North American Quillwork

North American (Huron) mocassin with quillwork. North American (Huron) mocassin with quillwork.

North American quillwork is a form of decorative needlework that makes use of porcupine or bird quills. Quillwork from North America has been a focus of much study, although it is incorrect to believe that quillwork is exclusive to this region, as it is also carried out in Africa.

Porcupine quills differ in size, depending on where they grow on the animal’s body. The longest and coarsest quills come from the tail. These are used in North American quillwork to fill in large areas. Quills from the back are next in size and are used in loom work. The thinner quills from the belly are used for making lines. The thinnest and most delicate quills come from the neck and are used in embroidery.

After the quills are plucked from the animal’s skin, the barb at the tip is cut off. The quills are then washed and dyed. Traditional dyes were made from a variety of berries, flowers, minerals, plants, roots and tree barks. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, aniline dyes, obtained from European and American traders, became popular. Dyed quills are dried, sorted and stored, traditionally in containers of animal bladder or rawhide, until needed. Larger quills need no further processing and may be cut and strung as beads. For embroidery, however, quills must be softened again before use, by soaking them in warm water or saliva from the quillworker’s mouth. Quills are then flattened, using the teeth or thumbnail or a bone or wood quill flattener. Modern quillworkers often use a metal spoon for this.

There are many different techniques for attaching the quills to soft leather. Flattened quills may be loomed, plaited or wrapped. Zigzag designs are created by folding quills, then using a back stitch, with sinew or thread, to attach the quill to leather. European and American observers often remarked on the intricacy and skill of indigenous quillworkers. The trader Daniel Harmon (1778-1845) wrote in 1820 of quillworkers along the Canadian frontier: "The women manifest much ingenuity and taste in the work which they execute with porcupine quills. The colour of these quills is various, beautiful and durable, and the art of dyeing them is practiced only by the females." A wide range of objects were decorated with quillwork, including birch bark boxes, garments, bags, knife handles and sheaths, mocassins and pipes.

In general, Eastern Woodlands designs are more floral, while those of the Plains are more geometric. The introduction of ceramic and glass beads in the early nineteenth century led to a gradual decline in quillwork among Native Americans, as beading became more popular. The late twentieth century saw a renewed interest in quillwork in North America.

See also: Native American decorative needlework


  • HARMON, Daniel Williams, 1820. A Journal of Voyages and Travels in the interior of North America between the 47th and 58th degree of North latitude, extending from Montreal nearly to the Pacific Ocean, a distance of about 5000 miles, including an account of the Principal occurrences during a residence of nearly nineteen years in different parts of that country. To which are added A Concise Description of the face of the Country, Its Inhabitants, their manners, customs, laws, etc., Burlington, Vermont.
  • HEINBUCH, Jean (1990). A Quillwork Companion, Ogden, UT: Eagles View Publishing, (USA).
  • ORCHARD, William C. (1982; reprint). Technique of Porcupine-Quill Decoration Among the North American Indians, Ogden, UT (USA): Eagles View Publishing,
  • (retrieved 8 May 2016).

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 30 June 2016).


Last modified on Tuesday, 24 January 2017 17:06