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Stitching to Dye For

Designer Frony Ritter once asked, "Do you dream about cross stitching?" While I can't say that I have, I recently learned that a Native American woman's dream sparked the tradition of ancient quillwork embroidery: creating needlework with porcupine quills.

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It takes a lot of ingenuity to create beautiful art from a rodent. Porcupines are like large rats with spiky hair. Those spikes, or quills, are hollow tubes with barbs on the ends. How women came up with the idea of extracting quills and sewing with them is anybody's guess.

According to Native American folklore, that "guess" was actually a dream. A "double woman," or twins, appeared in a woman's dream and told her how to do quillwork. After waking up, the woman would create the design from her dream.

So how do you pull barbed spikes from a squirmy animal without killing it? Throw a blanket over it! That's what the Native American women did. Just like when you're afraid, your hair might stand on end, a porcupine will raise its quills when stressed. After the quills were caught in the blanket, the women would rip off the blanket to harvest the quills.

It must have taken a lot of care to pull the quills from the blanket, but I suppose that without the distractions of cellphones and Netflix, women had a lot of time on their hands (as well as barbs in their hands!).

The women would then soak the quills, flatten them, dye them and let them dry. To keep the quills from becoming brittle, the women would rub the dried quills with oil.

Quills come in different sizes depending on the part of the porcupine. On the back, the quills are large and coarse; on the neck they are thinner; and near the porcupine's belly, the quills are very fine. The large quills were used for weaving on looms; the quills from the neck area were used for embroidery; and the belly quills were used to stitch delicate lines.

Quills were used for sewing on leather and for weaving, and they were also folded and twisted into cords which were wrapped around wooden handles and pipe stems. Women's love of pretty shoes goes way back, so it is not surprising that moccasins were an obvious choice for needlework decoration. Quillwork embroidery was also used to decorate leather vests and knife sheathes.

The rich colors in quillwork are to dye for (sorry, I couldn't resist the pun!). Red dye was made from buffalo berries and brightened with dock root. Sunflower and coneflower petals were boiled to create yellow dye. If she wanted a pale yellow color, a woman would use lichen to make the hue. Wild grapes were used to make black dye, and a woman could get a deep brown color from hickory nuts or black walnuts.

Native American women formed quillwork associations, much like embroidery or quilting guilds today. Various quillwork groups would get together and show off their quillwork. These meetings would include feasting and merry-making, just like Annie's Needle Arts Festivals today.

The vast array of designs -- ranging from geometric patterns to depictions of animals, birds and flowers -- is attributed to the fact that women didn't steal each other's designs. Since these designs were supposedly the result of a visit from the "double woman" in a dream, each dreamer had exclusive rights to her pattern.

Quillwork artifacts have been found from the 1600s. After European traders came to North America carrying glass beads in the 1800s, quillwork took a back seat to beading. Although Native American beading is exquisite, quillwork is more highly prized by tribal elders because it was first created by Native Americans.

This information about quilling was found on the following websites:
Akta Lakota Museum Cultural Center
Native Tech: Native American Technology & Art
Ancient Artways Studio

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