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Make a Quill Design
European explorers, missionaries and traders arrived in the Great Lakes area in
the 17th century, Native Americans were using porcupine quills to decorate clothing, moccasins,
and other objects.
These birch-bark boxes, decorated
with dyed quills, are in the collections of the Michigan
Historical Museum. They date to the 19th century. Some of the quills on the boxes have
broken or been worn away.
To decorate a birch-bark box, the quill artist would follow these
steps like these:
- Obtain porcupine quills. Clean the quills, sort them according to their
length, and trim an end. Dye the quills different colors or leave them
natural. You might also moisten
and flatten the quills with a tool or the back of your thumb nail.
- Make a pattern for a box. Obtain birch bark. Cut pieces to make a
- Create a design. Draw or etch the design onto the birch bark.
- Poke holes for inserting the quills in the birch bark along the
lines in the design.
- Poke a quill up through one hole and down through a hole opposite it in
the design. Pull it tight against the back of the bark. (A pliers or tweezers
helps.) Bend the ends underneath the bark tightly against the bark. Fill in
the design with quills in this way.
- When the design is finished, cut another piece of birch bark or other
material to cover the back of the design. Assemble the box.
When Europeans traded brightly colored glass beads to
the Native Americans, many began using beads instead of quills for decoration.
However, some Native American artists still work with quills today. You might
see their handmade boxes for sale in museum stores, at craft fairs or at
Design a Birch-bark Box Cover
This black and white historical photograph
shows a birch-bark box decorated with natural-colored porcupine quills. You can color a design like it
and draw your own design on the activity pages [PDF]. The first page has the design shown here. The second page has an empty
circledraw your own design for a birch-bark box cover in it. Like the original quill artists, you might
want to choose an image from nature, such as the the stars and flowers on the boxes on this page.
Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.