NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Preparation of Porcupine Quills
by Tara Prindle

A porcupine quill is really just a large 'hair' that has a hard, shiny shell and a pithy, soft interior. A grown porcupine naturally has quills of different shapes and sizes. The flexible, slender 'guard hairs' can measure a half a foot long and are reserved for hair 'roaches' worn on the head. Quills used for embroidery, loomwork, or wrapping range from 4" quills on the porcupines back to 1/2" quills around the head and flanks of the animal. Most quills are 2 1/2 to 3 inches long.

The craftsperson usually sorts the quills into four classes. Traditionally the sorted quills were kept in pouches made from bladders . The large, coarse quills from the tail and are used for embroidering large filled areas, or for wrapping handles, pipe stems or fringe. Longer thinner quills are pulled from the porcupine's back, and are excellent for loomed quillwork. The neck quills are even finer and are ideal for embroidery. The thinnest quills are found around the porcupines belly and these are best for delicate line quilling.

Porcupines are pigeon toed, somewhat slow and lumbering creatures and they do not move swiftly. They are easily captured by human hunters, and all too easily hit by vehicular traffic on the roads. Although some states restrict picking up animals killed on the road, this is the easiest way for a crafter to obtain the quills. The quills should be (carefully) pulled with bare hands. Leather or rubber gloves can be used but they tend to catch on the barbed quills. If pliers are used, the quills can be damaged resulting in problems later on trying to dye the quills. The quills come out more easily if a porcupine carcase is left on it's own for a couple of days (for a shorter time in sweltering heat).

Long guard hairs are pulled first, and an attempt should be made not to pull the underfur out with the quills. To clean the plucked quills, remove any fur or detritus, and then soak the quills in hot soapy water, rinse, and repeat until the quills are a nice bright white color. This should remove the oils from the quill, and make dying them much easier. If the quills come from a porcupine with serious personal hygiene problems, it may be necessary to soak them for a few minutes in a very mild solution of water and bleach. Bare in mind that bleach may damage the quills, making them brittle and susceptible to cracks. After cleaning, place the quills out to dry.

Porcupine Quillwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
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