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Porcupine Quillwork

 

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 area.

 

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 ?

 

 

 

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