Quillwork has long been a significant part of the Lakota heritage, as well as being the forerunner of beadwork. Quillwork was developed to a high degree of artistic perfection long before European traders brought the now-used glass beads into America.
According to legend, to collect the quills for quillwork, Lakota women approached an unsuspecting porcupine and threw a blanket over the animal. As a defense mechanism, the porcupine raised its quills into the blanket, which would then become caught on the blanket. The women removed the blanket and retrieved the quills, which were then separated into four different sizes. Each were used for specific quillwork.
- Large, coarse tail quills were desired for filling in large areas, wrapping handles or pipe stems and covering fringes.
- Back quills worked best for loom work.
- Fine quills from the neck were ideal for embroidery.
- Thin quills found near the belly were used for delicate lines.
Traditionally, quills were dyed in large pots using plants to give them rich colors. Lakota women had to watch the quills carefully to ensure the pieces did not boil and become glue.
Colors were often bright but reflected the hue’s true Earth origin. Plants and berries produced mauves, purples and reds. Lichen provided pale yellows.
After dying, the quills were spread out to air dry. Once dry, they were rubbed with animal oils to keep them from drying out and becoming brittle.
The quills were traditionally sewn on hide or birch bark with sinew stripped from tendons on each side of a buffalo or deer’s backbone.
Tribal elders value quill weaving and embroidery more highly than beadwork. There is only a handful of individuals on the Sioux reservations who carry on this tradition today. These women have taught their children the art of quilling, in hopes of continuing this beautiful and historic tradition of creating masterpieces. Though the intricate art of quillwork is fading with the elders, quillwork does still exist.