(Fr-porc-épic piquants; Ger-Stachelschweinstachel; Nor-pinnnsvinets pigger; Rus-дикобраз [= porcupine only])

A. Porcupine quills. "Snowy Owl Sheath" (height ~18.7 cm):  Designed and made by Jessee J. Smith, this panel of porcupine quills on braintan uses the naturally dark tips of the quills to form the dark spots of the owl's feathers. photo by Jessee J. Smith, from  http://students.mjs.edu/smithJessee/art170/BQ3.html )

B. Porcupine quills.  Left, North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum (Linnaeus, 1758)) quills (length of longest quill - 5.7 cm) from a medium-sized road-killed porcupine found near Grassy Butte, North Dakota; "these are representative of the sizes I usually favor for quilling."  (Jessee Smith, personal communication, 2006).  photo by Jessee J. Smith, from  http://students.mjs.edu/smithJessee/art170/BQ3.html).   Right, North African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata Linnaeus, 1758) quills (length - 40 - 45 cm) from Hatch Farms, Spokane, Washington. (© photo by Griffin Hatch, from www.hatchfarms.cwhatch.com).

DESCRIPTION:  Phylum, Chordata;  subphylum, Vertebrata; class, Mammalia; order, Rodentia; suborder, Hystricognathi; family, Erethizontidae:  Porcupine quills, which are "modified guard hairs" (Roze, 1989), consist largely of keratin fibers.  At least two rather different kinds of quills have been fashioned into jewelry and/or decorative items:  Those from the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum (Linnaeus, 1758)) and those from the North African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata Linnaeus, 1758).  On the following list, the geographic source is listed for properties that differ in any appreciable way.
    Colors - Of the quills usually used, those of the North American porcupines are white with brownish or dark gray tips whereas those from African are white, off-white or cream colored with dark brown, dark gray to black bands -- some have as many as 25 bands  -- see Figure B.   An albino North African crested porcupine on the Hatch farms, Spokane, Washington yields pure white quills (Jeff Hatch, personal communication, 2006).
    Sizes -  North American: 3.5 - 6 cm long;  African: commonly 12 to 30 cm long with a few up to 45 cm long.
~2½ <<  an example of plate-like keratin-rich material.
    S.G.   ~1.29 <<  an example of plate-like keratin-rich material.
    Light transmission - transparent to semitranslucent
    Luster -  waxy
    Breakage -  irregular,  splintery parallel to lengths -- if the pith is removed, they become brittle and virtually useless for fashioning things such as those mentioned and/or illustrated.
    Miscellaneous - sectile.  Quills have microscopic barbs on their tips.

USES: Jewelry:  Quilled barrettes, belt buckles, bracelets (Figure C), chokers, earrings, pendants and chokers have been crafted by Amerindians (and others) for untold centuries.  African quills, which have been used in the past for native ornamentation and fetishes, are currently fashioned into attractive high-fashion necklaces (see Figure D).
             Decorative pieces:  North American quills, in particular, have been used to decorate bags, baskets, belts, birch bark boxes, small canoes (Figure E), clothing (e.g., blouses, coats, dresses, jackets, moccasins, shirts), medallions and other ornaments, pipe stems, pouches, etc.   The designs are commonly on birch bark or leather.  Some of the uses have been alluded to as a form of embroidery.  African quills have found several uses of this ilk, including their use in "interior design applications (attaching them to a lampshade, flower arrangements), to just having a beautiful oddity/piece of nature around." (www.dogmeier.com/)
             Miscellany:  Not decorative uses, but of interest here: 1. Roze (1989, p.217) records "I use one pencil-thick quill of H[ystrix]. indica [one of the African porcupines] as a slide pointer. [and he adds that] Quills of that size have been known to kill leopards, pythons, and other would-be predators."  2. During a geologic field trip in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), one of the participants was elated when he found a quill (about 25 cm long) that he showed the rest of us and said he would use it as a pen. [and] 3. As the grandson who spent some memorable times at his Grandfather Vincent's "sugar bush," I was interested to learn that Micmac Indians in what is now New Brunswick, Canada, used hollowed-out porcupine quills as spiles for getting sap from maple trees (Denys, 1908, p. 380-381). 

C. Porcupine quills.  Bracelet (central widest point ~ 5.8 cm) with "Siberian Iris" motif.  Designed and fashioned by Christy A. Hensler. 
scan image by Christy A. Hensler, http://www.povn.com/rock/gQuill.html).

D. Porcupine quills Necklace fashioned from African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata Linnaeus, 1758) quills from Hatch Farms, Spokane, Washington. (© photo by Griffin Hatch, from www.hatchfarms.cwhatch.com).

E. Porcupine quills Left, Two boxes (larger, diameter -14.5 cm) and placemat, each of which also includes birch bark and sweet grass.  Right, Larger view of box.   Krista D. Brown collection. photos by Dick Dietrich)

OCCURRENCES & NOTEWORTHY LOCALITIES:  North American porcupines "inhabit much of North America between the Arctic Ocean and northern Mexico. Porcupines are found throughout most of Alaska and Canada, in the northern part of the Great Lakes region, all throughout the west and northeast regions of the United States. ... [e.g.,] in the eastern deciduous forests of New York and Massachusetts, the Great Basin Desert, and the woodlands of Texas." (Weber, 2004) -- See distribution maps in Orchard (1984, p.2) and Roze (1989, p.49).  North African crested porcupines are "found in Italy, Sicily, and along the Mediterranean coast of Africa to northern Zaire and Tanzania ... [and] are believed to have recently gone extinct in the Balkans" (McPhee, 2003) -- See distribution of porcupines in Africa, Eurasia as well as in both North and South America in Roze (op. cit., p.206).

REMARKS:  The designation porcupine, according to Harper (2002) has the following etymology:  "c.1400, porke despyne, from O.Fr.[Old French] porc-espin (c.1220), lit. 'spiny pig,' from L.[Classical Latin] porcus 'hog' + spina 'thorn, spine.' The word had many forms in M.E.[Middle English] and early Mod.E.[Modern English], including portepyn, porkpen, porkenpick, porpoynt, and Shakespeare's porpentine (in 'Hamlet')."  The word quill has the following roots:  "c.1400, 'piece of reed or hollow stem,' probably related to M.H.G.[Middle High German] kil 'quill,' from Low Ger[man]. quiele, of unknown origin. [Although] Meaning 'pens made from quills' is from 1552; that of 'porcupine spines' is from 1602."

Most of the remarks that follow deal with North American porcupines:

Individual porcupines are said to have approximately 30,000 quills, which cover every part of their bodies except their underparts, muzzle, and ears -- i.e., quills are on "the crown of the head, cheeks, nape, the entire dorsal and lateral sides of the body proper, and the dorsal and lateral tail surfaces are thickly set with quills which vary in length, flexibility, color, shaft diameter, scaliness, and stiffness." (Po-Chedley & Shadle, 1955, p.86)  "The largest and coarsest ...come from the tail
[;] ... the next largest from the back;  the slender, delicate quills from the neck; and the finest [diameterwise] ... from the belly." (Lyford, 1940, p41)

Quillwork, before it was largely supplanted by beadwork, was used, apparently for centuries (certainly by the 13th century), by American Indians for fashioning many functional and decorative items. Today, some craftspeople – especially those of Amerindian heritage – continue to use quills, especially to fashion decorative items for the souvenir market.   It is interesting to compare some of the methods of the past with those of today so far as getting the quills and preparing them for use in fashioning diverse articles:
        In the past, the collection and preparation of quills included throwing a blanket over a porcupine which in its defense raised its quills into the blanket where they were caught because of their barbed ends;  removing the quills  from the blanket ; cleaning and dyeing; air drying; rubbing them with animal oils to keep them from becoming brittle; and sorting them according to their sizes.  The dyes usually used were from natural sources -- e.g., a natural dye for red included "Choke cherry or wild plum, Tamarack bark, Spruce cones, Sumac berries, Alder, Hemlock inner bark, Poke berry, Bloodroot, Sassafras, Red Bedstraw, Buffalo-berry (Lepargyrea), Squaw currant, Red Osier Dogwood, Red cedar" (Prindle, 1994-2006, who also gives the ingredients used for yellow, black, brown, purple, blue and green).  The sorting was based on future use -- e.g., large quills, mostly from the tail, were used for filling large areas in designs and wrapping handles of, for example, pipe stems;  medium sized quills, most of which come from the porcupine's back, were used for such things as loom work;  fine quills, usually from the neck, and commonly nearly transparent, were used for embroidery;  [and] really thin quills, from near the belly were used for delicate lines, etc. in designs.
        Collection Today, quills are taken from road kills or porcupines are cornered and tapped on their backs with a Styrofoam paddle to collect their quills, and the quills are usually removed by hand (pliers are not used because they tend to damage the quills).  Cleaning  This is required in order to remove the oils from the quills so they can be dyed;  it is usually accomplished by soaking the quills in warm soapy water --  detergents are fine, but bleach should not be used because it tends to make the quills brittle. (The soaking in warm water also tends to make the quills flexible.)  Dyeing – some “purist” craftspeople continue to use natural dyes, whereas others use more recently introduced aniline and other dyes. (In either case, the dye solutions must not involve boiling because temperatures that high cause quills to become soft and gooey and of no use.)  Sorting - Size separation is done by hand, virtually the same way it was in the past.
        The preceding is, of course, oversimplified;  it doesn’t get into such things as the methods used to make the quills pliable, the patience and time required by those who have produced the fine items in which quills are featured or incorporated, etc.  It does, however, give an idea of the general procedure and some of the things that must not be done because they would render the quills useless.  Additional information about recovery and processing or quills, directions for several quilling procedures, illustrations of diverse results, and even suggestions relating to caring for such items, several of which are relatively fragile, are available in a number of publications – e.g., Heinbuch (1990), Hensler (1989) and Prindle (1994-2006).

F.  Porcupine quills used to decorate a miniature canoe.   Top:  main portion is birch bark -- note scale;  Bottom, close-up: stained porcupine quill  design on end of reverse side of canoe -- some of the quills (etc.) have been "vermin-eaten."  This canoe given David Truman Corp in 1820's by an Indian lady of the Chippewa Settlement at Pointe Aux Chenes in Mackinac County of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was presented to the Museum for Cultural & Natural History at Central Michigan University by the compiler, a great-grandson of D.T. Corp. (photos courtesy CMU Museum)
"Porcupines were once revered by Native American cultures throughout the continent as a food source, a source of quills for decoration, and [their] legendary status." (Weber, 2004). In addition, "the long guard hairs of porcupines are made into a type of headdress known as a 'roach,' which is de rigeur for modern male Native American dancers." (Jessee Smith, personal communication, 2006)  So, it is not surprising that several legends about porcupines and their quills are in Native American lore. The following one from Canku Ota (2001) is my favorite -- primarily because it reminds me of the fact that my Great Grandfather David Truman Corp, as a youthful ship captain, lived for a while, after a shipwreck, with the Chippewas near Gros Cap on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (see Dietrich, 1997 & Figure F):

                                        Long ago, when the world was young, porcupines had no quills. One day when
Porcupine was in the woods, Bear came along and wanted to eat him. But Porcupine
climbed to the top of a tree and was safe.  ¶ The next day, when Porcupine was under
a hawthorn tree, he noticed how the thorns pricked him. He had an idea. He broke off
some of the branches of the hawthorn and put them on his back. Then he went into the
woods to wait for Bear. When Bear sprang on Porcupine, the little animal just curled
himself up in a ball. Bear had to go away, for the thorns pricked him very much.
¶ Nanabozho ["a hero in Ojibwa (Chippewa) stories" (college.hmco.com ...)] saw what
happened.  He called Porcupine to him and asked, "How did you know that
trick?"  ¶ "I
am always in danger when Bear comes along," replied Porcupine."When I saw those
thorns, I thought I would use them."  ¶ So Nanabozho took some branches from the
hawthorn tree and peeled off the bark until they were white. Then he put some clay on
the back of Porcupine, stuck the thorns in it, and made the whole a part of his skin. 
¶ "Now go into the woods," said Nanabozho.  ¶ Porcupine obeyed, and Nanabozho hid
himself behind a tree.  ¶ Soon Wolf came along.  He sprang on Porcupine and then ran
away, howling. Bear came along, but he did not get near Porcupine. He was afraid of
those thorns. ¶ That is why all porcupines have quills today.

Another favorite legend -- one attributed to the Menominees -- has an especially poignant ending -- "
This is why he [the porcupine] hides during the day and will only come out at night." -- To read this legend, see Menominee Culture Institute (nd).

Porcupine quillwork has also found its way into Native Indian legends -- e.g.,
the Cheyenne myth about the origin of the Big Dipper that involves a beautiful young girl and her seven "brothers."   --  While growing up as an only child, the girl was possessed with the need for brothers.  Consequently, she fashioned seven complete buckskin outfits, which she embroidered with exquisite quillwork, presented them to seven brothers who lived far to the north, and the brothers, delighted with the outfits, accepted her as a sister.  Nearby buffalos, however, heard about the girl and wanted her as their own;  and buffalo after buffalo, each larger than the preceding one, came to claim her but to no avail.  "At last appeared the most gigantic buffalo bull in the world ... [followed by] the whole buffalo nation" to claim her.  But, using his "magical" bow and arrow, the youngest and smallest of the seven brothers led the girl and his six brothers to an escape into the sky, where they shine in their quillwork outfits as the eight stars of the Big Dipper, the "sister" as the brightest one. ("Told by one of the Strange Owl family in Birney, Montana, 1972, and recorded by Richard Erdoes" -- see Erodoes & Ortiz, 1984 p. 205-209)   

SIMULANTS: Although it would seem that quills could be simulated (and replaced) rather easily by plastics, so far as I have been able to determine this has not been done, at least not with the idea of representing the plastic as porcupine quills.  However, "some crafters (especially Boy Scouts associated with 'The Order of the Arrow') have simulated quillwork by wrapping stiff material, such as rawhide or thin plastic, with dyed raffia." (Jessee Smith, personal communication, 2006)

REPLICAS:  Porcupines including their quills have served as motifs for all sorts of things -- e.g., jewelry (typically metallic), resin castings, and wood carvings.  One wood carving is especially "eyecatching":  Labeled as an Oaxacan carving, it is noted as "whimisical and enchanting[,] ... imaginative and brilliantly colored [,] ... hand-carved (from native Copal wood) and hand-painted ...[by] the Zapotec Indians of Southern Mexico." (catalog of marketer).   If the illustration given is a good representation, the descriptive terms are understatements. 

| Top | Home |

R.V. Dietrich © 2015
Last update: 27
May 2009
web page created by Emmett Mason