I sent away for some goose feathers and they arrived yesterday. There are numerous guides to their preparation on YouTube which should allow me to make a good quill. I have a small, thin-bladed knife – a gift from a kind friend – which should be perfect for the cuts one must make to prepare the point. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

I used to have sight of birth, death and marriage registers dating back to the middle of the 19th century. At that time all entries were made by quill pen and they included the best handwriting I have ever seen. Every entry was a work of art. Clearly there was much more to that high quality of writing than the use of the quill, but it must have played a part.

Each registrar would have had the skill to cut his quill to suit his hand and the way he (they were all men in the early years) wrote. This, it seems to me, is a better way than adjusting your hand to the unchangeable metal nib later registrars used. The style and quality of the handwriting declined as the years went by.

For most practical purposes the metal nib, whether of the steel dip variety or the gold nib housed in a fountain pen, were short-lived Johnny-come-latelies in comparison with the many centuries when the quill was what writing was produced with. Were they an improvement? I think that they were, but some artistic quality may have been lost when the quills were laid away.


12 thoughts on “Feathers

  1. Interesting subject. As always in your blog.

    I wonder whether “custom cut” quills were (from an artistic quality point of view) in fact superior to steel pointed pens. The following fascinating article suggests that it was difficult to create “pointed” quills that were suitable for copperplate script, and that the quills that survived steel pens were mostly broad edged: https://pennavolans.com/pointed-or-broad-which-is-the-best-nib-to-write-copperplate/


    1. That’s a very interesting article, Hans. Thank you for the link. I’ll have to spend some time on it. All I can say is that they were writing very beautifully in the middle of the nineteenth century and I don’t think registrars were using steel nibs then.

  2. A well-cut nib is a joy to use, on a celestial level compared to a fountain pen, BUT it takes a sensitive and educated hand, the correct ink, and the right paper. Needless to say, I have yet to master its subtleties.
    Bearing in mind that quills were used for centuries I wonder at the modern fashion for pens like lead pipes in weight and touch.
    FWIW I think that the Mabie Todd pens were named ‘Swan’, ‘Blackbird’, and so on as a carry over from the days of quills when the size of the quill was related to the species of bird it came from.
    This is a fascinating topic and I look forward to further posts.
    Fraternal greetings to Tuppence from the antipodeans.

    1. It will doubtless take quite a lot of practice before I can even produce a useful quill at all. There are many references in the pen world to birds and their feathers. I expect that swan feathers were among the best for quills but not blackbirds – too small. Similarly jackdaw feathers would be marginal but rook or raven feathers would be good. Tuppence would send a tip o’ the hat if she had one…

  3. I bought some readily prepared feathers to practice calligraphy. It made me respect ten folds (to put it mildly) the talent of these artisans.
    I saw in a couple of documentaries where they showed several documents from the 16th and late 18th centuries. Each letter/ word had so much character.
    Mine in contrast were pitiful….

  4. Deb. I’m lucky here to have access to any number of Pelican feathers ! These are varied in size from small to huge.
    The very big ones would be perfect for practicing quill cutting and …….I’ve been meaning to get round to having a go at it for some time…. I did stick the business end of a dip pen into one and it holds and writes well, but that’s a bit of a cheat.
    I’ll send some attempts as soon as I do.

    1. We often find pelican feathers washed up on beaches in south-eastern Australia. The big ones make good quills, as do goose, turkey and swan (discarded ones only, of course.) Our common seagull pins are usually too small.

  5. After reading your interesting post I wondered if seagull feathers could be used. I live by the sea and spot them on beaches from time to time. Nothing immediately as yet on the specific link to ‘seagull’, but plenty on advice on making quills. Problem for myself is that I cannot actually touch feathers comfortably. It’s not an aversion to be challenged and remedied. There is a very good reason why psychologically. After looking at some Google sites’ advice on quill making, this project of yours to try it out looks fascinating. Be very interesting to see how it develops for you. All the best.

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