Quillwork: A Vanishing Native American Art

Quillwork: A Vanishing Native American Art

Posted on January 18, 2011 by
Quillwork: Native American war shirt

Quilled war shirt by artist Tim Lammers

Specializing in the nearly forgotten art of quillwork, Native American artist Tim Lammers is preserving his Lakota heritage with each and every piece he creates.

Using the traditional techniques of his ancestors, Tim works to revive this endangered art form through his deep exploration and careful recreation of ancient quillwork designs – from the bands of colorful that grace the surfaces of his war shirts, to the intricate accents on his dolls and delicate details found in his buffalo bladder pouches.

History of quillwork
The act of adorning personal items with dyed porcupine quills is an ancient Native American art form primarily used by the Plains Indian tribes before the introduction of glass beads.

Quillwork was once the primary tool used to not only visually communicate social stature (a war shirt would express the warrior’s tribal association, rank, and exploits through the quilled decoration) – but it was also highly appreciated for its aesthetic beauty and colorful designs.

The most exquisite examples of porcupine quillwork are the elaborately decorated clothing – war shirts, buffalo robes, and dresses once worn by ancient Native Americans. Smaller items, such as dolls, bags, and knife sheaths also feature this unique type of embellishment.

Threats to this ancient craft

  • Obtaining the quills: The very first step involved getting the quills…this usually involved the individual and porcupine (yeah…ouch!).
  • Prep time: Quills were not available “ready made” like beads were; so before one could begin, the quills needed to be presorted, cleaned, and dyed.
  • Level of difficulty: Porcupine quills are small, thin, sharp, and extremely delicate (in other words, working with quills requires LOTS of patience).
  • Time: A quilled war shirt could take a skilled quillworker more than a year to embroider; a beaded shirt may only take a few months.
  • Care: Quilled leather is more difficult to take care of than beaded leather.
  • Introduction of new materials: Glass beads introduced a wider range of colors than the earthy color range of quills. Beads were also much more durable.
  • Easy transition to beads: Beading requires many of the same skills as quilling, so most quillers easily made the switch to beadwork when glass beads became widely available.

An artist’s hope
Through his work as an artist, and as a mentor for the next generation of artists, this Native American artist hopes save this lost art from obscurity and maintain its importance as an ancient art form – he not only encourages young artists to “create art and crafts in the old fashioned way with old fashioned quality,” but he also hopes to increase people’s appreciation for the quillwork craft and the beauty of the Native American culture that created it.