Quill-Work or Quilling?

This delicate craft had been known for more than five hundred years when it became popular once again in the late eighteenth century. A popularlity which continued right through the Regency, especially among gently-bred ladies of the upper and middle classes. Though the materials and techniques of the craft remained fairly consistent, the names by which it was known did not, causing some confusion, particularly in the new United States of America.

A popular Regency paper craft, its names, materials and techniques . . .

This craft is believed to have originated in the Middle Ages, probably in the thirteenth century, in convents and monasteries across the Continent and Britain. Nuns and monks rolled narrow strips of paper into coils or scrolls which they gently shaped, then glued in place to form designs which looked very like delicate filigree patterns worked in precious metal. These designs looked even more like metal filigree when the strips of paper used were gilded or painted gold or silver along the upper, visible edge. These filigree designs were used to decorate various religious and devotional objects, such as prayer book covers and reliquaries. Due to the fragile material of which they were made, none of these early objects have survived into modern times.

The craft declined in popularity in Britain over the next few centuries, probably due in large part to the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the fifteenth century. Despite his supression of the religious orders in Britain, King Henry’s action did not eradicate this delicate paper craft, which survived to flourish again in the mid-seventeenth century, primarily among the ladies of the upper class. It was at this time that this craft aquired the second of its names. Through the late Renaissance it was known primarily as paper filigree, but by the seventeenth century, it was also known as quill-work. This second name is almost certainly the result of the tool which was used to roll the paper strips.

It is not certain if any tools were used in the making of paper filigree in the Middle Ages, but in seventeenth-century England, many ladies used quills as a tool around which to roll the paper strips. They may have used old or broken quill pens with the nibs cut off, which would have been an ideal tool. A small slit could be cut across the open end of a quill into which the end of a paper strip could be slid to hold it firmly while the strip was wound around the quill. Goose quills would have been ideal for making large or loose coils, while crow quills, which were used to make very fine point quill pens, would have been perfect for making small or very tight coils. The use of such a tool would have resulted in much more even and precise paper coils or scrolls than would have been possible making them only with the fingers.

The use of quills would have been a perfectly natural choice by ladies at this time since they also used lengths of quills as we use bobbins or spools today. Yarns and threads were typically sold in large hanks or skeins, from which shorter lengths would be cut for use in various types of needlework. These cut lengths would be wound around quills to keep them clean and untangled in a lady’s workbox until she was ready to use them in her embroidery or other needlework. Since paper filigree was often combined with one or more forms of needlework, especially embroidery, it would not be a stretch for ladies who enjoyed both crafts to employ similar tools for both. Therefore, by the second half of the seventeenth century, paper filigree was more usually refered to as quill-work, particularly when offered by women who worked as governesses to upper class families or by the better finishing and boarding schools.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, quill-work was carried to New England, where it was taught in a number of schools for young ladies. But back in Britain, it was once again falling out of favor, only to be revived yet again near the end of the century. In 1786, The New Lady’s Magazine, Or, Polite and Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, published "The Guiding Assistant to Paper Filigree-Work." The article noted that " . . . it affords an amusement to the female mind capable of the most pleasing and extensive variety; and at the same time, it conduces to fill up a leisure hour with an innocent recreation." It is more likely that this article was published to take advantage of a renewed interest in the craft rather that triggering the revival. However, it was at about this time that it was no longer considered acceptable for upper and middle class ladies to involve themselves directly with household duties. Therefore, these women now needed fashionable "innocent" leisure activities with which to fill their time. Quill-work was easy to learn, required few tools and the materials were expensive but readily available. More importantly, it was considered an acceptable pastime which would not put undue strain on the female mind, yet its artistic aspects would improve their taste. Even Princess Elizabeth, one of the daughters of King George III, was allowed to take up quill-work.

In fact, a great many young ladies took up quill-work at about this time. So many that special items were produced which they could ornament with their handiwork. Tea caddies, fire screens, workboxes, small cabinets and chests of drawers, portable writing desks, wall sconces, picture and looking-glass frames, wine bottle coasters and jewel boxes were specially made by cabinet-makers for the purpose. All had shallow recessed panels on the front, top and/or sides into which paper filigree designs could be placed. These objects were available for sale in many cabinet-makers shops and they were often advertised in ladies’ magazines. In addition, these items were regularly ordered in significant numbers by boarding and finishing schools for the use of their students. Other wooden objects which have survived from this period that are heavily decorated with quill-work include cribbage boards, small tables and even a few full-size cabinets. Some ladies even used chipboard panels covered with paper filigree as the base of an elegant reticule, often combined with an upper section of an ornate or heavily embroidered fabric.

Quill-work was often combined with other craft techniques such as embroidery or painting. In addition, other materials might be used to enhance the appearance of the finished piece. Backgrounds were made of colored sand, crushed glass, layers of foil or velvet, mica and even flaked shells. Prints were frequently incorporated in large designs. A popular technique was to surround a circular or oval cut out from a print with paper filigree patterns. Miniatures, cameos and even dried or pressed flowers were sometimes used instead of a print cut-out. Family crests and coats-of-arms were often worked in paper filigree, typically set in a frame which might also be decorated with quill-work.

From the late eighteenth century well into the nineteenth, quill-work remained popular with upper and middle class ladies of leisure. The term paper filigree was still used, but by then the craft was also called paper rolling. In addition to the diary and journal references of various ladies of the time, Jane Austen herself made mention of this craft, in her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. In the first chapter of the second volume of that novel, Elinor Dashwood offers to roll papers for Lucy Steele, who is making a filigree basket, in order to have a few minutes of private speech with her. Did Austen also enjoy this craft herself, or did she merely use it in her story to indicate to her readers that Elinor and Lucy were both well-bred young ladies?

But by the Regency, it was not just proper ladies of leisure who were engaged in quill-work. Objects decorated with paper filigree had become so popular that they were being made commercially, for sale in the shops to those who did not have the time, skill or inclination to make their own. It is likely that at least some of that work was done by women in straitened circumstances in order to support themselves. At an even further remove from proper young ladies, there were quite a few French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars who filled their time making quill-work items. In some prisons, they were allowed to sell or trade their wares for better food, laundry services and other small niceties to improve their lot.

A lady who did quill-work during the Regency would have invested a lot of time in her craft. She would have had to cut paper into narrow strips of an even width before she could begin rolling them to make the coils and scrolls which she would use to make her delicate designs. Irregular shapes might be made with the fingers, but most coils and scrolls were wound around a quill so that the finished piece was even. Some quills in a lady’s workbox might have a slit cut across one end so that she could slip the end of her paper strip into it, thereby holding her paper strip firmly while she wound it. But she might also have a few uncut quills for instances when a cut quill would not suit. Once that lady had made the coils and scrolls, she would gently pinch them into the shapes she needed for her project. Then, they would have to be glued together into the shapes she wanted and be left to dry. After the glue was dry, the shapes would be placed on the background of the object to be decorated in the pattern the lady intended and the whole design would be glued in place. The edges of the work might then be painted or gilded to add to the elegance of the design. Even a small quill-work project could take several hours. Examples of early quill-work objects can be seen on the Quilling Guild’s History of Quilling page.

Quill-work, paper filigree, or paper rolling. All of these names were used for this craft during the Regency, in both Great Britain and the United States. The term quilling was also in use at that time, but it did not refer to this paper craft. In the Regency, quilling referred only to winding thread on a quill or the gathering or setting of a strip of ribbon, lace or cloth into circular folds or pleats, similar to what is known as ruching today, but was done on only one edge of the ribbon or lace. In the mid-nineteenth century, in the United States, quillwork came to have another meaning. It was used to refer to the technique by which North American Indians decorated their garments using dried, softened and colored porcupine quills in a manner similar to beadwork. By that time, paper quill-work was once again falling out of favor in the United States, though it remained popular in England through the end of the century. It was not until quill-work was revived once again in the United States in the mid-twentieth century that it began to be called "quilling," first in the United States and then in Great Britain.

Therefore, Dear Regency Authors, if you enjoy the craft of quilling today, you can certainly share it with the characters in your books. However, they will have to call it quill-work, paper rolling or paper filigree, if you wish them to be historically correct. They will also have to work much harder at it, since they will not be able to buy pre-cut paper strips as do modern-day quillers. Nor will those Regency quill-workers have access to the range of tools which are available to twenty-first century quillers. Most Regency-era paper rollers would have made most of their own tools, using quills they purchased at a stationer’s shop. They might also have made their own glue, though by that time many stationers’ and colormens’ shops sold glue ready-made. Most ladies would have purchased the items which they decorated with paper filigree from a local cabinet-maker, though ladies who lived in the country might make their purchases via mail order from advertisements in ladies’ magazines, unless they had friends or family who would make such purchases for them when in the city.

How might quill-work figure in a Regency story? Perhaps a poor but genteel young lady turns to quill-work to support herself and her young siblings. She puts all of them to work helping her to cut the strips, roll them, make the filigree designs and glue them in place. A local shop-keeper purchases the items to sell in his, or her, shop and the family is able to make ends meet. But what will happen if the local busy-body, or the villain, discovers what is going on and threatens to expose the young woman as being involved in trade? Or, mayhap, like Elinor Dashwood, a young man who wishes to speak privately with a young lady, offers to help her roll papers for a quill-work project while her family is gathered in the drawing room. The young couple sit off to one side, at her work-table, chatting quietly together, while cutting and rolling paper strips, a seemingly innocent activity. Then again, what would happen if a young lady purchased a quill-work object made by a French prisoner-of-war and discovered a message hidden within it? Might that message be a love letter to his betrothed, with a request to the person who finds it to forward it to her? Or might it be something more sinister, such as intelligence on British military emplacements or strengths, since the object had been intended for a specific buyer? Will she be in danger from the intended buyer? How else might this play out?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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7 Responses to Quill-Work or Quilling?

  1. I suspect that the glue bought as amber coloured chunks and melted gently in a glue pot, fitted into the outer glue pot that held water, was superior to PVA. I have used it and it sets very hard. I brought quilling into ‘Friends and Fortunes’ where my main heroine, a bit of a tomboy and no good at needlework, makes a quilled glove box for her betrothed and rolled shapes sewn together as a reticule for her sister. Her brother mentions sailors using playing cards from decks too short of cards to use as cards any more, very short strips of course! not as exciting as your plot bunnies here… I just used it as background.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The amber chunks sound like hide glue, which was made from animal hide. Making it was a long, smelly process, which is why folks were willing to pay a bit more to buy it in what was a ready-made format at the time. It is very stable and has incredible holding power, which lasts for years, even decades and centuries.

      Though most quill-work was done with fairly thin paper, which would roll easily, I can see sailors using short decks of cards for their quill-work. As I am sure you know, but others may not, playing cards of that era were not the plastic-coated and ornamented decks of which we are familiar today. Playing cards of that time were printed on a thinner, untreated card stock which could be used to make paper filigree. In fact, that heavier paper might have fared better in the hands of sailors than the thinner paper used by ladies for their quill-work.

      You are welcome to post a link to your book here, for those who would like to read a story in which quill-work figures, even if it is not necessarily integral to the plot.



  2. French prisoners of war making quill-work items to sell or trade them for better food, laundry services etc …. There is an espionage plot-bunny, of course: Secret messages will be smuggled out of prison via the quill-work.
    For the more romantic, a French prisoner and an English lady buying these work items will fall in love. The French prisoner would design a lovely piece with the lady’s portrait to please her. The quill work, however, is taken by a jealous gentleman before the lady can see it. Will there be a kind keeper at hand to secretly snatch it back from the gentleman and hand it over to the lady, with compliments from theFrench prisoner

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I definitely like your ideas. Much promise in your scenarios. Especially if true love conquers all and there is a very happily ever after.


    • A variation on that would be a quill work or straw work box bought as a gift for a lady who wants to know who made such an exquisite thing, and manages to meet the prisoner involved and falls in love…. perhaps against her inclinations

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        I love those romances where the heroine and/or the hero fall in love in spite of themselves! There are so many interesting ways in which that can play out.


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