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Need help on dyeing quills

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  • Need help on dyeing quills

    Hi there,

    I'm trying to dye porcupine quills with plant dyes, but so far all my attempts failed miserably. Whatever I try, the quills just won't accept any dye at all.

    What I basically do is:
    - clean the quills: I put them in a bowl with warm water and detergent
    - soak them: after cleaning I rinse them with water and then soak them in lukewarm water
    - put them in a warm/hot (but not boiling) dyebath

    Dyes that I've tried so far are madder, blackberries, elderberries, walnut leaves.

    As I wrote above, nothing at all happens to my quills. I've successfully dyed cloth and leather with the above dyes, but the quills remain as they are (white).

    I've become really frustrated now. Could anybody give me some help? What am I doing wrong?

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.


  • #2
    how long do you leave them in?

    "quill and Beadwork of the Westtern Sioux"
    "The Technique of Porcupine Quill Decoration Among the Indians of North America"

    both offer some different traditional methods.

    if you cantfind them i can probably send you a scan.
    There are 2 types of people in the world...
    Really stupid people who think they are smart
    Really smart people who think they are smart.


    • #3
      I left them in between about 30m to several hours. No matter how long they were in, they didn't accept any dye.

      I've got "A Quillwork Companien" and it also has a section on traditional dyes. Problem is, there are no real "recipes" with exact amounts, timtes, temperatures etc., only general things. I tried to stick to the descriptions and used some of the dyes mentioned, but well...

      Scans would be very nice, I'd be grateful for any hint/advice I can get.

      Stupid as it may sound, I've began wondering if maybe the quills I've bought were "treated" (coated, impregnated) somehow and that's why they don't accept the dyes.

      Another thing:
      Since dock root is often mentioned as a mordant for traditional dyes. What exactly is dock root? I always thought it was the roots of rumex obtusifolius and rumex crispus. But I often read "female dock root" and as far as I know there are no male/female plants of rumex obtusifolius and rumex crispus, but both varieties have both genders on one plant...


      • #4
        Odds of your quills being treated or coated is very slim, especially if they NEEDED to be cleaned. I have never dyed with natural dyes since there are so many nice colors available these days. One can even use food coloring and Kool-aid as long as you use something like vinegar to set the color into the quills. I think OLChemist talked about this kinda thing once before but I can't remember where....might have been a thread about dyeing natural home spun yarn, but I can't remember the name of the thread.

        Sorry I ain't more help but I ain't much for artifaking old pieces

        "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo Picasso

        "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift...that is why is it called the Present." Master Oogway - KungFu Panda

        My comments are based on what I have been taught and my experiences over the years I have been around the circle. They should in no way be taken as gospel truths and are merely my opinions or attempts at passing on what I have learned while still learning more.


        • #5
          i scanned thru the quillwork companion but it did offer much on the actual process, maybe a paragraph. it does have nice instructions on the different types of work tho.

          ill check them out when i get home and see what it says.

          i heard a few years back that one traditional method of curing the colors was to soak them in baby urine? Dont know if that is true, never tried it. But I do know of some other things that may sound crazy which were true.
          There are 2 types of people in the world...
          Really stupid people who think they are smart
          Really smart people who think they are smart.


          • #6
            Oh, don't you believe in the old Indian tirck of Tide and Rit *wink*

            I've done a little natural dying of quills. I suspect a couple things might be at the root of your problem.

            Quills need to be cleaned well and held under water during the first rinsing to keep the oils from settling back on them. If you quills still stink, odds are the oil is still there.

            Second, you are battling the chemistry of the situation. At least three of the dyes you named bond to the substrate by hydrogen bonding. Cellulose fibers have way more bonding sites than the pithy core of quills. (Synthetic dyes are some times fiber reactive dyes which form chemical bonds to the substrate. Also these dye molecules have much larger absorption coefficents; meaning they are more likely absorb photons, giving more "color" for a lower concentration.) I soaked the quills longer and in more concentrated solutions than I would have for fibers.

            Also the bonding sites in quills are protected by a not very pourous keratin sheath. You have to get dye into core. This takes time and if your dye species are not very concentrated or don't absorb much, you'll need a significantly higher concentration. Your dye solution may be too weak for quills.

            Further, some natural dyes require oxygen, or fermentation, or bacterial action to acheive good color development. pH is also critical. The cyanidin-3-glucoside in blackberries and elderberries has two pH dependent forms. One bonds better than the other. (They also have radically different colors, but the fibers shift back to a purple red upon exposure to air.) Exercise caution when considering altering the pH of solution -- particular elderberries -- as harmful/deadly gases can be released. (Elderberry pits contain hydrocyanic acid producing compounds. Don't acidify solutions containing the pits.) My best dye results came from filtered berry solutions that had "gone off." They were definately experiencing some biological action.

            Try Hibiscus flowers -- it is the same dyes species as the rare Buffalo Currant. They make a great dye. You can get tham at Latino markets, where they are sold as an ingredent for Auga de Jamaica. You get a strong, lovely red-purple dye. It gave me good result, on an overnight soak.

            Vinager is a good all around mordrant. Use bottled water if you have iron in your water; colors will change or set differently in the presence of iron. Some European dyes used urea (ie urine) set colors. Since so much of our ancestor's chemical knowledge was lost, it would hardly surprise me to find urine used as a mordant. Salt solutions will set some colors.

            By and large, give me RIT. Give me better living through chemistry.

            These folks were quite helpful when I was preparing my talk/lab:

            Beyond the Ordinary in Surface Designs with Natural Dyes! I teach Online Art Classes, Sell Artwork that Focuses on the Prairie and Plains, Art Cloth, and eBooks I've written.

            However, they do appear to be going out of business, so I'd move fast.
            Last edited by OLChemist; 09-25-2006, 11:14 PM.


            • #7
              Regarding dyeing quills

              I would contact the folks at, that is who I purchase my natural fiber dyes from. I think they will be able to answer all your questions. They have a very helpfull staff. I would be curious to see what the answer to this questionis because I have many customers that work with quills. I will check in with some of them and see how they do it. Hope Dharma is able to assist you. Good Luck


              • #8
                HOLY CRUP CHEMIST!!!

                What an answer!

                Can you tell us what the meaning of life is next?

                Just use a sharpee marker!
                There are 2 types of people in the world...
                Really stupid people who think they are smart
                Really smart people who think they are smart.


                • #9
                  Hi everyone,

                  thanks for your replies.

                  I don't think that oil/cleaning is the problem. The quills looked very clean when I bought them and did not smell at all (but of course I cleaned them anyway before dyeing attempts).

                  Hibiskus flowers are a great idea, I'm gonna get some today and try these (together with some other things) on the weekend. I'll keep you informed yout the result, of course.


                  • #10
                    Someone told me once that when picking quills you have to get them before they start to rot or you can't get any color into them at all. They said that the quills start to get transparent on the tips at that point. I have never worked with quills so take it for what it is worth. Anyone can deny or confirm this?


                    • #11
                      Ok, I tried some more things:

                      - Hibiscus flowers
                      I made a very concentrated dyebath, once the quills were in I kept it a little below the boiling point for 2-3 hours, then let them soak overnight.
                      The quills did indeed accept some dye, but instead of a deep red that I suspected from the dyebath they are kinda pink, in a not too deep/bright hue.

                      - Blackberries + alum
                      (according to Jean Heinbuch's book this should dye quills purple)
                      I also made a very concentrated solution, kept it hot for some time and let the quills then soak overnight.
                      All I got was a very light pink, while the dyebath was a really dark purple...

                      - Walnut hulls, elderberries + alum
                      (according to Jean Heinbuch's book this should dye quills black)
                      Again a very concentrated dye, kept hot for 2-3 hours, then soaked overnight.
                      As good as nothing happened. The Quills now have a very slight yellowish/brownish hue, only a slight touch darker than undyed quills.

                      - Madder + alum
                      In addition to cleaning the quills with water/detergent, I afterwards also cleaned them with ethanol (the only organic solvent I had at hand).
                      Concentrated solution, kept hot 2-3 hours, soaked overnight.
                      The quills have turned yellow. I've really no idea madder can dye yellow, but well....

                      Some other observations I've made:
                      I tried dyeing some quills from which I cut the black tips off. That was really interesting because in these cases the quills did accept the dye to some extent (without soaking overnight): apparently, the dye soaked into them from the cut off end, because for a couple of mm to 1 cm from that end, the quills are dyed (and also in the color they're supposed to: e.g., madder + alum gave a beautiful, bright orange, elderberries + alum a ver nice purple). Farther away from the tip, the quills were white.
                      Some other quills were obviously bent and the "outer skin" torn at the bend, and these show the same behaviour: color penetration for a few mm in either direction of the bend/tear.

                      Judging from these results I would say that I've got a serious color penetration problem. But why?

                      @Fat Albert:
                      Would be interesting if someone could confirm this. Which end of the quills is supposed to get transparent? The black tips or the bottom end?

                      I'd like to get a bunch of quills from a different vendor to have a try at dyeing these. Problem is I live in Germany and there's only about on vendor here that sells quills.


                      • #12
                        I understand that it happens on both ends. But again I have never personally had to deal with this so I don't know for sure. Hear it on the grapevine...


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