Porcupine quillwork is one of the
most ancient forms of decoration used by Native Americans and it's
use includes the Woodlands peoples of the Northeast, the Plains peoples
of the Midwest, and the Plateau peoples of the Northwest. The historical
origins of quillwork are not well documented, but most tribal groups
utilizing this tradition, have a legend which describes how they
obtained their skills. Among the Plains peoples, the legend generally
involves a young woman who was taught how to use porcupine quills in a
dream. Ask your people about this tradition for further knowledge.
Porcupine quillwork significantly
predates the use of glass beads. According to some sources, quillworking
tools dating to the 6th century have been found on the plains. Because
of the delicate nature of porcupine quills, most surviving examples are
from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Quillwork was traditionally the
primary art form of traditional Lakota women. They decorated clothing
and other surfaces that had geometric designs which were elaborately
embroidered with dyed porcupine or bird quills. When colorful glass
beads became readily available from Euro-American traders, they began to
replace quills in embroidered ornamentation. Beads were easier to
acquire, easier to use, and came in a wider variety of bright colors.
Beadworkers strung several beads onto a thread and then stitched them
down at varying times to create colorful and symbolic patterns.
Interestingly, enforced restriction on travel and economic hardships of
reservation life triggered a golden age in Lakota beadwork, especially
as beaded objects became valued items among visiting tourists in the
As recently as the 1970's, there
was concern that porcupine quillwork was becoming a lost art because few
traditional artists were still using the technique. However, with the
recent interest in traditional Native American art and increasing prices
for antiquities, quillwork is in great demand. In fact, you can
buy lovely samples of quillwork which rival the finest 19th
century work. An expertly made, fully-quilled pipebag can easily cost
$1,000 to $2,500 from a serious collector. Why not contact an Elder and
learn more about quillworking as either a hobby or a profession ?