Quill-Wrapped Horsehair Technique

The quill-wrapped horsehair (QWHH) technique is one of the most exacting and fascinating quillwork techniques ever. It involves using thin bundles of horsehair as a filler and wrapping porcupine quills around them while sewing them onto a buckskin base at the same time.

It differs from other quillwork techniques in that it is three-dimensional, creating a spatial effect.

Embroidered decorative buffalo robe or blanket strip. The rosettes are embroidered using the QWHH technique. The rectangular panels are embroidered with seed beads. Sotheby’s auction.
Embroidered decorative buffalo robe or blanket strip. The rosettes are embroidered using the QWHH technique. The rectangular panels are embroidered with seed beads. Sotheby’s auction.

Time and area of distribution

How and where this technique originated is not entirely clear, but it was likely widespread among the Crow tribe and also in the Plateau region (the Nez PercésWishramCayuseYakimaWalla Walla and other tribes), as most of the extant originals were collected there. Culturally, the horsehair wrapping technique can be classified as a part of the “Transmontane style”.

It is certainly an old technique, the earliest pieces having been collected as early as the 1830s, but it did not completely disappear even later, although it does not seem to have been as common in the second half of the 19th century as in the first half.

Detail of side seam moccasins (instep). The “keyhole” ornament is embroidered using the QWHH technique. Bernisches historisches museum.
Detail of side seam moccasins (instep). The “keyhole” ornament is embroidered using the QWHH technique. Bernisches historisches museum.

The difficulty

Technically speaking, it is one of the most, if not the most, difficult of all quillwork techniques, and only the most skilled quillworkers are able to learn and master it. The difficulty lies in the fact that one has to work simultaneously with the base leather, the thread, the porcupine quills and also the bundles of horsehair, which must be kept at the required strength, which is not easy.

Detail of the QWHH technique, specifically a detail of a leggings strip from the Náprstek Museum, Prague. Interestingly, a woolen yarn was used instead of red and dark blue quills. The horsehair fillers were sometimes wrapped with materials other than quills, for example woolen yarn, but sometimes also dark horsehair or even plant materials.
Detail of the QWHH technique, specifically a detail of a leggings strip from the Náprstek Museum, Prague. Interestingly, a woolen yarn was used instead of red and dark blue quills. The horsehair fillers were sometimes wrapped with materials other than quills, for example woolen yarn, but sometimes also dark horsehair or even plant materials.

The work is not only difficult but also progresses very slowly. It takes many times longer to embroider a given area than with conventional, “two-dimensional” techniques. 

The complexity and time-consuming nature of this technique, and the fact that there are very few artists who have mastered it, makes it very expensive.

Completely unique moccasins collected by the painter George Catlin sometime in the 1830s. They are decorated with a combined technique of QWHH (double-bundle) and pony beads. NMNH.
Completely unique moccasins collected by the painter George Catlin sometime in the 1830s. They are decorated with a combined technique of QWHH (double-bundle) and pony beads. NMNH.

The variants

There are two variants of this technique, which differ in whether the quills are wrapped around one or two horsehair fillings.

The single-bundle variant

Only one bundle of horsehair was used as a filler, creating one single tube. The quills were wrapped around it and sewn to the leather base at the same time. This variation was used to create rosettes exclusively, starting at the center and continuing outwards in a spiral. Interestingly, most of the rosettes were coiled anticlockwise.

A rosette of a decorative embroidered strip made using the QWHH technique. In the case of the rosettes, the quills are wrapped around a single bundle of horsehair. Private collection (Warnock).
A rosette of a decorative embroidered strip made using the QWHH technique. In the case of the rosettes, the quills are wrapped around a single bundle of horsehair. Private collection (Warnock).
A rosette of a decorative embroidered strip made using the QWHH technique. In the case of the rosettes, the quills are wrapped around a single bundle of horsehair. Private collection (Sotheby's auction).
A rosette of a decorative embroidered strip made using the QWHH technique. In the case of the rosettes, the quills are wrapped around a single bundle of horsehair. Private collection (Sotheby's auction).

The double-bundle variant

It was used mostly to cover straight areas, as in the case of a war shirt or leggings strips. Two bundles of horsehair were employed in this variation. The quills were placed over the two separate horsehair bundles, lying side by side and sewn onto the leather base at the sides and also between the two bundles, creating a double-hill effect. Several of those double-bundle lanes were usually connected together to cover larger areas.

Porcupine quills wrapped around two bundles of horsehair at the same time were used to form straight rows. Multiple “double-bundle lanes” placed one right next to the other create a wider area. Here is a detail of a war shirt strip.
Porcupine quills wrapped around two bundles of horsehair at the same time were used to form straight rows. Multiple “double-bundle lanes” placed one right next to the other create a wider area. Here is a detail of a war shirt strip.
Porcupine quills wrapped around two bundles of horsehair at the same time were used to form straight rows. Multiple “double-bundle lanes” placed one right next to the other create a wider area. Here is a detail of a leggings strip. Interestingly, several double-bundle lanes of QWHH horsehair are interspersed with rows of pony beads.
Porcupine quills wrapped around two bundles of horsehair at the same time were used to form straight rows. Multiple “double-bundle lanes” placed one right next to the other create a wider area. Here is a detail of a leggings strip. Interestingly, several double-bundle lanes of QWHH horsehair are interspersed with rows of pony beads.
An embroidered decorative buffalo robe or blanket strips rarely combines both, the rosettes and rectangular panel areas embroidered with the QWHH technique. Heritage Auctions.
An embroidered decorative buffalo robe or blanket strips rarely combines both, the rosettes and rectangular panel areas embroidered with the QWHH technique. Heritage Auctions.

The use of the quill-wrapped horsehair technique

This technique was most often used to decorate garments such as war shirts or leggings strips or even some coats and moccasins. I also know of one specimen of a quiver and one medicine bag made of otter fur, both decorated with QWHH rosettes.

The extant originals

The artifacts with QWHH embroideries are very rare, with no more than a few dozen surviving pieces scattered around the world in museums or private collections.

Buffalo robe strips

Only very few have survived; I know of 14 pieces in total (some of which are just torsos) and two separate rosettes. They can be divided into two categories. All the strips have rosettes embroidered using the QWHH technique, but they differ in the way the rectangular panels are embroidered. 

The strips in the first category have rectangular parts embroidered with porcupine quills, either using the QWHH technique (two complete pieces and one torso) or the multiple-plaited quillwork (three complete pieces). The strips of the second category have rectangular panels embroidered with seed beads in the classic Transmontane style (eight pieces).

Buffalo robe with a decorative strip. The rosettes are embroidered with QWHH technique while the rectangular panels are embroidered using the multiple quillwork technique. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. Crows.
Buffalo robe with a decorative strip. The rosettes are embroidered with QWHH technique while the rectangular panels are embroidered using the multiple quillwork technique. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen. Crows.
Detail of a buffalo robe with a decorative strip. The rosettes are embroidered with quill-wrapped horsehair while the rectangular panels are embroidered with the plaited quillwork. NMAI.
Detail of a buffalo robe with a decorative strip. The rosettes are embroidered with quill-wrapped horsehair while the rectangular panels are embroidered with the plaited quillwork. NMAI.
Detail of a buffalo robe with a decorative strip. The rosettes are embroidered with QWHH technique while the rectangular panels are embroidered with the plaited quillwork. Bernisches historisches museum.
Detail of a buffalo robe with a decorative strip. The rosettes are embroidered with QWHH technique while the rectangular panels are embroidered with the plaited quillwork. Bernisches historisches museum.
A robe strip. The bottom strip rosettes are made with QWHH technique, the rectangular panels are embroidered with seed beads. Yakima tribe, Field museum.
A robe strip. The bottom strip rosettes are made with QWHH technique, the rectangular panels are embroidered with seed beads. Yakima tribe, Field museum.
A robe strip. The rosettes are made with QWHH technique, the rectangular panels are embroidered with seed beads. Warnock Collection.
A robe strip. The rosettes are made with QWHH technique, the rectangular panels are embroidered with seed beads. Warnock Collection.

War shirts

Just over 20 examples of war shirts with quill-wrapped horsehair strips have survived. They can again be divided into several categories. The first category includes war shirts that have all four bands embroidered with QWHH technique (in all cases with the typical double-bundle variant), then war shirts that have only two strips embroidered in this technique, while the other two strips are embroidered with the multiple quillwork.

There are also some war shirts that are decorated only with QWHH rosettes, but whose strips are embroidered using a different technique.

A war shirt (likely Crow). All four strips are embroidered using the QWHH technique and bordered with beads. NMAI.
A war shirt (likely Crow). All four strips are embroidered using the QWHH technique and bordered with beads. NMAI.
A war shirt (likely from Plateau). All four strips are embroidered using the QWHH technique and bordered with beads. NMAI.
A war shirt (likely from Plateau). All four strips are embroidered using the QWHH technique and bordered with beads. NMAI.
A war shirt, likely from Plateau. The shoulder strips are embroidered with the horsehair technique, while the sleeve bands are embroidered with another quillwork technique. Warnock Collection.
A war shirt, likely from Plateau. The shoulder strips are embroidered with the horsehair technique, while the sleeve bands are embroidered with another quillwork technique. Warnock Collection.
A war shirt, likely Crow. Diker collection.
A war shirt, likely Crow. Diker collection.

Leggings

In total, I am currently aware of seven examples of leggings whose strips incorporate the QWHH technique. Four of these have straight rectangle strips embroidered with several rows of QWHH double bundle technique and three with the strips embroidered with a combination of rosettes and long rectangle panels. All of these rosettes are done with single bundle QWHH, while the rectangular panels are embroidered with a different quillwork technique, usually the multiple quillwork.

Virtually all of these leggings are of the oldest type, i.e., bottom tab leggings.

Bottom tab leggings from the Upper Missouri region. The strip is decorated with quillwork, a combination of rosettes and rectangular panels. The rosettes are embroidered in the QWHH technique, while the rectangles are embroidered in another quillwork technique. The whole strips are then lined with pony beads.
Bottom tab leggings from the Upper Missouri region. The strip is decorated with quillwork, a combination of rosettes and rectangular panels. The rosettes are embroidered in the QWHH technique, while the rectangles are embroidered in another quillwork technique. The whole strips are then lined with pony beads.
Bottom tab leggings from the Upper Missouri region. The strip is decorated with quillwork, a combination of rosettes and rectangular panels. The rosettes are embroidered with a wrapping technique, the panels with another one.
Bottom tab leggings from the Upper Missouri region. The strip is decorated with quillwork, a combination of rosettes and rectangular panels. The rosettes are embroidered with a wrapping technique, the panels with another one.
A pair of bottom tab leggings collected by L. A. Schoch. Probably made by Crows. The strips are decorated with quills, a combination of rosettes and rectangular panels. The rosettes are embroidered with the QWHH technique, the rectangular panels with the multiple quillwork technique. The whole strip is then bordered with pony beads. Bernisches historisches museum.
A pair of bottom tab leggings collected by L. A. Schoch. Probably made by Crows. The strips are decorated with quills, a combination of rosettes and rectangular panels. The rosettes are embroidered with the QWHH technique, the rectangular panels with the multiple quillwork technique. The whole strip is then bordered with pony beads. Bernisches historisches museum.

Moccasins

There are also a few surviving moccasins decorated with the QWHH technique, slightly more than 10 pieces. They are of both types: side seam moccasins and two-piece hard sole moccasins. Most are embroidered with the so-called keyhole design, a form of embroidery consisting of a round rosette and an adjoining trapezoid, resembling the shape of a keyhole.

Two-piece moccasins with keyhole design ornament. The rosettes are embroidered with the QWHH technique. Bonhams auction.
Two-piece moccasins with keyhole design ornament. The rosettes are embroidered with the QWHH technique. Bonhams auction.
Two-piece moccasins. The ornaments on the instep are embroidered using the QWHH technique (double-bundle). Baťa shoe museum, Toronto.
Two-piece moccasins. The ornaments on the instep are embroidered using the QWHH technique (double-bundle). Baťa shoe museum, Toronto.

In this type of decoration, the rosette is often embroidered using the single-bundle QWHH technique, while the trapezoid part is embroidered using a different technique. However, some keyholes are embroidered entirely with the QWHH technique. In this case, the rosette is embroidered with a double bundle technique that bends to create both the rounded and the straight part of the embroidery.

A pair of Crow side seam moccasins with a keyhole ornament embroidered with QWHH technique (double-bundle).
A pair of Crow side seam moccasins with a keyhole ornament embroidered with QWHH technique (double-bundle).
A pair of Crow side seam moccasins with a keyhole ornament embroidered with QWHH technique (double-bundle). Field museum.
A pair of Crow side seam moccasins with a keyhole ornament embroidered with QWHH technique (double-bundle). Field museum.

Other artifacts

Other unique artifacts bearing this remarkable technique include a quiver, now in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. It was reportedly collected by the famous painter George Catlin from the Crow Indians. The quiver is of one-piece construction and is decorated with four single-bundle rosettes. The rosettes are also beaded with pony beads. In addition to the rosettes, the quiver is decorated with other quillwork techniques.

A quiver collected by the famous painter George Catlin, decorated with four QWHH rosettes. NMNH.
A quiver collected by the famous painter George Catlin, decorated with four QWHH rosettes. NMNH.

A certain anomaly is a medicine bag, made of the fur of an otter, which was obtained from the Oto tribe of the Eastern prairies. The bag contains a single rosette embroidered with single-bundle QWHH, sewn to the root of the otter’s tail. However, I do not believe that this is a rosette made by this tribe, but that it was rather obtained by trade or as loot and sewn onto the bag afterwards.

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