Feathers and Quills

Quill pens are known to have been in use from as far back as the 2nd century B.C and began to lose their popularity sometime during the 19th century due to increased production of the metal pen. (History of





On its own, out of context, this may seem to be a pointless piece of information and like many of the facts we are encouraged to nail down in our brains at school, is likely to be forgotten in a few weeks because seriously, how many people need to know or use that information daily? How many were even interested in the first place? My guess is very few. So why am I sharing these inert facts about the history of quills with you now?

This summer my three-year-old son has been fascinated with feathers. From every outing we have been on, without fail, he has managed to bring home at least one feather all varying in shape, size, colour and texture. Some were gifted to relatives, some we turned into art, others we used to create an Indian head dress (inspired by our family read aloud ‘Little house on the Prairie’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder), we considered making a nest with them but I really was running out of ideas and getting quite tired of picking up stray feathers that had migrated into every room of the house. I was at the pinnacle of wishing he would stop bringing them home but somehow could never refuse them entry as they always brought such joy to his little face.

What were we to do with them all?

One day, as we sat to lunch, M was playing with a few feathers by my note pad when an idea struck me; I spoke aloud “People used to write with feathers and ink. We don’t have any ink. I wonder if paint would work?” His eyes caught mine and the corners crinkled as a smile spread across his face. He was silent but his whole demeanour had changed he was alive with curiosity. I struck the iron whilst it was hot. Jumped up grabbed the water paints, tipped some water into a few of them, got a feather, dipped the pointy end into the black paint and put it to paper. We were away.   

Now its important to point out my son likes to paint but his interest is never held for more than 2 minutes before he is off again, washed his hands and moved on to some other task. 40 minutes at least he was engaged in painting this day. Together we played, laughed, experimented, mixed colours, he tried to copy my shapes, patterns and letters and he even decided he would use the feathery end to paint with which had some awesome results. We’d found something to do with the feathers and finally got his attention for an extended period on something other than the TV or Thomas trains! Victory!


When my Nan came to observe what we were up to she said something along the lines of “They use much bigger feathers to make quills you know and the tips should be cut and shaped. A lot of preparation goes into making them.” I knew there had to be an explanation as to why we didn’t get the best lines or much ink out of one dip of the feather but I wasn’t really aiming for perfection. It was a spontaneous organic feat.  Yet  her critical analysis of our activity raised questions inside of me ‘When were quills in mainstream use? How were they made? Who wrote with them? Are they still in use today? Did people historically choose more carefully what words they put to paper as writing with a quill seems to take far more time, skill and practice than it does to write with today’s version of pen or pencil?  I was curious. I was inspired. Together little man and I consulted google, researched, looked at pictures of quills and discussed this little snippet of history on and off for the rest of the day. Feather painting was his new go to activity the following days also. This enjoyment and acquisition of knowledge probably wouldn’t have occurred or at least not in the same way without that little boy’s curiosity and slight obsession with feathers and equally without my stopping and taking the time to observe his reactions – to let him indulge in his passions.


The words quill, calligraphy, dead sea scrolls, 2nd Century, a fallen feather, a golden eagle, a pen, ink, water colours will now and forever be connected in my mind with this big breakthrough for us and with the importance of child inspired, family shared education. I hope somewhere in the future in one way or another it will have had a lasting impact on the little ones also.


Next time your child finds something he loves that is starting to drive you a little bonkers, maybe instead of a hindrance it could be a lever to inspire you to dig that little bit deeper. To find a way to use their passions and yours to connect, fuel and ignite the love of learning in you both.



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