On November 26th, quill master Jamie Jacobs held a workshop at GCC to share knowledge about Native American’s lost art of quillwork embroidery. Guest speaker and Tonawanda Seneca Jamie Jacobs is a collections assistant at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. His role at RMSC includes working as an education expert on Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture and as an anthropological consultant documenting Iroquois ethnological collections at the Museum. He graduated from Genesee Community College with an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice in 2006.
What does a quill look like when observed in close-up? A porcupine quill is a round, hollow tiny tube with a pointy end. A porcupine has around 30,000 quills on their back. So how do Native Americans obtain quills from porcupines? It’s easy to get quills from dead porcupines, but for living ones, native women had to sneak up behind the animal and throw a blanket over it. In natural defence, porcupines will raise its quills which will be stuck in the blanket. Quills are easily detached from the porcupines when touched. Like hairs, porcupines grow new quills to replace the ones they lost. Quills have sharp tips with microscopic backwards-facing barbs that clings to the skin, which make it difficult and (and slightly) painful to pull the quills out of an animal’s or human’s skin (1).
Once obtained from the porcupines, quills need to be cleaned with hot water (to avoid diseases if quills get stuck in the skin while working), dyed and flattened. Quills are softened in warm water again before embroidery. When glass beads became widely available from Euro-American traders around the 1850s, quillwork gradually became a lost art. Due to their durability, beads were read-made, easier to acquire, easier to take care of, quicker to embroider and were available in a wider range of colors. It can take more than a year for a master quill worker to quill a shirt, but with beads, it only takes a few months (2).
A fully-quilled purse made by a master quill artist, such as Jamie, can easily cost $1000-$2000, and they are sold out fast.
Though I was not able to create a $2000 quilled basket ready for sale during the one-hour workshop with Jamie, I did finish a tiny piece of crooked quillwork on paper and had a peek at the immense amount of diligence and time required of quill workers.
Featured photo (from Multicultural Kid Blogs): Quillwork on birchbark.