What Is Quillwork?

Misty Amber Brighton

Quillwork is an art form that utilizes porcupine quills as a form of textile embellishment. It is practiced almost exclusively by Native American tribes, particularly the United States. The quills made are placed on garments such as moccasins, shirts, or dresses. They are sometimes dyed before being used to make items.

Quillwork is a type of art that uses porcupine quills as a form of textile embellishment.
Quillwork is a type of art that uses porcupine quills as a form of textile embellishment.

The first step in quillwork is to obtain porcupine quills. This is done by plucking them from a recently deceased animal. The quills are individually plucked by hand, which can be very time-consuming.

After the quills are plucked, they are sorted according to length and thickness.
After the quills are plucked, they are sorted according to length and thickness.

After plucking the quills, the crafter must remove all the porcupine hair from them, then clean and sort the quills. They are normally sorted by length and thickness. The tips of the quills are usually snipped off at this time because they are generally very sharp and unsightly.

A worker can then dye these objects if she chooses. Natural dyes made from plant-based materials are generally preferred over commercial dyes. Some of the more common colors desired for quillwork are bright shades of red, blue, or yellow.

Quillwork can be performed by a variety of methods. These include embroidery or appliqué, which involves stitching the quill onto a piece of fabric by hand. Quills can also be woven on a loom. They may also be wrapped around themselves in order to create designs.

Animal hide and leather are often used in quillwork. These materials provide a stiff surface for quills to be attached to. For this reason, this art form is often used in making Native American attire, such as robes or moccasins. Leather is often used to make a hair drop, which is an ornamental device worn by men.

This tradition is passed down from older women in a tribe to the younger ones. Men typically do not participate in this craft. In some tribes it is considered an honor to be taught the art of quillwork. Beginning crafters normally begin by making moccasins and rosettes, then cradleboards, which are a device used to hold an infant.

Many North American tribes perform quillwork both as a traditional art form as well as for profit. Workers may sell their goods at roadside stands or via the Internet. Due to the fact that many tribes create a large number of goods, quills are sometimes gathered and sold in large lots. This can streamline the process and make it more profitable for those who depend on this craft in order to make a living.

Quillwork is practiced almost exclusively by U.S. Native American tribes.
Quillwork is practiced almost exclusively by U.S. Native American tribes.

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Discussion Comments


I actually have a friend who is part Native American and uses porcupine quills in several different crafts.

She buys the quills already cleaned and ready to go, but there is still a lot of work that goes into each item she makes.

She usually prices her by the square inch. For example I think she charges right around $10 for a square inch of finished craft.

She has some of her quillwork for sale online, but sells most of it is through an Indian store.

If you know someone is interested in this type of handiwork, quillwork designs can make for a very special and unique gift.


After reading about the whole process that must be gone through for a finished quillwork item, I am not surprised at how much some of these pieces cost.

We recently visited an Indian reservation where they had many items for sale which they had made. I am always intrigued by their artwork, but couldn't spare the money to pay over $100 for some of the items they had for sale.

At the time, I didn't realize how much time and effort is put into this. I don't think I would want to personally pluck each porcupine quill, clean them and then use them for my craft.

At any rate, I am sure there is much more time put into them than most people ever realize.


I have a friend that has done several conceptual art pieces. In one of them he tried to do lots of traditional crafts from around the world. He did Native American quillwork, an African form of painting and a Laotian style of pottery.

In each case he took whatever his first attempt was and displayed it. These tended to be pretty rough because it was only his first attempt at mastering these art forms which have been refined and practiced for centuries. But that was the point. He wanted to make a comment about how we devalue the crafts of native people because we think of them as primitive and lesser. But when a privileged westerner engages with the art he fails miserably. It is a tribute to their ingenuity.


I once went to a museum of Native American art with my family. There were lots of incredible pieces but the one that really stood out for me was an incredible piece of traditional quillwork.

It looked like it must have taken hundreds of hours to make. It was remarkably detailed and fashioned into an amazing design. We were all hypnotized when we saw it and it feels like we stood there and stared at it for about 15 minutes.

The entire museum was a revelation, but that piece of porcupine quillwork really stood out.

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