quill2As a writer of historical fiction, I find that walking in my characters’ shoes enriches the authenticity of my work in ways research cannot. Take, for example, the stunning letters of the past. I could write a scene that includes a writer’s quill pen gliding fluidly across a page, and you might accept it with no further thought. But how much more authentic is that same scene when I show you chronically ink-smudged fingers and let you hear the scratch of a nib and the tink! of the quill in the inkwell? A light smattering of these little gems deepens your reading experience (I hope!), and I love bringing them to you.

Today’s “hands-on research” project had to do with quill pens. I already have some experience here, because about a hundred years ago, I owned a calligraphy business called “Julie’s Inkwell.” I was the lady who penned your wedding invitation envelopes. I added your names to certificates and awards, and turned poetry into something pretty you could hang on your wall. I even drafted a few marriage proposals that romantic gentlemen rolled up and tied with ribbons and a ring.

As a modern calligrapher, I had an array of metal nibs at my disposal. My ink was smooth and fast-flowing. Ancient scribes had only quill pens and homemade ink (often made from oak galls and iron filings), which they used in rotten lighting. Truth be known, their worst works outshine my best. The Book of Kells is so perfect legend claims angels created it. You can see why, can’t you?

KellsThe humble quill pen has been around a while. It was widely used into the 19th century. I’ve often wondered how they were made, so when my boss (at my day job) decided to go on a murderous rampage in goose season, I asked him to save me the wing feathers.

Making a quill pen turned out to be much easier than I was led to believe. Experts claim you have to temper the feathers first. I did this for some and found it made no difference in quality. I did, however, discover that goose feathers make much better quills than turkey feathers. This could be due in part to my turkey feather’s age. I found it in the woods several months ago. The goose feathers were fresh.

If you want to make a quill pen (and who doesn’t!), you’ll need a fat feather. This means wing tips. Strip off some of the feathers (or all, if you want, but I think a plume is cool). Take an angled slice off the tip of the feather, pull out the membrane, cut “shoulders” tapering down to the nib, split the nib with a long slice, and trim it to a nice chiseled shape. That’s it. When the nib becomes worn, move up the quill and repeat the process.

quill3Your nib should look something like the picture above. My “shoulders” aren’t the best here, but the pen did just fine.


As you can see by my letters, I found it difficult to maintain consistent ink flow, even using modern ink. Props to those ancient scribes.

A few final thoughts:

1)   Did you know a “pen knife” got its name from small knives favored for shaping quills?

2)   Did you know most schools don’t even teach cursive writing anymore?

3)   Did you know that back when supplies and postage were expensive, people wrote letters across the page in one direction, then turned the page 90 degrees and continued, thereby creating a cross-hatched letter? Imagine trying to read this:


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