NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art


contributed by Nancy Fonicello

Closeup of a horse headstall made by Nancy showing horsehair wrapped quillwork in the rosette and ten-quill plaiting in the cheek band.

The goal of these pages is to present in simple terms some of the techniques used in the ancient art of porcupine quill emboidery. Although many books, publications, and even internet sites address the art of quillwork, very few, if any, detail the actual process of creating it. It is my hope that these pages will be of use to the beginning and advanced quillworker alike. The styles of quillwork are many and varied, and it would be impossible to cover them all here. We hope to present a few of the basic stitches in detail, so that anyone taking the time to master them can move on to the more advanced techniques without much difficulty. More techniques will be added as time goes by, so check back periodically for new updates.

If you are just beginning and you find that you are all thumbs, have patience! Very often it is a matter of finding the right materials, the right size quill, the right needle, the right brain tan leather. Poor or inadequate materials make for frustrating work, even for the seasoned quillworker. Once you get the feel for the work, you will wonder why you thought it was so difficult when you started!

My quest to pursue fine quillwork began when a good friend introduced me to it, commissioning a piece when I had never really tried anything but beadwork. I fumbled around and came up with a passable rosette, using a few books and pictures as reference. My interest didn't really blossom until I had the opportunity to view some outstanding old pieces collected on the American frontier prior to 1840. (see Sacred Encounters - Father DeSmet and the Indians of the Rocky Mountain West).

It seemed that the craftsmanhip practiced in the old days could not compare to anything I had seen up to that point, and so I set about looking more for old pieces, studying the techniques, experimenting with natural dyes and sinew thread. The result has been five years of study and practice and yet even now not a day goes by that I do not learn something new. It is easy to understand why quillwork as an art was held in such high regard among native peoples.

A few words to the beginning quillworker. First, as mentioned above, do not get frustrated. If your work doesn't come out as you expected it should, try changing your needle size, your thread, your leather. If all else fails, put it down and go do something else for a while. Doing quillwork when you are out of sorts is an invitation to disaster.

Secondly, go visit museums, read books, surf the net, get your hands on anything pertinent. You will be suprised to see how much you can learn by looking at existing pieces of quillwork. A short bibliography can be found on these pages, as well as a list of museums around the country and in Europe that have fine pieces on display. You will also get a feel for characteristic styles of quillwork, for example eastern woodland quillwork as opposed to upper Missouri or plains styles.

Third, experiment! Just because you haven't read it anywhere doesn't mean it won't work. Many of my most vibrant natural dyes have been the results of kitchen experiments or wild ideas in the middle of the night. Last of all, don't be afraid to share what you have learned. Visit powwows, rendevous', gun shows, etc. and talk with people who are just starting or have been doing it for years. Sometimes the idea you share will be the exact thing that someone has been looking for.

Historically speaking, many nations have regarded quillwork as an elite art to be practiced only by quillwork guilds or special societies. That is not the case today. Good quillwork can be done and done well by anyone who has the patience to try and the willingness to learn.

The first techniques to be presented here will be the basic stitches that serve as the building blocks to all other styles: single-quill diamond or zig-zag stich, single-quill parallel-fold or simple band stitch, and the single-quill line embroidery. Most other work, such as quill plaiting, is the result of these three stitches in combination with one another or with multiple quills. One exception is wrapped quillwork, which will be covered in another section. Also included will be a discussion of materials and dyeing methods used by the author. More techniques will be added as time goes by. All comments and suggestions are welcome.

© 1997 - Nancy Fonicello.

Porcupine Quillwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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