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Quill dying fun

While on a run the other day, I noticed a bunch of bloodroot up in the woods that I didn’t realize we had. Anyway, it prompted me to experiment again with natural dyes for dying porcupine quills. In the past, I have not always had the best luck dying quills, especially with anything other than RIT. I have since gotten walnut hulls and iron to work for a nice dark brown/black color and, as my blog showed in the past, have gotten copper scraps to make a nice verdigris that came out a cool bluish-green color on the quill. Now to try something new.

In Francis Densmore’s book, How Indians use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine, and Crafts, Densmore gives a number of Ojibwe recipes for dying. I decided to pick on of the recipes for “red.” It called for

2 handfuls of bloodroot
1handful of red-osier dogwood inner bark
1 handful of alder inner bark
1 handful of wild plum inner bark
1 quart of water.

I degreased a bunch of quills to prepare them for the dye. This is extremey important because if you do not get all the porcupine’s oils and grease off and out of the quills, it will not even take a RIT dye. I usually use a little dish soap and simmer it in water. I then add the quills and let them sit in the hot, soapy water for a couple hours. Finally, I rinse them off well with clean water.

To make the dye, I boiled all of the above in a stainless pot so as not to foul up the dye (copper, tin, iron, etc. can affect the color and dye), and it looked an interesting shade of yellow. Interestingly, all the dye plants mentioned above are also in her recipes for yellow and orange…. some exactly the same. This leads me to sometimes wonder about what some of these old written down “recipes” really are. Anthropologists are not necessarily dyers and not even always well versed in botony. Some plants may not have been what they said they were, sometimes they may not have seen the dye made, othertimes they may have issues with translations of the native languages, and there could be problems with how the process itself was recorded. Add to this that many granny didn’t want to give the REAL recipe for her famous brighter than everyone else’s quill dye…. anyway, you can not always tell but this makes for the fun in experimenting.

Once well boiled, I add the quills and let them steep in the hot dye bath for a number of hours. I then transferred it all to a jar to sit for another 3 days since the color was not apparent. After all this time, the only color change was from white quills to dingy-off-white.

I then decided to make a new dye bath with JUST bloodroot. I went out and picked some more which I cut up and smashed. This time I boiled them in a small trade kettle. I figured the tin lining may be a good thing with the dye (or might completely wreck it). It boiled up nicely and I then added the quills. After 2 hours of sitting in the dye, they had already picked up a nice yellow color.

I then transferred it to a jar to sit and soak up more color for 2 days. It ended up a VERY NICE bright orange-yellow. This gives me a lot of hope for the future and has me wanting to try some other dyes. I guess I might need to “acquire” some more porcupine quills.

2 Responses to “Quill dying fun”

  1. Love your posts on dying quills.I have dyed quills with bloodroot many times and the color you achieved is very similar.Thanks for sharing !

    • Isaac says:

      Thanks Linda! I love experimenting with dying and quilling is great in small doses. In truth, I will never be as good as yourself or many others, but I quill for fun and because I am too cheap to buy it.

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