by Katie Hartman
Quills are part of the basic materials needed to create a medieval manuscript. Their use and creation were a basic part of the scribe’s daily work and the quill is usually regarded to be the symbol of the scribal trade. Typically, medieval quills were taken from geese or swans. The best feathers for making a quill are the first five flight feathers, or primaries. For a medieval scribe in Europe, goose feathers were probably most commonly used because they were easy to get, but swan was considered to be superior. In North America, turkey feathers have been quite popular for quills. Other species of birds, such as owls, crows, and macaws may also give suitable feathers for quill making.
To make a quill, you need a decent primary flight feather—goose or turkey would be easiest to find today. Craft stores and fly fishing shops often carry a variety of feathers. However, there are people who save feathers from when their birds molt and you can find them for sale on craigslist, Etsy, and other online sellers. If you are into the concept of using a whole animal when it is killed, there are some hunting reserves that save the feathers and pelts from the animals killed on their property to sell if the hunter does not want them. Butchers may also sell you the feathers if they process the animals themselves. If you live in a rural area or go hiking often, you can keep an eye out for feathers that the birds have shed and you can wash them when you get home.
The feathers will need to be prepared, cut, and then dried. There are various methods for drying or preparing a quill for being cut, these include: 1. Drying over a long period of time, 2. Curing, and 3. Dutching. The easiest method is to simply let the feathers dry for several years, but this isn’t an optimal situation for those of us who don’t want to wait that long. Curing and Dutching are the answer to this. I will be covering two methods of curing in this blog post, dutching in a second one, and the cutting of the quill in a third. In this post I will cover curing a quill with sand and curing a quill in the microwave. Please note that there are many methods for curing a quill with sand. Some people prefer to use the stove while others use the oven, it may take some experimentation for you to find your preferred set up. The method provided here was adapted from The Historical Handbook for Scribes by Brown and Lovett, The British Library Companion to Calligraphy Illumination & Heraldry: a History and Practical Guide by Lovett, and posts from the blogs of The Pensive Pen and Her Reputation for Accomplishments. For a discussion of curing quills on the stove, see the Wet Canvas forum post listed in the bibliography.
For Preparing the Feather
A glass or jar of water
A crochet hook or knitting needle
Exacto knife or quill knife*
For Sand Curing
Silver or white sand
Large heat proof mixing bowl , baking dish, or pie pan, at least two and a half inches deep
Oven preheated to 350°F
For Microwave Curing
Preparing the Feather for Curing or Dutching
- Wash the feather– wash the feather in warm water with a mild soap, such as Dawn dish soap, in order to remove dirt and other gunk. Using a small dish brush or a clean toothbrush can help lift persistent dirt.
- Dry the feather– pat the feather dry.
- Cut the feather– with your scissors or a sharp knife, trim the top of the quill so that it is about 9 in in length.
- Remove the long barbs– gently remove the barbs from the shaft of the feather. You can simply pull the barbs off with your hands or you can trim them with scissors.
- Cut the barrel– cut the tip off the barrel (the bottom of the feather shaft) with your scissors. THIS IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT IF YOU ARE USING THE MICROWAVE METHOD. IF YOU DO NOT CUT THE END OFF THE BARREL THE FEATHER MAY EXPLODE.
- Remove the membrane-Take the crochet hook and insert it into the barrel of the feather, gently scrape the inside of the barrel to pick up the interior membrane and pull it out through the open end of the barrel.
- Scrape off the waxy outer layer– using your fingernail, blunt side of your scissors, or blunt side of the quill knife, remove the outer waxy layer of the feather’s barrel.
- Soak the feathers– take your cup or jar of water and place the feather in it, barrel end down. Make sure that the water fully covers the barrel. Let the feather soak overnight.
At this point the feather is ready to be dried, cured or dutched.
Curing the Quill with Sand
- Prepare the sand– Put enough sand in your chosen heat proof container for it to be about two inches deep. Put the dish with the sand in the 350°F oven. Let it sit in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
- Dry the feathers– Take the feathers out of the water and dry them so they are not soaked with water.
- Check the sand temperature– when the cook time on the sand is up, check the temperature with the thermometer. It should be at about 220-250°F. Some prefer to heat the sand up 300°F, it may take some experimentation to find what you prefer.
- PLUNGE THE QUILLS– once you are satisfied with the temperature of your sand, remove it from the oven and place on a heat safe surface. Take a quill in one hand and the spoon in the other. Carefully pour a spoonful of sand into the barrel of the quill and plunge the barrel end quickly into the sand.
- Timing-There seems to be no general consensus about how long to leave the quills in the sand. Some advocate for leaving them in for a minute or less while others say that 20-30 minutes is ideal. When the quill has been in the sand for the right amount of time, the barrel should have changed from a milky, opaque white to a semi translucent yellow and should feel stiff.
- Remove from sand– Remove the quill and shake out the sand from the inside. The barrel should now have a yellow-ish, waxy, semi-transparent appearance and it should feel stiff and unyielding. You may now move on to cutting the quill.
Curing the Quill in the Microwave
- Microwave the Quill– after preparing the quill, following the steps above, place the quill on a microwave safe plate or paper towel. Microwave the quill for 10 seconds at a time, checking its progress as you go.
- Remove the Quill-remove the quill from the microwave once the barrel has lost its milky white color and is instead yellow-ish, waxy, and semi-transparent appearance. The quill should also feel stiff and unyielding to pressure from your fingers. The quill is now ready for cutting.
Citations and Bibliography:
Brown and Lovett. The Historical source Books for Scribes. Toronto-University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Clemens, Raymond and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Cornell University Press, 2007.
Lady Smatter. “How to Ruin a Feather to Make a Pen.” Her Reputation for Accomplishments, 21 June 2014, https://herreputationforaccomplishment.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/how-to-ruin-a-feather-and-make-a-pen/.
Lovett, Patricia.“Materials and Equipment .” The British Library Companion to Calligraphy Illumination & Heraldry: a History and Practical Guide. The British Library, 2000, pp. 13–34.
“Quills and Quill Knives.” Patricia Lovett MBE: Calligraphy, Illustration, Design, 14 Apr. 2018, www.patricialovett.com/quills-and-quill-knives/.
Quills. “Curing a Quill.” Wet Canvas forum, Oct 2005. http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=513710
“Quills — Experimentation.” The Pensive Pen, 29 Dec. 2013, www.thepensivepen.com/2013/12/playing-with-quills.html.