The art of cutting and curing a quill pen wasn’ t entirely lost with the advent of metal nib pens, fountain pens and ballpoint pens. Calligrapher and book artist Nancy Leavitt of Stillwater possesses that knowledge and uses it to create her art. Leavitt also uses conventional pens in her calligraphy work.
“Until about 1900,” Leavitt said, “everyone had a pen knife and knew how to make their pens.”
Leavitt will demonstrate the making of quill pens on Saturday at Leonard’ s Mills in Bradley.
In 2004, Leavitt was awarded a Good Idea Grant from the Maine Arts Commission for her project, “Cutting a Thousand Quills.” The goal was to locate, prepare and test the feathers of Maine wild and domesticated fowl for use as writing quills. In her proposal she stated that she wanted to learn how to legally acquire feathers, how to sharpen a pen knife and how to cure and cut a quill.
This isn’ t as easy as it sounds. First of all, not just any fowl will do. Leavitt needed the feathers of wild and domesticated turkeys, Canada geese and domesticated geese.
The first obstacle was getting the feathers of wild turkeys and geese.
“The Migratory Bird Treaty Act regulates the gathering and use of the feathers of wild fowl,” Leavitt said. The act says that all migratory birds and their parts, including eggs, nests and feathers are protected by the United States government.
Only feathers from birds that have been hunted by licensed hunters — but not molted feathers found in the forest on the ground — legally can be used. Enter the power of advertising.
“Uncle Henry’ s [the publication no real Mainer can do without] brought some nice people who hunt,” she said, who supplied feathers for her project. “I still get calls from people asking if I want more.”
Not all feathers, it turns out, are created equal. Only the first four or five wing feathers are of the right quality for making quill pens. And with turkey feathers, it’ s the first four or five feathers of the left wing because, Leavitt said, “they fit better in the hand” of a right-handed quill pen user.
A pen knife, Leavitt said, is designed in such a way that it allows straight cuts and curved cuts for shaping the quill pen nib. The break in the center of the nib is a crack, not a cut.
Leavitt learned the skill of cutting a quill from her mentor and teacher, Peter Halliday of Burton-upon-Trent in England.
“I’ ve studied with him since 1979 when I first became interested in calligraphy,” she said. “You have to cut a lot of quills to get it just right.”
Leavitt said the best quills are made from swan feathers because they are longer and thicker and make “tougher pens.”
Several years ago, she went to a 600-year-old swannery at Abbotsbury, England, to an annual roundup of swans belonging to the British royal family.
“When the birds molt and become flightless for a period of time,” Leavitt said, “the swans are very gently herded onto land, penned, tested for health, treated if needed and returned to the water.”
Leavitt was one of the many volunteers who helped carry the 931 swans, weighing 14 pounds to 28 pounds each, back to the water. “It was a fairy tale experience,” she said. To relax while she carried the birds, Leavitt hummed very softly. In response, the swan in her arms wrapped its neck around hers.
Among Leavitt’ s many accomplishments as a calligrapher using a quill pen was a commission in 2001 to create a proclamation marking the establishment of the National Register of Historic Trees, a document that President George W. Bush and other dignitaries signed at Mount Vernon, George Washington’ s home in Virginia.
The quill pen, Leavitt said, has remained the most supple and responsive writing tool since medieval days.
Leavitt will demonstrate the art and craft of making a quill pen during “The Maine Woods: Forestry and Paper-Making,” 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, at Leonard’ s Mills in Bradley.
The event celebrates the history of papermaking in Maine. University of Maine professor Bill Livingston of the School of Forest Resources will give a talk on the topic, “What’ s Wrong with My Tree.” Forest tours will be conducted and representatives from Lincoln Pulp and Paper will help visitors make paper.
After Leavitt cuts the quills, visitors will have the opportunity to write with a quill on Maine-made paper.
For information about Leonard’ s Mills and its programs and events, visit www.leonardsmills.com.