A quill pen is a writing implement made from a moulted flight feather (preferably a primary wing-feather) of a large bird. Quills were used for writing with ink before the invention of the dip pen, the metal-nibbed pen, the fountain pen, and, eventually, the ballpoint pen. The hand-cut goose quill is still used as a calligraphy tool, however rarely because many papers are now derived from wood pulp and wear down the quill very quickly. It is still the tool of choice for a few professionals and provides an unmatched sharp stroke as well as greater flexibility than a steel pen.
In a carefully prepared quill the slit does not widen through wetting and drying with ink. It will retain its shape adequately and only requires infrequent sharpening and can be used time and time again until there is little left of it. The hollow shaft of the feather (the calamus) acts as an ink reservoir and ink flows to the tip by capillary action.
The strongest quills come from the primary flight feathers discarded by birds during their annual moult. Generally the left wing is favored by the right-handed majority of writers because the feather curves away from the sight line, over the back of the hand, although because of the modern scarcity of substantial quills this is rarely a consideration as the curvature is not actually so pronounced as to cause any difficulty in the writing process.
Goose feathers are most commonly used; scarcer, more expensive swan feathers are used for larger lettering. Depending on availability and strength of the feather, as well as quality and characteristic of the line wanted by the writer, other feathers used for quill-pen making (but only in the USA) include feathers from the crow, eagle, owl, hawk, and turkey. On a true quill the barbs are always stripped off completely on the trailing edge. (The pinion for example only has significant barbs on one side of the barrel.) Later a fashion developed for stripping partially and leaving a decorative top of a few barbs. The fancy, fully plumed quill is mostly a Hollywood invention and has little basis in reality. Most, if not all, manuscript illustrations of scribes show a quill devoid of decorative barbs, or at least mostly stripped.
Quill pens are still used today mainly by professional scribes and calligraphers.
Quills were the principal writing instrument in the Western World from the 6th to the 19th century. The best quills were usually made from goose, swan, and later turkey feathers. Quills went into decline after the invention of the metal pen, which was first patented in America in 1810 and then mass-produced by 1860, although mass production began in Great Britain as early as 1822 by John Mitchell of Birmingham.
Quill pens were the instrument of choice during the medieval era due to their compatibility with parchment and vellum. Prior to this the reed pen had been used, but a finer letter was achieved on animal skin using a cured quill. Other than written text, they were often used to create figures, decorations, and images on manuscripts, although many illuminators and painters preferred fine brushes for their work. The variety of different strokes in formal hands was accomplished by good penmanship as the tip was square cut and rigid, exactly as it is today with modern steel pens.
It was much later, in the 1600s, with the increased popularity of writing, especially in the copperplate script promoted by the many printed manuals available from the 'Writing Masters,' that quills became more pointed and flexible.
According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, 20 goose-quill pens, neatly crossed, are placed at the four counsel tables each day the U.S. Supreme Court is in session; "most lawyers appear before the Court only once, and gladly take the quills home as souvenirs." This has been done since the earliest sessions of the Court.
Quills are denominated from the order in which they are fixed in the wing; the first, called the pinion, is that favoured by the expert calligrapher, the second and third quills being very satisfactory also. No other feather on the wing would be considered suitable by a professional scribe.
Information can be obtained on the techniques of curing and cutting quills
"In order to harden a quill that is soft, thrust the barrel into hot ashes, stirring it till it is soft; then taking it out, press it almost flat upon your knees with the back of a penknife, and afterwards reduce it to a roundness with your fingers. If you have a number to harden, set water and alum over the fire; and while it is boiling put in a handful of quills, the barrels only, for a minute, and then lay them by."
This very brief description from 1823 is not an accurate depiction of the process. Why would one press an already round quill flat, then try to make it round again? An accurate account of the Victorian process by William Bishop, one of the last London quill dressers, is recorded in the 'Calligrapher's Handbook' cited on this page.
A quill knife was the original primary tool used for cutting and sharpening quills, known as 'dressing'.
Following the decline of the quill in the 1820s, following the introduction of the maintenance-free, mass-produced steel dip nib by John Mitchell, knives were still manufactured but became known as desk knives, stationery knives or latterly as the name stuck 'pen' knives. There is a small but significant difference between a pen knife and a quill knife, in that the quill knife has a blade that is flat on one side and convex on the other, which facilitates the round cuts required to shape a quill.
A 'pen' knife by contrast has two flat sides. This distinction is not recognised by modern traders, dealers or collectors who define a quill knife as any small knife with a fixed or hinged blade, including such items as ornamental fruit knives.
 See also
- Crowquill pen
- The spiny barbs of a porcupine
- In a zoological context, a spine is a hard, needle-like anatomical structure.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Quills|
- A brief history of writing instruments "Quills were only used for a week" Completely wrong. Like saying a pencil is used for a week. Quills were used until they were worn away too.
- Quill Pens the 18th Century Way
- Tutorial on Medieval method of creating quills