Christmas cards, pins, ornaments: Seniors learn the lost art of quilling

Christmas cards and intricate snowflake ornaments are simple and inexpensive to make with quilling, an 18th century art that manipulates paper into different shapes. At one senior center in Wisconsin quilling students are empowered by the fun and interesting skill.

Dan Lassiter/The Janesville Gazette/AP
Quilling instructor Theresa Niles displays a few of her completed pieces on Oct. 10, at the Beloit Senior Center in Beloit, Wis. The Beloit Senior Center coordinator launched a class to help others learn more about the little-known craft.

Paula Schutt's interest in quilling was sparked 30 years ago after her sister-in-law sent Schutt and her husband several hand-quilled ornaments for their Christmas tree.

"We were newly married and I was very impressed with such a personalized gift that she obviously spent a lot of time on," Schutt said.

Since then, Schutt has seen the art of quilling used in a number of ways, and the feelings those early gift brought her has lingered through the years.

To scratch the itch, the Beloit Senior Center coordinator launched a class to help others learn more about the fascinating craft.

The Art of Beginning Quilling started in September, led by instructor Theresa Niles of Beloit.

Niles, who is self-taught, learned this 18th century art while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Okinawa, Japan.

"When I worked part time in a small craft store with books that was part of the (base exchange) on the military base, I took the book (about quilling) home and taught myself," she told The Janesville Gazette (

"It's manipulation of strips of paper into different shapes," she explained.

An October class focused on quilling fish, ducks and turtles on the front of a child's greeting card.

To get started, Niles gave each of her three students a pattern to mount on foam board, which was covered with wax paper and held in place with pushpins. Then students were given a foot-long strip of paper to roll around a quilling pen.

"When you get it as long as you want, pull it off, glue the end and squeeze the paper to shape," Niles explained.

Quilling is all about maneuvering the paper, she said.

"Roll it up but don't roll it hard because we want the fish to be airy and not solid," Niles said.

"Is this too tight?" asked Helen Thom of Beloit.

"No," Niles said. "It'll just be a smaller fish."

"Is that good enough?" asked Bert Sadler of Beloit, holding up her quill pin wrapped in a colorful strip of paper.

"That looks good," Niles praised.

Next, Niles instructed the women to slide the rolled up strip of paper off the quill pin, squeeze both ends and glue them on the wax paper to create the body of the fish. For fins, they tore the strip of paper they had left in half and rolled it on the quill pin.

"Do we glue the end?" Sadler asked.

"You always glue the ends," Niles explained.

"This is going to be for my great-granddaughter," Sadler said. "She likes fishies."

Even those who have a difficult time with dexterity in their fingers will find it is not as difficult as they thought it might be to quill, Niles said.

"You can have the shakes, be old and have arthritis and you can quill," she said. "I've even taught school kids to do this. People think they can't do it, but they tried and they could."

Such was the case with Inez Hanson of Beloit.

"It looks complicated, but it's fun," she said. "I'm enjoying it very much and doing it at home on my own even with my arthritis. I just take breaks."

Thom said she was intrigued by the art of quilling and has found it fun and interesting.

"It gets me out of the house and is something different than crocheting," she said.

Although Thom said her eyes sometimes get tired when she quills and crochets, she takes a break before resuming.

Niles explained the appeal of this paper art form, which first became popular in Europe where ladies of leisure practiced the art.

"It's a doable, inexpensive small-area craft anybody can do," she said.

Each week, the class that has been averaging four students has made greeting cards, a poinsettia pin, a snowflake ornament and quilling art for a picture frame.

Another reason quilling is popular is that it doesn't take much space to store quilling supplies, and they don't cost much, Niles said.

"You can buy store-bought one-eighth-inch-wide paper strips or cut up any paper— gift wrap, newspaper, programs, colorful advertisements in the newspaper — you have to one-sixteenth-inch to half-inch strips and roll them on toothpicks instead of a quilling pin," she said.

Other supplies include a basic quilling book from a craft store, quick-dry glue— no glue stick or school glue — scissors, quarter-inch thick cardboard or foam core board from a craft store and wax paper.

"I'd like to see this craft revived," Niles said.

And that most likely will happen, she said, "since all the inexpensive crafts are getting more popular because of the economy."

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