By Janet Serra

Posted: 09/27/2018 17:11:10

Native Americans have a deep artistic sense and a great knowledge of our natural environment. This aesthetic can be seen in the objects of art, both decorative and useful at the new exhibit, From the Forest at the Institute For American Indian Studies on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut. Porcupine quillwork looks amazingly like delicate embroidery. This type of quillwork was most likely the first purely decorative art practiced by Native Americans. It is highly sought after by collectors, each piece representing hundreds of hours of work by the artist.

Porcupine quillwork is a distinctive Native American art form. The quills are folded, twisted, wrapped, plaited and sewn using a wide range of techniques to embellish articles of clothing, bags, knife sheaths, baskets, wooden handles, pipe stems and many other items.. Native Americans in 17th century New England used porcupine quills to decorate their clothing and accessories. They would also decorate containers made from birchbark because it was light, long lasting and flexible.

Quill working flourished from New England to the tribes of the Great Plains until the arrival of Europeans with ready-made glass beads that were incorporated into the work. Although considered a 'lost art' by many, some artists still practice the tradition from tribes such as the Sioux, Cree, Ojibway, and others carrying on the tradition of quill embroidery.

The Exhibit

This exhibit showcases artifacts on loan to the museum from the Meg Buda Collection consisting of many Native American decorative and useful items that have been embellished with porcupine quill embroidery. There are examples of flat as well as tufted quill embroidery on a variety of objects from moccasins and baskets to jewelry and containers. Some of the workmanship on the tufted birchbark baskets is extraordinary because of the variety of natural dyes used on the quills and the delicate floral or geometric patterns on the containers. Examples of tufted quillwork are only made by a few artists and are extraordinary in their detail and craftsmanship. In addition to this exhibition, the Institute has a large collection of Native American Artifacts, a 16th century reconstructed outdoor

Native American Village and a new Escape Room that is opening in late October called Escape from a Wigwam, 1518.

Porcupine Quills

One of the most enduring myths about the porcupine, a member of the rodent family that is only native to North America is that they are capable of throwing quills. The reality is the porcupine uses their quills as a defense mechanism. When in danger, the porcupine lowers its head and lashes out its tail, and if the predator is in striking range, the barbed quills are embedded in their hide or on their face. Once embedded, the quill with its needle-sharp barbules expands and every muscle movement pulls it deeper into the flesh. The porcupine quill is a modified type of hair, and like hair, it is shed when it is fully-grown. An adult porcupine has an average of 30,000 quills on its body that average about three inches in length. The spring and fall porcupine quills are said to be the best for decorative use because they are not waterlogged and don't break easily. Once the quills were carefully removed from the porcupine they were sorted by size then made pliable by soaking. Dyed and flattened, woven, wrapped, tufted or stitched the humble porcupine quill became part of a work of art as well as a means of self-expression.

About Institute For American Indian Studies

Located on 15 woodland acres the IAIS has an outdoor Three Sisters and Healing Plants Gardens as well as a replicated 16th c. Algonkian Village. Inside the museum, authentic artifacts are displayed in permanent, semi-permanent and temporary exhibits from prehistory to the present that allows visitors a walk through time. The Institute for American Indian Studies is located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut and can be reached online or by calling 860-868-0518. The Institute for American Indian Studies preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality, and knowledge of Native American cultures. Through archaeology, the IAIS is able to build new understandings of the world and history of Native Americans; the focus is on stewardship and preservation. This is achieved through workshops, special events, and education for students of all ages.

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