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Each Quill on Birchbark Tells a Story

Traditionally made birchbark baskets adorned with intricate designs made from porcupine quills provide an important glimpse into our history and help preserve the rich Aboriginal cultures of the Northwest Territories (NWT). This heritage is evident in the artwork shared by the artist for all to enjoy. Today, art handmade from traditionally prepared materials is becoming increasingly hard to find, which is reflected in its price point in the marketplace.

Birchbark

The natural waxes in birchbark make it waterproof and rot resistant and an ideal raw material for basket making. Late spring or early summer is the best time to harvest birchbark. It is easier to peel when the sap is running and the moisture is just right. A vertical cut about three feet long is made in the tree and a ring of bark is carefully peeled from around the tree. The brown inner bark is left on so the peeling does not cause any harm to the tree. 

The peeled bark is very light and pliant. It is rolled with the inside out, and tied with a string. It must be stored in a cool place or frozen so it does not dry out. 

Spruce Roots

Roots from the spruce tree are used for sewing birchbark baskets. Long, straight roots are easier to split and more efficient to sew with. Medium-sized trees with long, very straight limbs usually have straight roots.

A rainy day in June is an ideal time to harvest spruce roots. This is when the bark is the easiest to peel. Roots with red bark are the best. They are young and strong. Black roots are old and break easily. The roots are coiled and stored in a sealed bag to keep them moist. They can be dried and stored if not needed right away.

Porcupine Quills

A healthy adult porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills on its body. The pure white quills of a young porcupine turn yellow as the animal ages. Quills can be easily removed from a dried porcupine skin with bare hands, gloves or pliers. The quills vary in length from ½ inch on the face to 4 inches on the back of the animal. Most of quills on the side and tail measure between 2½ to 3 inches in length. 

After the quills are gathered they are washed in warm water and detergent. At least nine changes of water are needed to remove the natural grease. Proper cleaning and rinsing is necessary to prevent the quills from yellowing over time. The rinsed quills are spread out over towels or newspaper to dry before dyeing.

Before commercial dyes were available, berries, flowers, plants and lichen were used to create dyes. Quills are soaked in the dye for about 30 minutes to allow them to pick up the vibrant colours. Dyed quills are rinsed with vinegar to help keep the colour from fading.

Once the quills are dyed, they are allowed to dry for several days before the root end of the quill is carefully clipped to allow the air to escape. Quills are made pliable by placing them in a damp cloth or in the mouth and allowing the natural action of saliva to soften them. If required, the quill can be flattened by pinching it and forcing the air out. Properly handled quills should be shiny indicating they have not been damaged.

Each quill must be softened again just before it is used. The quills dry and harden quickly so the artist must work fast. Traditionally, quillwork was done with sinew. However, thread or dental floss are more commonly used today. 

Quillwork

Quillwork is a technique practiced for centuries in many parts of North America and was the primary form of artistic expression by Dene women in regions where porcupines could be found. Around 1840, quillwork began to decline as beads became available in the NWT.

Woven Quillwork

Quills can be woven into decorative bands using a bow loom strung with sinew or thread. The artist weaves coloured quills with intervening threads to create a design. Zig-zag and diamond patterns are the most common. Bird, animal or floral designs are rare. New quills are added as colour changes are desired or the length of the quill runs out. The quill band will lie flat if even tension has been maintained during weaving. This demonstrates the skill and experience of the weaver.

Sewn Quillwork

Embroidered quillwork is usually found on hide clothing or accessories. Designs are drawn directly onto the hide either freehand or from a pattern.     

There are several traditional techniques of quill embroidery and many variations. Basic quillwork stitches include zig-zag (overhand), straight (band), line, checkerboard, rick-rack, sawtooth, diamond, triangle, and circle quilling. 

The basic zig-zag technique involves folding flattened quills over two parallel lines of thread. A quill is inserted under the first stitch, and folded over and inward so the thread is hidden. This is repeated, back and forth, between the parallel thread stitches as the quilling pattern emerges. New quills are placed under the old allowing different colours of quills to be added into the design. 

Other Types of Quillwork ​

Other types of quillwork are less common. These include Tipi quilling, quill wrapping on rawhide and quill plaiting. Sometimes bird quills are used in edging decoration. 

Making the Basket

Before work can begin on the basket, all the materials must be prepared. The spruce roots are soaked overnight. After they are softened, they need to be split. Starting at the thick end, a knife is used to split the root all the way down. The bark is peeled off and the bare root is split in half again. Any knots are cut away as they will break later anyway. The end of the root is sharpened to a point for sewing and the roots are placed back in the water to keep them moist until they are needed.

Red willow branches are used to hold the shape of the basket. Thin branches are gathered and the bark peeled off. They are evenly trimmed with a knife, coiled and soaked in water. 

The outer layer of the birchbark is gently scraped with a knife to remove the knots and peeling layers of bark. The birchbark is then rubbed with sandpaper to give it a smooth finish. The more the bark is scraped and sanded, the fewer lines remain. Varying the amount of sanding creates contrasting strips of birchbark, which can be used to decorate the basket. The birchbark is then cut into the shape of the basket.

Birchbark baskets are commonly decorated with quills. After the design is drawn, small holes for the quills to go into are punched along the edges of the design with an awl. Coloured quills are flattened and inserted into the holes in a zig-zag pattern to create the design. On the underside, the quills are pushed down and the ends are hidden with an inner piece of bark.

Another decorative technique involves scraping through the layers of bark. This produces a design that stands out against the background as different shades of bark are exposed. Birchbark biting and using contrasting strips of birchbark to trim the borders are other decorative techniques. All decorating is completed before the basket is sewn together. 

The birchbark is then dampened with a wet cloth and held over a fire to soften it. When it is softened, an awl is used to then punch stitching holes. The birchbark is folded according to the basket pattern and small wooden sticks are inserted into the holes to hold the shape as the birchbark dries. Two moist strips of willow are wrapped along the inside and outside of a basket top and allowed to dry. 

Lids can be added to these versatile baskets to prevent spills and allowing them to be used to store food, carry tools and bait, or hold berries among many other things. To make a lid, a piece of birchbark is cut in the correct shape. A piece of willow is shaped to fit inside the rim of the lid and allowed to dry.

Once the basket and willow strips are dry, the sticks are removed. Seams are sewn with pliable spruce roots, securing the basket in its shape. 

An awl is used to punch holes around the top of the basket and the rim of the lid. Using spruce roots, the bent willow strips are sewn into place adding strength to the basket and lid. The length of the stitches may be staggered to create a design. When the row of stitches is completed, the end of the root is tucked and secured under a stitch.

Strips of moosehide can be used to add finishing touches to the basket. They are used to tie the lid closed and are sometimes used for handles on the basket for easy carrying.

Spruce gum can be put on the seams to seal a basket for carrying water. Clay mixed with dried grass can be applied to the inside of a basket to allow it to be used as a cooking pot.

For more information, download this brochure.