NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Porcupine Quillwork FAQ

contributed by Nancy Fonicello

In the course of a year on the internet, I have received frequent mailings of questions regarding quillwork, its various techniques, and the materials required to do fine work. I have put together a small collection of some of the most commonly asked questions, and hope to add more as time goes on. If you have a question that you would like to see answered here, please feel free to email me and I will do my best to answer it for you. ~ Nancy Fonicello

Someone just brought me a road killed porcupine and plucking the quills is taking FOREVER! Do you have a fast way to take the quills off?

Unfortunately, no. Plucking porcupine quills is tedious at best, but is the only way to get the materials you need, unless you can find a commercial source for quills of the right size. If you are really short for time, and it is midsummer and your porcupine is getting smelly, try skinning it, rolling up the hide and putting it in the freezer until you have time to deal with it. Alternatively you may freeze the whole carcass, but this takes up quite a lot of room in the freezer.

I have tried skinning the porcupine and then salting and drying the hide for future use. I find that with this method I have a problem resoaking the hide and extracting the quills without damaging them. Basically, one has to soak the hide for such a long time that the quills get too soft to pluck.

The best method I have found so far when I am in a hurry is to pluck the quills, hair and all, and put them in a flat pan or tray, all laying in the same direction. Then I can go back at my leisure and separate the hair from the quills without having to worry about a rotting carcass.

My quills won't accept the dye I am using. They keep coming out faded and spotty. What am I doing wrong?

Properly prepared quills usually accept a commercial dye (like RIT) very well. You may have not removed the waxy outer layer when you washed the quills. Try soaking the quills in a very hot but not boiling solution of dish soap and water (I find DAWN works best for me, but any will do). Soak them with frequent stirring for anywhere from 10 minutes to a half an hour. You may just have had an older porcupine with very oilly quills, but this should do the trick.

Also make sure your dye bath is very hot (but not boiling) when you are dying them. Some commercial dyes take longer than others to give you the proper color. Reds, for instance, take a long time to set. Blue and yellow seem to set almost instantaneously.

Natural dyes are another story entirely, and I am still in the process of researching this myself. It can be very frustrating to get a beautiful dye color from plant materials and then not have the quills accept the color, but this seems to be common with any of the natural dyes. Additions of mordants such as alum or even sugar may help. Leaving the quills in a dye solution in a warm place for a few days has given me good results too. Don't be afraid to experiment.

What part of the porcupine to you pluck to get the best size quills?

Generally I take quills from down both sides of the animal. This is the place to find the longest, thinnest quills that will make you work look the best. I almost never use the quills on the back of the animal, as they are too big and stiff. The finer the quill, the better your work - to a point. There are some very fine quills that look like hair which I have found useful for single line work, but using this size quill may be frustrating to someone who is just starting out.

Do you sort all your quills ahead of time?

Actually no. Aside from the basic sorting when I pluck a porcupine, I like to leave a little size variation in my batches of quills. That way when I dye them I have a number of different size quills to work with of the same dye lot. This is especially useful when you are using a number of different techniques on the same piece, like matching edging on a knife sheath, or floral quillwork with single line embroidery around it.

I also would much rather be sewing down quills than sorting them!

How do you keep all the little black quill ends from getting all over the place when I cut them off. I have found a number of them the hard way when they have gotten into my socks!

Take a scrap piece of leather and jab the quills into it before you snip them. All the little black ends will stay in the leather, and your feet will be much happier. (By the way, I take no credit for this idea, but was very grateful when a fellow quillworker shared it with me!

© 1997 - Nancy Fonicello.

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