Porcupine Quill Embroidery

Posted on January 22, 2012



One unusual forest dweller is a creature which waddles when it walks, runs from nothing and never starves. It has feet like a bear, claws like a badger, teeth like a beaver and inner fur like the wool of a sheep. Porcupines normally have between twenty to thirty thousand quills, constantly growing those which are lost or molted. Length and thickness varies within the area of the body. The quills are removed from the porky in handfuls using a twisting motion. Good quill-workers avoid getting quills imbedded in their hands during the process. After plucking the porcupine, the quills must me separated from the hair, then cleaned and sorted according to size.

Mr. Porky

Mr. Porkys’ Business End



One of the most beautiful of the art forms native to North America is that of decorating birch bark with porcupine quills. The technique is called bark-insertation. Quills are laid over birch bark, their ends inserted into a hole made by an awl in the bark. Both quills and bark are worked moist; the moisture causes the quill to expand, fixing them in the bark. The damp bark contracts rapidly as it dries holding the quills tightly.

Simple tools include tweezers, awl and a pair of scissors to snip off the ends of the quill on the back side of the work.

Two Feathers Thunderbird Design

Feather Design

Starburst Design

Floral Design

Dragonfly Design

Quilled Pike Design

Quilled Trout Design

Quilled Canoe Design

Canoe Design Detail   

~ Canoe Backrests ~

In the late nineteenth century, Passamaquoddy artist Tomah Joseph illustrated origin stories in birch bark. Through his art, Tomah Joseph maintained strong traditions to Passamaquoddy culture. His art evolves from in part by two Passamaquoddy traditions: the decoration of birch bark containers and picture writing. Tomah Joseph’s work combines motifs from both of these artistic elements. In his birch bark art, he retained floral and geometric motifs as border designs while using human and animal figures as dominant  themes.

The list of forms appropriated by Tomah Joseph is long: water baskets, picture frames, log and magazine holders, picnic baskets, trinket boxes, canoe backrests, wall pockets and table tops.

“He is my Inspiration”

Works by Tomah Joseph

History on Birch Bark, Canoe and Backrest, c. 1898

Canoe with backrest in position

Quilled Pipe-Smoking Rabbit with Etched Design

Quill Design Detail

Quilled Sunflower With Etched Designs

Quilled Sunflower Detail

Beaver Comments, “Nice likeness on the that quilled beaver eh!”


Fan With Star Design

Quilled Floral Design

Quilled Flower Design

Grouse Fan Quilled Design

Porcupine and Birch Tree