NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art

Porcupine Quillwork
The Zig Zag Technique

contributed by Nancy Fonicello

Quill Ebroidery with patterns created by Nancy using various colored quills and the Zig-Zag Technique

The zigzag technique is probably the simplest quillwork style to learn, and is yet very versatile. It was widely used by the Native peoples of the Eastern Woodlands to decorate everything from neck knife sheaths to moccasins. Since we are just beginning, it would be well to start out with a discussion of tools and materials, then we will proceed to the actual instruction.

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Tools and Materials

The Back Stitch

The most widely used stitch for embroidered quillwork is the back stitch. It is a very simple method of sewing in which the needle enters the leather from right to left as the work progresses from left to right. This stitch is used for both upper and lower threads in zigzag stitch, simple band technique, and all the multiquill plait stitches. See the example below. Note also that the needle and thread do not go all the way through the leather, as we mentioned above. Just a little tiny stitch is sufficient:

Sewing Techniques

Okay! Now we're down to the nuts and bolts. You have the pointy ends of your quills snipped off and have them soaking in a saucer of water. Draw two lines on the leather about 3/8 inch apart where you want your quillwork to go. The actual distance between the lines will depend on the size of quill and desired effect, but 1/4 to 3/8" apart is a good standard.

Knot the thread on top of the work by taking a few close stitches and running the thread back through them. You may also put knots underneath the work, but they will look lonely down there as you won't see any other stitches from the underside. Bring the threads up to the beginning of your line where you want your first quill to be. Do this for both top and bottom lines. The illustration shows the bottom thread taking a back stitch for the first quill. Note that the needle ALWAYS exits the leather on the outside of the lines (away from the quills). Otherwise you have a little loop under the quill that keeps you from hiding your threads well:

Take a quill out of the water and flatten it by running it between your thumbnail and your index finger. You can also try running a spoon across it on a flat surface. Whatever method you use, make sure the quill is flat! You can't have good work later with a puffed up or wrinkly quill now! Insert one end of the quill under the bottom thread, and pull the stitch snug.

Flip the quill up and take a stitch over it as you did below, making sure the needle comes out on the side away from where the quillwork will be. Pull this stitch snug, and you've just mastered the zigzag technique!

Now bend the quill back down over the stitch and sew it down again at the bottom. Make sure that your stitches stay on your drawn lines. Straight lines are essential here. Continue on in this manner until you come to the end of your quill at the bottom line. This is where you splice in another quill. Sew down the quill, pull the stitch snug and make a fold in the quill as if you were to continue on.

Pull on the quill slightly so that your last stitch loosens up a little. Flatten another quill and insert it under the first one. Trim the old quill close and continue on as before. In the illustration, and yellow quill has been inserted under the blue one.

Continue along adding quills as you go. Occasionally stop and run your tablespoon across the top of your work, adding a little pressure to help flatten it. When you get to the end of your row, simple tuck the last little quill end under the work. The dental pick is most useful here.

Variations on the ZigZag Technique

Many variations in this style can be achieved by changing where you splice in your new color quill. Changing your splice from the bottom row to the top row effectively changes the direction of your new color. Item A below is a bottom row color splice as discussed above. Note how it gives you a nice straight vertical line. The quillwork at B shows a top row color splice. Suddenly you get diagonals in your work, just with a simple splice! At C, another quill of a different color has been added directly over top of the old quill and the two quills worked together as one, giving a two color sawtooth effect. Do two rows of these opposite one another, and you have diamonds. The varieties are infinite. Experiment!

Now you have learned the basic zigzag technique with a few variations. Come back soon to find more techniques! More will be added as time goes by, so stay tuned!

Quill Embroidery Techniques
The Parallel or Band Technique
The Single-quill Line Technique
Plaiting Techniques
Quilled Rosette made by Nancy
using the Zig-Zag Technique

© 1997 - Nancy Fonicello.

Porcupine Quillwork Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line

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