Saturday, July 30, 2011

18 - Quills

It is said that the Malicite people of eastern Canada referred to the Mi'kmaq as Porcupine people. The porcupine was important in Mi'kmaq life. They were used traditionally as a source of food and its quills were used to adorn many items in their daily lives. Early explorers to Nova Scotia first commented on this quill work called matachias as early as 1603.

 There seems to be an abundance of porcupines even to this day throughout mainland Nova Scotia. Just this summer, I pointed one out to my children as it slowly crossed a highway near the Caribou ferry terminal outside of Pictou. Luckily, the porcupine made it safely across the road and into the woods. Unfortunately, many do not, and seeing them dead on the side of the road is very common in this part of the world.  It is interesting to note that porcupines do not live on Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland, all places where there are Mi'kmaq communities. All quill work that is done in these areas is made with quills imported from the mainland provinces.
Sheila Porter demonstrates how a quill is prepared.  

When I think of the Mi'kmaq and porcupines, it drums up images in my mind of  beautiful birch bark boxes decorated with the quills. Once common in households as button boxes and souvenirs, these days the boxes are costly, mostly due to the large amount of time, skill, gathering and preparation of the materials that goes into making them. They are treasures to those who own them. This year at Mawiomi, I was fortunate to see a demonstration with Mi'kmaq artist Sheila Porter from Lunenburg. Sheila is an artisan who makes beautiful quill jewelry and quill boxes. I loved her work so much that I purchased a necklace and earrings at the powwow.

During her demonstration, Sheila told us that one porcupine can produce up to 30 000 quills. She gets her quills from animals that have died on the road, but she mentioned that others do catch them for this purpose. She takes it home, removes the quills and then buries the animal with respect, as it has been given to her for her work. She groups the quills according to color because just like we have different color hair, all porcupines have different colored quills and often she will want to use similar colors together depending on the project. Quills may be dyed with natural dyes from plants ,which produces more subdued colors, or other dyes which produce brighter colors. Both have been used by Mi'kmaq for generations. She mentioned that she is beginning to experiment with traditional ways of dyeing the quills but the work that I saw that day used the natural color of the quills and was beautiful. You can see a few pictured above.

Sheila Porter, Mi'kmaq quill artist
The quill itself has small barbs on the end, which are rough to the touch. She burned these off with a cigarette lighter producing a smooth, sharp quill. As I did not see an actual box being built that day, I did a bit of reading on the subject of quill work and apparently the white birch bark that is used in these projects is gathered at one time of the year when it peels easily from the tree in sheets. Bark used for baskets, wigwams and canoes was harvested and the time of year varied depending upon the location of the tree. The design for the quills would be scratched or drawn on the bark. "Both bark and quills were traditionally worked while slightly damp, the quills being moistened one at a time as required. A bone or metal awl, or a darning needle, was used to make the insertion hole, first for the base of the quill; next another hole was made and then the barbed end was inserted, until the entire dark tip of the quill was pushed into the hole." (pg. 97 Micmac Quill Work, Ruth Holmes Whitehead) Traditionally, the dark area of the quill was not used in designs, but this has changed today as artisans find original ways to design their own creations with the quills. Sheila is one who uses the dark portion of the quills to great effect.

Mi'kmaq quill work was always popular with early settlers but gained great popularity in the nineteenth century. Chair panels, purses, wallets, pin cushions, boxes, and tea cosies were some of the items adorned with porcupine quill work. The Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax houses what may be the word's largest collection of Mi'kmaq quill work on bark. Other major collections both public and private are housed in Canada, United States, Great Britain, Ireland and France. Ruth Holmes Whitehead, a noted Mi'kmaq historian has written a wonderful book, which I used as a reference for this post called Micmac Quill Work. 

If you are interested in owning beautiful quill work, either jewelry or boxes, please contact Sheila Porter at Little Arrow's Porcupine Quill Jewelry via email at or you can order through the Halifax South Western Railway Museum at


  1. Hi there, I was searching around for quill art info and came across your site. Very nice work! I also do quill work. It's very relaxing and rewarding.

  2. Hi Heather....
    I just came across this posting... thank you very much and i am so glad you enjoyed my demonstration and my work. I love to teach and educate people on our ways. And love it when people wear my creations. thank you so much.....

    sheila porter

    1. Hi Shiela,
      I am glad you found the site. I wear my beautiful jewelry often!! Hopefully, I will see you at Mawiomi!