The craft of quillwork predates the arrival of the Europeans to North America. Quillwork, both porcupine and bird, was used by the native peoples to decorate their clothes and utensils. Glass beads were introduced into North America by the Europeans as a trade item and quickly replaced the harder-to-use quills as a means of decoration to the point where the craft of quilling was almost totally lost. In the late 19th century, a group of concerned Ursaline nuns, seeing the impoverished state of the native tribes, worked with a small band of Ojibway to revive this lovely craft in the form you see today.
Research on the Victorian era indicates that beautiful Indian handcrafts were very much in vogue. One of the most popular was the porcupine quill, birch bark and sweet grass basket, similar to what are being produced today. Today, a handful of native women tenuously keep this craft alive. One tiny quill basket requires of concentration, mathematical precision and painstaking attention to detail, not to mention the time and skill it requires to collect and prepare the raw materials.
Porcupine quills must be stripped, washed and sorted to size for the evenness of the quills on the basket. They are left natural or dyed according to the design.
Sweet grass is needed for the rim and holds an honoured and sacred place among many native cultures, especially the Plains and Woodlands peoples where it featured prominently in all their ceremonial traditions. Sweet grass (sarastana odorato) is collected from late June to mid August and a year’s supply must be prepared by the artisan for storage by blanching and drying. Many Indian people carry braids of sweet grass with them and place it in their homes as a symbol of wholeness, happiness, freedom and strength. The beautiful scent of this sweet grass will last for many years to come. To revive the scent: simply spray with warm water.
Birch bark is collected in early spring and requires precision to strip the fresh young bark, leaving the tree intact. Now the basket shape is cut and the design carefully and mathematically drawn with an awl. The quills are worked wet for greater pliability. Designs may be floral, geometric, star or animal. Many designs are rooted in history and tradition and have been passed on from generation to generation.
The craft of quilling is from a bygone era in its simple purity. Today, in the sophisticated world of computer technology, space exploration and global communication, this lovely craft has all but disappeared.
Lorraine was born in 1936 on the Parry Island Reserve. She has been doing quillwork since she was a young girl. Her mother taught her the craft and, after many years of study, Lorraine now does quill tufting as well as regular quill work. She collects all her own raw materials and her boxes show a variety of designs including the traditional geometric and star patterns as well as beautiful floral and animal depictions. Lorraine and her daughter Sharon Johns are two of the very few quillwork artists on the Saugeen Reserve on Lake Huron, Ontario.
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