The Grade 6/7 Feather Quill Project

Michelle MacEwen, General Manager

Gabriola Island Recycling Organization (GIRO)

Tuesday, March 27 2018

As part of the ongoing Recycling Program at the school, grade 6/7 students explored “short term plastic products” and their environmental significance.

Examples of these would be toothbrushes, disposable lighters and razors and ballpoint pens.

All these items are made of plastic, they are not refillable or recyclable and are destined for the landfill. Used daily they all have a short lifespan of less than two months.

We explored the plastic ballpoint pen in more detail, looking at the history of the pen from its early beginnings as the “reed pen” 800BC – 400AD, to the invention of the feather quill in 600 AD. The quill was the main writing instrument in the western world until the 1800s when it was replaced with the steel nib, and then the fountain pen.

 The students learned that to make a quill you need a primary flight feather from a large bird discarded during their annual moult. Goose, turkey or swan, were preferable as the shaft of the feather was thicker and could hold more ink, swan feathers were scarce and therefore more expensive. Traditionally most of the feather barbs are removed when making a quill as they would only get in the way when writing.

The word pen is derived from the latin word for feather, “penna”. Each student learned how to carve their own quill using a turkey feather. They then practised how to write the alphabet with their quills and pots of ink. They learned that ink is of equal importance to any writing instrument, as without it nothing would get onto the paper.

Beautiful cursive writing (calligraphy) is an art and this brought out the “Harry Potter” in many of the class, with students stating that while it was more challenging and time consuming to write with a quill, it was certainly more satisfying. Several students asked if they could use their quills in regular class activities! 

They learned that all the fonts in the English alphabet were formed due to the angled shape of the quill nib, which creates thick and thin lines with the up and the downstroke. Over several sessions they worked on writing a letter to someone explaining what the project was about. To finish the project each student made a wax stamp seal using some wooden doweling and oven bake clay for their personalized crest. They then sealed their letters with wax to mail them off in true medieval fashion.

We discussed the benefits of the quill and why it was in use for 1200 years before it was replaced by the steel nib pen. The steel fountain pen is the modern- day equivalent of the quill, and is a recyclable, refillable, reusable pen. The steel ballpoint pen was invented in the 1920s and became popular during the first world war due to its durability.  The 1960s saw the invention of the plastic ballpoint pen and soon these replaced the steel version as they were cheap and disposable.

Billions of pens end up in the landfill each year and we tend to just take it for granted that this is just a part of living in the 21st Century.

However, as the students found out we do have a choice as to what we write with. Whether we choose to go back to using a feather quill, or a steel fountain pen that can be refilled repeatedly and eventually recycled. Or perhaps we choose to write with the good old -fashioned pencil which also has a softer environmental impact on the planet.