Homemade quills are not as hard to make as you’d think. It’s a fun activity to try with and for kids. Homemade quills can be used for calligraphy practice, for drawing with ink or to perfect one’s cursive writing.
The following piece is written by Anoush Mardjanian (contact info: ambushbog (at) yahoo (dot) com) Anoush is a crafty homeschool mom, who teaches knitting workshops around NYC.
who was asking me if we had a quill because she “really really really” wanted to write
with one. Somehow, she knew exactly what she was talking about and now was looking
at me expectantly, fluttering big eyelashes. After recovering from my initial
shock, I was ready to act.
Timing is everything. So, within an hour we were dressed and off to the only place I
knew I would find the closest thing to a quill, Michael’s. Despite the fact that she really
wanted a feather quill, I felt that I needed to act immediately and give her the tactile
satisfaction of writing with any type of a dipping instrument. Striking the iron while it’s
hot is generally the motto for my approach to fostering my daughter’s curiosity.
The local Michael’s did not disappoint. They had several sets of metal nibs with plastic
shafts in the art department, which I remembered using when I was a teenager myself.
They were fun then, and they were fun now. I bought two sets, but one set that had
some variety of metal nibs would have been enough. Staples, reliably, carried the Quink
ink (although Michael’s might have had other less expensive colors.) Some Walmarts
also carry ink in the crafts’ departments).
That Thursday my daughter
had spent, collectively, 8 hours experimenting, writing, drawing and
testing out the nibs, on her own. Her previously reluctant relationship with writing was
transformed into a profoundly different experience. The act of dipping, guiding and
moving the “quill” gave her control over the process, and for her, that made it more
meaningful and creative. I had also forgotten how loud this writing could be.
That special scraping that the nib made against the paper was one of those things that
were lost, much like the needle of a turntable, when we changed technologies and
switched to ball point pens . To my ears, it was music. It was a sound of a lost era that
produced the writings of my favorite childhood authors: Mark Twain, Jules Vern, Sir
Walter Scott, among many. Now my daughter was part of that club of paper scrapers.
But we were not done, yet.
As a crafter, I have spent a good part of my life learning, researching and mastering, to
a various degree, various “forgotten” arts, like shoe making, spinning, gold
embroidery, book binding etc. and while from outside it may seem that they come easily
because I’ve been doing them forever, the truth is that for every one of them there was
that first time. Had I stuck to “but I’ve never done that before”, I would have never
started to do anything, since there is a first time for everything, the only difference lies
in the willingness to try, sometimes several times, and finding enjoyment in the process,
not the result.
hand at all kinds of very demanding and exacting crafts, I somehow never got around to
making quills, which are comparatively simpler. I hope you will try, too, and include it
in your family’s repertoire of neat things to do, which costs practically nothing, but
offers such a wonderful vehicle for historical insight as well as bird biology. This is
also a great pastime to do in the Fall, during that turkey themed Holiday, which, just
like in quill making, had displaced the goose at the dinner table.
A good quill is a sharp instrument that can hold a little more ink than is necessary. That’s
why a simple sharp stick is not really practical, but a bird feather, with its hollow shaft,
is much better suited for the task.
Up until the invention of the metal nib, and its mass production at the beginning of the
19th century, pretty much everyone used quills made out of feathers. Afterwards, the
metal nib replaced the feather almost exclusively. Then the fountain pen, which held a
reservoir became popular and replaced the dip pen.
Writing and writing instruments were an entire culture and a way of life, which included
using animal-based writing mediums like vellum and parchment, ink, blotting paper,
blotters, sand, salt, inkwells, quill stands, special knives, writing desks, etc. Not to
mention a variety of professions that specialized in producing all these items. As each
element of that culture gradually changed or disappeared, it all became less personal
and more industrial. Afterall, nobody thinks of making their own pens or pencils at
home. There feeling of holding a feather quill you cut yourself vs. a plastic pen is just
incomparable. Feathers are unique, completely biodegradable and renewable.
Not all feathers are created equal,
however. Birds have a surprising variety of feathers that
have different functions. There are some that we are all familiar with, like the tail
feathers of roosters, or peacocks, down feathers that are fluffy and warm. But for
writing quills the preferred type is the main flight feather, called “pinion”.
For a deeper look at the feather structure, check out the Cornell Ornithology lab’s page
You can use it with the kids when finding a feather trying to see what kind it is, not just
which bird it can belong to.
Roughly speaking, a feather consists of a central shaft and outer “vanes”, those fluffy, or
colored parts we normally call feathers. Unlike Hollywood depictions of writing quills,
those “vanes” were stripped off and the shaft cut to a comfortable size, much like the
size of today’s pens.
Since the quill has to be firm, only the primary flight feathers are used. They are large,
strong, and inflexible. One way to tell is that the vanes are narrow on one side and
wider on the other, but the overall shape of the feather is streamlined and not fluffy.
There are several birds that were historically available to people: chickens, ducks, geese
and swans. Traditionally, though, geese feathers were preferred, probably because geese
were far more numerous than they are now and they were also used for down. Swan
feathers were considered a luxury, but with the introduction of turkeys from the New
World, many used them instead.
When it was time to pick a national symbol, it was a toss up between the eagle and a
turkey. Although we know which one won, the turkey was considered, in part, because it
is a very smart bird, it is pretty confident and unique to North America. Contrary to
popular belief, it can fly perfectly well.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” is a popular expression, which is
also a good way to remember that the word “goose” refers to a female of the species.
“Getting goosed” also has a lot of merit, since geese are notorious for nipping, and
nipping hard when annoyed. The name for the geese that are on the ground and while
flying are dif erent. When they are on the ground they are called a “gaggle”, while
when they are flying they are called “skein”.
Not all swans are white, some are black, like an Australian specie. Swans are
monogamous and are known to be vicious when protecting their nests or mates. A male
swan is called a “cob” while the female is called a “pen”. When the swans are on the
ground they can be called a “bevy, while flying, they are called a “wedge”. The ugly
Duckling is, of course, about a swan.
For a full list of most animals male/female/of spring names and their corresponding
groups, this site a good reference.
Regardless of what bird your feather came from, the steps of cutting the quill are pretty
much the same. Some are thicker, some are thinner, but all of them are still feathers, so
it does not matter, as long as they are not too soft to begin with.
If you happen to have a real pen knife laying about doing
nothing, go ahead, put it to work. Those have a slightly curved side, while being totally
flat on the other. Knives with both flat sides are not really pen knives, in the original
sense. Chances are you are not one of the lucky owners, so you can probably use any
sharp knife you are comfortable with. I used a utility knife because practically
everyone has one at home. No need to get any new toys, um, specialty instruments just
for this project. But there’s certainly an idea for a Christmas gift….
Picking a feather:
In my experience, the turkey feather was the best. When I cut the goose feather, it
worked fine, but somehow, the turkey one was bigger, stiffer and more substantial to
hold. There are also right or left oriented feathers, depending on which wing they came
from. You can try holding one like you would a pen and see if it makes a difference. It
didn’t for me, but depending on the curve of a particular feather you have, it might.
Using broken feathers, as long as there are no longitudinal cracks, are okay, since you
will be trimming them off anyway. The first quill I cut was about 2 years old, so it was
very dry and stiff. Newer ones may be a bit softer, so for them, soaking might be useful.
It has been recommended to leave the fresh feather in a cup of boiling hot water for
several hours. The water cools off, but that’s OK. The idea is that the shaft will harden
further. You can also wash it or sanitize it, depending on where it came from, I would
advise you do whatever would put your mind at ease. I used a toothbrush reserved for
cleaning with soap and water to scrub my feather.
Prepping for cutting:
Although you can strip away all the vanes (the feathery pieces on the sides of the shaft)
away, I chose not to do it. I just trimmed off the parts that would be otherwise in my
hand when I held it, but otherwise, the height of the feather, mine was about 12”, did not
get in the way, nor for my 6 yo daughter.
Hold the feather in your hand as if you were going to write with it. This position will
determine where you have “front” and where you have “back” of the quill. Using any
super sharp cutting device, I used a utility knife with a fresh blade, cut away about 1.5”
from the tip at an angle to make a sharp cut about 1′ long or so in the back. The tip will
look like a ballerina standing on pointe. There is no precise calculation here, you just
have to make a cut to begin. You can always recut and adjust it later. Hold it again to
see whether it is a comfortable.
About ½” from the tip, you will cut each side separately, making it look like cleavage.
As if you were cutting a waist into it, except it should have a sharp end now.
Now cut off the sharp tip, slightly, to result in a bit of a blunt end. That would determine
how wide your line is going to be when you write. You may be tempted to leave a very
sharp edge, but, trust me, you can always turn that blunt edge slightly sideways and
achieve a fine line, while leaving a sharp edge will make it too weak and will wear out
Lay the feather on its front side, so that the open cut part is looking up. Cut off the tip in
this position, which will prevent damage to the feather.
If you are right handed, make the right side a tiny bit shorter (cut at a slight angle), to
make the quill touch the paper flat on. If you are left handed, then the left side should
be a little shorter.
However, all these details can be adjusted later.
The last cut is made through the middle of the tip about 1/4” into the tip, parallel to the
shaft. This is done to help the quill retain ink, through capillary action. Lay the quill on
its face, with the undersides looking up, and press the knife firmly down to make the
Congratulations! You got a quill! Now, just like a tailored suit, it needs to be tested and
adjusted, if necessary.
In all the ones I made, I made small adjustments after writing something with the ink in
each one. Sometimes, the first cut was too short, in others the tip was too wide, or the
second cut was too close to the tip, etc. Eventually you will have to cut again anyway,
since paper blunts quills, unlike parchment or vellum.
The best part is that feathers are a cheap, clean and sustainable material. Practicing is
not hard and just requires some experimentation.
This is a very detailed and fairly easy to see and follow video of making a quill for
It is important to remember two cardinal rules of working with natural materials:
1. Each piece is unique. They are individuals, with particular qualities and
characteristics. Do not expect uniform results based on prior experience.
2. When the process seems straightforward and simple, it usually is very
accessible and easy to begin. But mastery might take time. There is no
inherent talent in mastery, only a strong desire to try again.
So, how do you persuade a bird to give up a flight feather, albeit for a good cause?
Anyone familiar with geese will tell you that they are ornery, fearless and are quicker to
pick a fight than a drunken sailor. I would advise against trying to talk one out of a
feather. Swans, despite the romantic depictions of “dying swan” ballet heroines, are
very territorial and can stand at 5′. Turkeys, although equally large and often
defensive, do fly well and may be difficult to start a conversation with, on account of
being passed over as a national symbol in favor of that “other” large bird.
However, they are all shed their feathers once a year to grow brand new ones. Geese do it
some time in the summer and for several weeks can’t fly. Knowing where water fowl
hang out may be a good place to go look for feathers.
When they are out of season, you can either try looking for a farm where they are raised
and plucked before they reach the dinner table, or you can buy some. Many smaller
farms that raise water fowl may have some laying around and may give some away.
Others might charge, but these feathers serve no purpose to the farmer, so they are often
thrown out, unless someone can appropriate them for crafts.
A couple of years ago we visited a friend’s farm Upstate NY and my daughter really
loved the large wild turkey feathers laying about. We picked the biggest one and
brought it with us. In spite of being played with and generally manhandled since then, it
was in a surprisingly good shape when my daughter decided it was destined to be the
first quill I cut and the first feather quill for both of us. It also became my favorite.
There are plenty of choices on www.ebay.com for all kinds of feathers from all kinds of
birds, they just have to be primary flight feathers, which are often not the most
showiest. I had later realized that Michael’s sells goose feathers that are dyed to look
like eagle feathers. (Look in the section where they sell feather boas. They sell white
goose feathers with dyed tips to simulate eagle feathers).
Just remember: any and all parts of birds of prey are illegal to possess, so feathers of
eagles, hawks, etc. cannot be collected in the wild or even bought from someone.
But the funnest way is, of course, to find them. The beach offers many seagull feathers,
often lost in scuffles, and provides a fun way of experimenting with something found.
My daughter liked a pigeon feather, although it was a bit too small and not really very
stiff, it was something she found and was able to use in a meaningful way, which is
what is important. A friend told me that he was very proud when his daughter wrote her
name for the first time with a crow feather quill he cut for her.
Looking for feathers for a quill may be a great excuse to get out into the great outdoors
and explore. There may be unexpected finds both big and small.
Now, no feather in our path is safe from the possibility of becoming a quill. While we
had begun making our own writing implements, we discussed and she decided that we
also needed to make our own ink, but that’s a different story.