Chelsea Kaiah, "Coyote Head" (2019), Czech cut beads, black rhinestone banding, blue-dyed porcupine quills, natural quills, and hide (image courtesy the artist) 

DENVER — Porcupine quills, Elk teeth, Dentalium shells, and feathers are Indigenous art materials that predate the European introduction of colorful beads. Of these ancient materials, quills can be manipulated by color and dimension and they retain popularity among contemporary artists such as in Jordan Marie Drapeau’s (JD Creations) jewelry or resemblance in Dyani White Hawk‘s paintings and prints. But where do artists source quills? How can a material that demands significant time and operates on an intimate scale compete for relevance and visibility among art production that is ever-increasing in size and pace? Denver-based artist Chelsea Kaiah (Ute/Apache/Irish) invited Hyperallergic to document her practice to understand quill work and obtain answers to these questions. 

Traditional preparation of porcupine quills can devour a day. Kaiah’s kitchen was already clanking and bubbling with pigment baths when I arrived for my tutorial. Blueberries were boiling in one pot, a beet sat on a cutting board with quills stabbed into its magenta surface, and golden spikes were drying from a recent soak in marigolds and turmeric. “Using a Rit dye is less risky than natural dyes,” Kaiah said in reference to synthetic color. “But as the craft reemerges it is important to embrace natural pigments.”

Porcupine quills dyed blue (photo by Kealey Boyd/Hyperallergic)
Porcupine quills with blueberries during the natural dying process (photo by Kealey Boyd/Hyperallergic)

Sumac berries produce pinks, cochineal achieves red, and black walnuts turn the white quill brown, but the black marking of the quill tip can never be chased away by a pigment. Boiling and grinding pigments is a tedious process that requires experimentation. “Researching natural quill dyes will tell you what commodities create what variations, but not the boiling and soaking times. I fail so often,” Kaiah shared as she inspected a spoonful of quills. The animal has an oily protective coating, so quills must first be cleaned in dish detergent to avoid patchy results. Once she prepares the dye with a mix of Alum and Cream of Tartar for vibrancy, she adds quills to the simmering stovetop, carefully watching to make sure that they never return to a boil. The structure of a quill has a dense outer layer and a foam infill, so heat helps the pigment penetrate the exterior shell. However, Kaiah notes, “if the quills ever reach a boil they turn into a glue. The quill also cannot exceed three hours of heat or it produces the same result.”

A single porcupine offers a variety of quill sizes and densities. “Once you start quilling you really get to know the animal,” she smiles. The tail has the largest and coarsest quills, the face has fine wiry hairs, but the best quills are on the belly. Kaiah notes that different artists make use of the full variety, but she stays away from the bigger quills because they don’t lay flush with a surface when flattened. Kaiah scrapes the quill between her teeth which collapses the spongy interior. Some artists retain the cylindrical shaft of a quill, but others, like Kaiah, prefer a quill that is paper thin and foldable. Artists may use their fingers or soak the quill until it is pliable to compress, but over-soaking risks brittleness and breakage. “These are not stable art materials and they don’t last forever,” she reminded me often during my visit. Nevertheless, Kaiah gives quills a vinegar bath to set the color and coats them in animal fat to preserve it, but confessed “a beautiful part of the material is the fading process.”

Micmac artist, “Box” (c. 1925), quill and spruce root (image courtesy Denver Art Museum)
According to Denver Art Museum Curator John Lukavic, diamond shapes and purple and yellow combinations are classic Hidatsa characteristics.
Hidatsa artist, “Pair of moccasins” (c. 1900), rawhide and quill work (image courtesy Denver Art Museum)

U-pŏŏch is the Ute word for porcupine, but Kaiah calls it Roadkill Gold. Growing up on the Northern Ute reservation she remembers people around her dropping what they were doing when they heard a porcupine was spotted. A single porcupine can sustain a quilling practice for years according to Kaiah, but trading posts, such as Orrs’ Trading Company in Denver and Native American Trading Post in Salt Lake City typically supply her with quills sourced from porcupine sanctuaries. 

Chelsea Kaiah, “Yo-co-Vich” (2021), over 1,000 hand-dyed quills, vintage cut beads, seed beads, rope, deer hide, and a Blue Bird Flour bag (image courtesy the artist)
Securing the flattened porcupine quill with a loop of thread on black pellon; the quill will be folded over this single thread in a zigzag technique (photo by Kealey Boyd/Hyperallergic)

Before Kaiah can begin decorating a surface with her newly dyed quills, she must trim the tip that holds a small amount of poison so she can safely flatten it. She doesn’t watch where the thorny end lands as it springs into the air when cut. “This is the danger zone,” her bare feet sweeping the carpet under her worktable. “I can always feel the points. They give me hives, but they don’t last long.” Since a needle cannot be driven through the quill shell, Kaiah folds the end of the quill over a loop of thread. She can bend a medium-size quill one to three times before tucking a new quill under the previous to create a zigzag line.

She threads two needles to secure her quills. This approach, which varies by artist, achieves a level result and avoids bunching of the quill. From the reverse side, the thread will look like it is progressing in two parallel lines. “Keeping [the backside thread] as clean as the beadwork on the front is important. It is pure chaos if threads get out of place,” she explained. Kaiah uses black pellon, a firm fabric that can be cut like paper, as the backing to her artwork instead of animal hide which resists a needle and thread.

In this example, the needle and thread were run through the spongy core of the porcupine needles (bottom row) from base to tip and secured linearly, resting on their sides without flattening the quill. Chelsea Kaiah, “Jingle Mask” (2020-2021), hide, metal jingles, cut glass beads, kokum floral scarf, dyed quills (photo by Kealey Boyd/Hyperallergic)
Chelsea Kaiah, “Cute Ute” (2022), undyed porcupine quills on hide (photo by Kealey Boyd/Hyperallergic)

Kaiah learned quillwork from a volunteer Ute community member. “There is not a lot of interest in learning quillwork because it is a difficult skill that has to be taught in person, which is a barrier to the practice.” Kaiah suspects quillwork will likely remain on the edges of contemporary art discourse due to this obstacle, the limitations to scale it larger, and the slowness of the material. But that is fine with Kaiah who sees the continued use of quills within Indigenous communities as the most important objective, saying “it preserves the energy to not see it commercialized.”

Kealey Boyd is a writer and art critic. Her writing appears in the LATimes, Art Papers, College Art Association, The Belladonna Comedy, Artillery Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches journalism at University...