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May-June 2006 Selected Content

Hands-On Learning - Kathy Ceceri

Early American Paper Quilling

Back in Colonial America, hobbies were serious business. Whether they were taught at home or at school, girls were expected to learn their own kind of three "R's": refinements, recreations, and reading novels. As author Felice Hodges writes in her interesting book Period Pastimes: A Practical Guide to Four Centuries of Decorative Crafts, the well-bred daughters of New England's wealthiest families didn't cook and clean; they had servants to do that. And they certainly didn't go out and get jobs - attracting a husband was supposed to be their main occupation. Instead, these ladies of leisure filled their days dabbling in "the pretty arts," such as needlework, music, dancing and watercolor painting. One of the most popular hobbies of the time was "quilling," the art of making designs using curled-up strips of paper.

Quilling's strange name comes from the quills used to roll the paper strips back when the artform came over with the English colonists. In Europe, where some accounts trace it back to Medieval nuns who recycled the gold-tipped edges of pages from holy books, it is known as "paper filigree." But whatever it is called, the work it produces can be very elaborate and versatile. Magazines and pattern-books of the time were filled with instructions for quillwork designs that could be used to decorate trays, tea caddies, fireside screens and tables. Furniture makers created jewelry boxes, mirror frames, and entire cabinets with special panels meant to be filled with mosaics made of the paper scrolls.

Lucy Steele, one of the characters in Jane Austen's 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility, even uses quillwork to show her good breeding when bullied into making a present for her hostess's little girl:

Lucy directly drew her work table near her and reseated herself with an alacrity and cheerfulness which seemed to infer that she could taste no greater delight than in making a filigree basket for a spoilt child.

Today, quillwork is used to make greeting cards, earrings, mobiles and holiday ornaments. You can buy inexpensive quilling tools and quilling paper in all widths, colors and textures, as well as more specialized devices for sizing curls and fringing paper. But special tools aren't really needed - all it takes is everyday craft materials and some imagination. And the technique can be mastered in minutes.

First, you need to make the paper strips. Ordinary copier paper is fine for beginning quillers, and comes in pastel and neon colors as well as white. Cut the paper into strips the long way, a few sheets at a time, using scissors, a paper cutter or a shredder. The younger the quiller, the wider the strip: half-inch-wide for little fingers, quarter- or one-eighth-inch for more experienced crafters. You only need two or three sheets to get started.

Next, prepare the work area: Each quiller should get a piece of wax paper to work on (it protects surfaces and keeps the glued quillwork from sticking to the table), a flat toothpick, and a rolling tool. Round pencils, drinking straws and narrow cocktail straws make good rolling tools; round toothpicks, tapestry needles or hatpins will result in tighter rolls. You can also roll strips without a tool, just using your fingers (good for making solid dots). A damp sponge in a dish can be used for moistening the paper (we just lick it). Squirt a small amount of white glue onto a corner of the wax paper and place the quilling strips within reach.

Now begin rolling: Slightly moisten the tip of the paper and place it on the rolling tool. Wrap the paper strip around the tool all the way up, evenly and tightly, until it looks like a dollhouse-sized roll of toilet paper. Carefully slide the roll off the tool and let it spring open to get the size coil you wish. For a closed coil, dab the tip of the flat toothpick into the glue and use it to spread a tiny amount on the loose end. Press the glued end where you want it to stick and hold it in place with your fingers for a few seconds until the glue begins to dry. You can leave the closed coil in a circle, or pinch it to make teardrops, pointy leaves, semi-circles, and diamonds. Look at the illustrations for examples of standard quilling shapes, or make up some of your own. You can also leave the coil hanging open to create scrolls, or roll each end separately for different effects. When you're ready, attach the shapes with more glue into any design you like. Other materials such as shells, spangles and wire can also be added. Go wild! You're not limited to the flowery motifs of the 1770s. Once you get the hang of it, you'll find that quilling is so much fun even the boys will want to join in.

Resources: The Book of Paper Quilling: Techniques and Projects for Paper Filigree by Malinda Johnston has clear instructions and photographs and attractive designs to make. It includes an introduction on the history of quilling, with pictures of beautiful antique quillwork. Online, Lake City Crafts ( is a good source of quilling kits, patterns, paper and tools. One veteran quilling homeschool mom likes to comb their catalogue just to get new ideas.

© 2006, Kathy Ceceri

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Contents Home Education Magazine 1996 - 2012