NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art
Materials & Tools for Decorating Bark with Quills


Bark - the outer bark of the birch tree is traditionally gathered in june from live trees by making a horizontal slice in the trunk and pealing away the thick sheet of layers all the way down to the darker inner bark of the tree (which of course harms the tree)- birch bark from fallen trees or trees slated for harvest is best to use. Fresh bark can be easily bent and sewn, but older bark which has been pressed flat for storage must be heated with warm water for a few minutes to make it flexible enough for bending without splitting. (Soaking the bark is not necessary for the step of inserting the quills through the bark or for sewing flat pieces together).

Quills - porcupine quills can always be bought from craft supply companies but there are more creative ways of obtaining a supply of quills. Porcupines are often hit by cars in the northeast but at least use can be made of their quills. A clever woods-person can get a good supply of quills without harm to the 'porky' - a generous amount of quills will stick to a blanket, sweater or other ready article of clothing strategically tossed over the slow-moving critter. Quills must be soaked in warm water to make them soft and flexible - ideally kept warm and moist in the quill-workers mouth - I prefer to alternate my quills between a small container of warm water and a moist sponge to rest them on so they don't over-soak.

Marker - or a bone marker to etch onto the dark stiff (inner bark) side the design to be quilled (or a pencil to draw the design on). The pairs perforations are placed along these line placed

Scissors - preferably two pair: a heavy duty pair for cutting the bark and one for snipping quills and lighter work.

Awl - Traditionally sharpened bone awls are used for making the perforations in birch bark. One such awl is made from the naturally tapering arm (ulna) bone of a deer or similar mammal. An awl with a triangular point works best and doesn't split the bark as a round needle tends to. But in a pinch a large leather needle or other pin can be used to make the perforations in the bark.

Tweezers or pliers - Though quills can be grasped easily enough by pinching fingers if the hole is large and the quill is inserted far enough, tweezers can really help to grab that teeny-weenie pointy tip when you go to pull it through the hole. Just be careful not to snap the point of the quill off if you're using metal tools to grab the quill.

Spruce root, cotton thread , or imitation sinew (waxed nylon) string - The piece of decorated bark must have a separate bark backing or liner sewn on with lashing or thread to protect the short bent-over ends of the quills and to keep quills from slipping out. Spruce root, split down to the same width as the quills, is traditionally used to lash the rims of decorated bark containers and is ingeniously incorporated into designs. Use an awl to make holes for stiff spruce root or a for a standard needle and thread. A glovers needle (having a triangular point) can also be used. Whip stitch-on a backing the same size and shape of birch bark.

Sweetgrass, cattail or other botanical improvisation - The evidence of backings, linings and layers of bark can be hidden with added trim by whip stitching around a skinny bundle of plant material, traditionally sweetgrass. Even bundles of porcupine quills with their tips cut off have been used to wrap and finish of the rims of bark boxes.

Quill Decorated Boxes and Other Bark Objects
Designs used in Quilling on Birch Bark
Techniques and Patterns to Attach Quills to Birch Bark
Instructions for Making a Quilled Birch Bark Pendant

Return to Porcupine Quillwork on Birchbark

Porcupine Quillwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
unless otherwise cited.