from experience that this is a good size for a ten quill plait, so that is what we will show.

As in previous techniques, use a fine point pen to draw your lines on a piece of soft brain tanned leather. Here I have drawn a short line in the center of my strip to show where I will begin quilling.





Find the center of your strip and just to the right of it, make a loop with one thread and stitch down a flattened quill. You might be wise to select the longest quills you can find for this type of work - the longer the quill, the fewer times you have to make a splice as you cross the work! Don't fold the quills over just yet - leave them sticking out away from the work as shown.










Now add quills one at a time along the top edge which you have drawn your line (working left to right), flattening the quills but leaving them sticking straight out from the top of the work.

Continue until you reach the right side of your strip (Here I have added 4 quills), then add one more quill on the descending line, just as you did across the top. Notice how this quill points at 90 degrees from the previously added edge quills. This quill marks the beginning of your quilled strip proper, and helps to make a nice clean corner.








It gets a little tricky here, so be patient! So far we have been working with just one thread. Now it is time to add another needle and thread, this time just to the left of the very first quill you stitched down.


Don't be perturbed that your work is starting to look like a porcupine on a bad hair day! Once we start folding quills down, it will all make sense.


Add a new quill just to the left of the other ones, keeping your stitches on the line you drew before. Here I have used a white quill to illustrate where I am adding a new quill. Normally these quills would be all the same color as you begin a multiquill strip.








Now the fun starts. With your needles and threads safely out of the way, fold down every other quill, starting just to the right of the new (white) quill. If the quills have gotten stiff in the meantime, wetting them slightly with your fingertips should help soften them up. If you flattened the quills properly to start with, you shouldn't have much of a problem folding them down now.











Fold the new quill (the white one in this illustration) down over the orange quills which you folded down in the previous stitch. Sew this new quill down along the drawn line on the right side, just as you would if you were doing the zig-zag stitch (i.e. the fold is toward you). Notice that this quill is now covering the three orange quills that you folded down in the previous step.











Here I have actually shown two steps. First of all fold the two orange quills (that you had left sticking up in Step Six) down over the top of the white quill you just stitched down. Now lift up the quills that were underneath that white quill, folding them up and out of the way. With the quills alternating up and down, this step looks very much like basket weaving.


Secondly, add another quill just to the left of the newest one, just as you did before. Here I am using another white one in my illustration.








Fold the new quill down as before, over the top of the folded orange quills, stitching it down along the right side line.


Congratulations! Now you know how to do multiquill plaiting! But there are a few more steps....









Continue adding new quills to the left across the top of the strip, weaving the other quills over and under with each stitch as shown.












Two more steps: when you reach the left corner of your strip, add one more new quill going down the side. Here, the quill I am talking about is the white one which sticking out on the right side. Your left hand thread will be running perpendicular to the top line now, although I have covered it over by folding the quill.


You are done splicing in new quills and it is time to being plaiting! From here on out, just sew down the next quill in the weave and continue as before. Here, my next quill is the orange one. Note that this is the very first quill you sewed down!







From here on out, completing your muliquill strip is just a matter of adding new quills one at a time and weaving them as you go with quills that are already in the work.

Splices for new quills can be made at either side of the work. You can create new patterns in your weave by introducing new colors from one side or the other, or by doing mirror image strips side by side to make diamonds and other patterns.

This is a picture of a different quilled strip which I started. Notice how I have changed the pattern by adding red quills from the left and white quills from the right.


Quill Embroidery Techniques
The Zig-Zag Technique
The Parallel or Band Technique
The Single-quill Line Technique
Quill plaited knife handle. This technique,
commonly used on pipe stems, is called plaiting but
it's actually a combination of braiding and wrapping.

© 1997 - Nancy Fonicello.

Porcupine Quillwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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