I’ve learned how quills were manufactured into pens in Jane Austen’s era but, since the industry has fallen off somewhat of late, I need to find out how I can make my own at home!
When quill pens made from feathers were in widespread use, they were just called pens. “Quill” meant a large feather that could be made into a pen. Jane Austen doesn’t mention the word “‘quill” at all, but uses “pen” frequently.* Many items now sold as “quill pens,” especially for weddings, are fancy feathers attached to a modern writing instrument. I’ve seen everything from ballpoint pens to steel dip-pen nibs at the end of an ostrich feather! When I talk about a quill pen, I mean a feather that has been cut at the end to form a nib to dip into ink. No other materials are added in the process. In fact, many users trimmed off most of the feathery barbs from their pens. Contemporary paintings show a wide range of trimming styles, but I’ve never once seen a fluttery ostrich-type feather.
A Culture of Quill-Use
The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor includes a paragraph headed ‘How to make a Pen,’ but it opens with the discouraging sentence: “This is gained sooner by Experience and Observation from others who can make a Pen well than by verbal Directions.” Another Young Man’s Best Companion (and Guide to Useful Knowledge) tells me “In this a few practical lessons from a skilful maker and mender will be of more service than any verbal instructions.” Well, thanks. Some “Best Companions” you turned out to be! Sure enough, I found the directions provided by both books to be baffling. At that moment it really came home how the skills I’m trying to acquire were part of the everyday fabric of life for people in the 18th century. Any pupil of writing would have seen quill pens being used and mended by others many times before she turned her hand to it. Well, I may not have a culture of quill-using to fall back on, but at least I have the internet! Modern-day calligraphers came to my rescue again- I found several helpful how-tos that I’ll link to as I go.
Step One: Acquire Appropriate Feathers
I bought a few goose wing-feathers from a lovely etsy shop called The Arte of the Booke. The seller, Nancy Hulan, specializes in medieval and fantasy-inspired work herself, but she has a number of materials for sale that are useful for other historical periods. Some other calligraphy suppliers, like John Neal Booksellers and Paper Ink Arts, sell individual goose quills either raw, processed, or even pre-cut into pens. I live among rolling rural hills, so I have hopes of finding someone who keeps turkeys or geese and will save quill feathers for me. Traditionally, the largest 3-5 feathers of a wing are most useful, and the curve of the feathers from the left wing is best suited for right-handed writers.
Step Two: Temper the Feather
This step reproduces in part the “dutching” process described by Faraday. Without it, the quill won’t form a clean split, which is an essential part of the nib. I didn’t temper my first feather adequately, so the slit was ragged. John Preston, the American writer who had very peculiar notions about his pens, tells me that the zig-zags in a bad slit were called “gander’s teeth!”
It seems like every person who uses quills has a slightly different method of curing. What worked for me (the second time around) was to soak the hollow barrel of the quill in water overnight, then to stick it in hot sand. I learned about this method from this detailed and informative page on Cutting Quill Pens. The author, Liralen Li, found that soaking and then heat-treating the quill makes a very flexible pen.
I bought a bag of fine white sand from a craft store (there is a pebble and sand aisle right next to the fake flowers!) and filled a clean, empty tin can with it. I heated the can in a 350°F oven for about 20 minutes, until a coffee thermometer stuck in the middle topped out at 220°F. After removing the can from the oven, I gently inserted the barrel of the feather into the center. I then left the feather in the sand until the the thermometer told me it had cooled all the way through. I was impatient with my first attempt, which led to the gander’s teeth! I also made the mistake of trying to wiggle the first feather around, stirring the sand with it- that twisted and cracked the barrel so little of it was usable. Once out of the hot sand, the outer membrane was easy to scrape off with the back of my knife.
Step Three: Cut the Pen
This is the part where I really wished I could have half and hour with a writing master from 1800! I liked the simplicity of this Instructable by art professor Andrew Rafferty, but I found this YouTube video by master calligrapher Dennis Ruud the most helpful. UPDATE: Here’s another helpful video by Ewan Clayton (I’m quickly becoming a fan!). I found that I could really only make progress by trying, failing, and then re-reading or re-watching- and repeating the cycle over again. It’s like I couldn’t really see what they were doing until I’d tried to make sense of it with a quill and a knife in my hand. I found that shaving small slices off at a time helped me stay in control, and that a fresh sharp blade was essential.
Step Four: Refine the shape of the nib
Similarly, I only really understood what some of the 17th century images of quill pens were showing me once I’d tried cutting the pen and writing with it. All of the tutorials I’ve linked to have been for symmetrical square or pointed pens, but the Roundhand writing styles require some refinements.
The Golden Thread, a 2013 history of writing by Ewan Clayton, examined the above image in a way that made lightbulbs go off in my head. Clayton explained that the slit usually located in the exact center of the nib was in this case placed off center, so that one side of the nib is wider than the other:
When making a letter the thin upstroke is produced by rocking on to the corner of the larger (and hence stiffer) ‘thumb’ side of the nib and making a thin line extending up to the right. When the nib comes to the top stroke of the letter the whole width of the nib is placed down upon the page to make a thick descending line.
-Ewan Clayton, The Golden Thread (referring to the Alais de Beaulieu image above)
I’d looked at that same image several times without noticing the placement of the slit at all! Once I incorporated these refinements, my quills started to feel like the right tools for the job at hand, which is writing English Roundhand. The next adventure will be practicing my letters!
* My basis for this claim is a word search in the Pemberley.com digital texts of Austen. They’re very handy to use, but I can’t vouch for their absolute accuracy- different editions do vary slightly.