In long ago times, people understood how to use the things around them to not just survive, but to thrive.
Yukon First Nations’ ancestors used the resources they found in nature to feed, clothe, and adorn the people who were important to them. And so, decorating items like clothing and footwear with porcupine quills—the artform called quillwork—was common in much of Yukon, and in many parts of North America where porcupines are found.
Yukon First Nations used quills to make items more beautiful and also demonstrate their connection to the natural world.
Quillwork was somewhat supplanted by beadwork when glass beads became available in Yukon. Beading requires a lot of the same skills, but doesn’t require the long laborious prep time, so many artists switched in the mid-1800 when glass beads became widely available.
Today, quills are often seen in handmade Yukon First Nations jewelry and other decorative objects.
Porcupine quills are like specialized hollow hairs. They’re made from keratin, the same substance as human hair and fingernails.
Each porcupine has roughly 30,000. When the animals are young, their quills are bright white with a black or darker tip. The white turns yellow as the animal ages.
Plucking quills is difficult and tedious work. Hides must be soaked for a long time before the quills are soft enough to pluck off. Quills vary in length from half an inch to four inches. The quills on the back and tail are harder, fatter and stiffer. Generally, the quills on the animal’s sides work best for quilling because they are the thinnest and longest.
Quills can also be harvested from a live porcupine, but it can be dangerous if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. Once the quills stick into something else, they will release from the animal’s hide.
It takes several days to prepare raw quills so they can be used in embroidery. They must be handled carefully as they are plucked, washed, dried, dyed and then dried again. Some artists say you can tell that quills were well handled by the artist when they are shiny, not dull coloured. In fact, quills in good condition are so shiny they could be mistaken for plastic.
Before they’re dyed, raw quills must be soaked in hot soapy water until their greasy outer layer washes away. The rinsed quills are spread out to dry.
Quills are dyed with natural or commercial dyes, depending on the effect the artist wants to achieve. It takes about 30 minutes for the quills to soak up the dye, and then the dyed quills are rinsed in vinegar to make them colourfast.
The quills are left to dry for several days. Once dry, the two ends are carefully clipped to allow air out of the hollow quill.
Quills are small, thin, sharp and delicate, so quillwork is very difficult. It requires a lot of skill, artistry and patience.
Quills are sewn onto hide using a needle or awl—a small, pointed tool for poking holes in leather—and piece of bone or antler to flatten the quills.
Traditionally, quills were sewn in place with sinew. Thread or even dental floss are more commonly used today. Quills can also be woven into decorative bands, baskets, boxes and belts.
Quills are long, which makes them a fitting medium for geometric patterns. Commonly seen patterns on historical pieces are lines, zig zags, checkerboards, sawtooths, diamonds, triangles, and circles. Flower or animal designs are rare.
Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association
1-1109 Front Street (White Pass Building)
Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A-5G4