Quillworking at the National Museum of the American Indian

Surface decorating with porcupine quills is a beautiful and challenging technique that has been practiced in North America since at least 1300 AD.  While the oldest known example of quillwork has been found on a pair of moccasins, it has been used extensively on clothing, birch boxes, knife handles, tack, furniture, and just about anything that can be wrapped, punctured, or have a hide strip sewn into it.  Quillwork can sometimes be mistaken for beadwork, and it is truly amazing to see the transformation that a skillful worker can render with this stiff, pointy modified hairs.  In fact, much of beadwork styles that have come to represent classic Plains Indians aesthetics actually grew out of a quillwork tradition that predated the availability of the now prevalent glass bead introduced by Europeans.

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Natural dyes clockwise from 1:00: indigo, cochineal alkaline, neutral, and acidic, Osage orange, yellow dock root, wolf moss, and copper acetate.

Quillwork styles vary greatly from the floral, curvilinear styles of the Eastern Woodlands, partially inspired by embroidery taught by French nuns, to the bold, geometric, and fully covered bands and plaits found throughout the Plains.  Colors too vary, with early dyes consisting of what was locally available such as shocking yellow wolf moss and orange bloodroot, to trade dyes brought by Europeans which introduced indigo blues, copper greens, and cochineal reds.  The advent of aniline dyes in the 1850s allowed for spectacularly cheerful colors such as magenta and teal, although unfortunately these early synthetics are severely faded and in some cases have gone completely white.  Azo dyes, which followed, were a little more light fast, and today some artists prefer to use drug store acid dyes such as Rit.

Quillworking is not easy business, and it is no surprise that beadworking took over with its immediacy, although it too requires skill and patience.  The first step, acquiring quills, takes some courage.  Some prefer to work from the hide of a killed porcupine, these days often relying on road kill for supplies, while others collect them from living animals.  Collecting from live animals requires a bit of moxy, and techniques range from tossing a blanket over the animal and pulling quills left behind in the textile, to holding it upside down by the tail and pulling off quills.  Porcupine quills are barbed like fish hooks, and once they go in one direction, sometimes the only thing to do is to push them out the other side.  Ouch.

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At the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian, where I have begun a two-year Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Textile Conservation we had the fortunate experience of inviting the conservator and quillworker Nancy Fonicello to our labs to teach us techniques in making and conserving some of the quillwork in our collection.  She brought with her a bin of quills pulled from a fresh hide, which we separated from the guard hairs and fur, sorted, cleaned, dyed, and worked into our own quillwork samplers.  We experimented with different dyes and techniques, and learned so much by doing as well as gaining a new appreciation for the mind-blowingly incredible work done by people in the past.  In some cultures, such as the Blackfeet, quillwork was considered a sacred art and performed only by the initiated.  While many cultures across the northern half of the continent practiced quillwork, it was overwhelmingly done by women.

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Undyed quills with some residual guard hairs in the mix

Nancy shared her vast knowledge and skill with us throughout the consultation.  We dyed quills with materials that likely were used pre-contact, such as wolf moss Letharia vulipina, a chartreuse lichens that grows it the Pacific Northwest and produces a similar color, as well as Osage orange (Malcura pomifera) bark, and yellow dock (Rumex crispus) root.  The basic dye method, which used no mordants although may have in the past, if only as a result of leaching from copper or iron pots, was to bring the dyestuff to a boil in distilled water, strain, add the cleaned quills, and heat just below a simmer.  Times varied, but it is important not to boil the quills.  For some unknown reason, these yellow dyes created quills that were a bit stiff and stubborn to work with, even after soaking.

Experiments with wild grape produced an amazing color but no fastness onto the quills.  We did not use any mordants on our dyes, and achieved incredible colors on all but the grape juice.  Perhaps grapes require further processing such as fermentation or mordanting with metal salts or tannins.

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We also dyed quills with cochineal, native to the Americas but actually introduced via Europeans through a large trade loop.  By manipulating the pH of the dye bath, oranges (acidic) to purples (basic) could be achieved.

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Cochineal with acidic (left to basic (right) dye bath

To achieve greens, we tried out some copper experiments.  There seem to be two methods to achieving the lovely turquoises and teals produced by copper, via acid or base.  We started with the acidic method, which involved simply leaving apple cider vinegar in a copper pot for a little over a week until a really lovely (but toxic) copper acetate solution developed.  Next the quills were added and heated, then let to cool and sit for another day or so.  The results were truly lovely, and some of the quills that looked a bit worse for wear dried into a fabulous range of colors.  The quills took distinctively different colors, from seafoam to teal, which may have been a result of oxidation (quills at the top of the pool), heat (quills at the bottom of the pool), or natural variation within the quills themselves.

Tests with urine were a little more lackluster.  This may have been our fault- instead of obtaining a large amount of urine and boiling it down (ick), we simply chucked some quills in the urine in a copper pot.  Little boy pee is apparently the best, and ours was just from one bladder-full, so not much volume.  Some thing the age has something to do with lack of hormones or purity, but it may just be that boys are easier to aim and small children might be easiest to control.  Our results were a much grayer blue-green.

Working with quills is not easy.  They must be soaked before worked, but not for too long or their structural integrity is compromised.  Some stitches require the quills, which are tubular, to be snipped at each end and flattened, while others must be carefully worked without crushing.  Typically quills are stitched onto brain-tanned hide, which is essential as it has a strong fiber structure that is lacking in modern chrome-tanned leather, or coiled around rawhide, hair, or fringe.  Looms are also used, and resemble today’s bead looms, which were adapted from quill looms.  Quilled hide bands can then be stitched onto clothing.  If a garment wears out, the quillwork band can be removed and added to a new one. The styles and techniques of quillworking are vast, and much of the traditional knowledge has been lost.  Only a few guides exist, and most of what is known today has been learned by studying objects rather than through passed-down knowledge.  There are not many active quillworkers today, and many are not of Native descent.

Learning about quillwork was endlessly interesting and I look forward to honing my skill.  Additionally, the process underscored how important it is to understand how something is made in order to fully appreciate its conservation needs.  Many of the treatments that Nancy has done rely on her deep understanding of techniques and impeccable skill at working with quills.  She is able to work safely and effectively on damaged quillwork, and always ensures that any added material is either removable or recognizable, and never removes any original material.  In this way she restores beauty to a fragile art form without compromising its integrity.  I look forward to using some of her techniques on objects that I will be working on during my time at NMAI and beyond.

In time, I also hope to share some basic quillworking stitches with you all on this blog as well.

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