The history of paper filigree or paper Quilling is difficult to pin down. Though speculation abounds about the earliest paper quillers and their materials, there is little definitive evidence. Knowing the creativeness of human nature, it seems likely that the art of rolling, folding, crimping and shaping paper strips would occur fairly quickly after the invention of paper. Because precious metals were already used to create intricate metal filigree, it is reasonable that some creative mind would apply similar techniques to paper. But fire and moisture are enemies for paper, and the dampness of early dwellings was not kind to early paper filigree work. The earliest piece of preserved paper filigree pictured by my sources (Florian Papp and Christy/Tracy ) was created in the 1600’s, but Christy/Tracy also noted references to pre-17th century work given in books written in the 1800’s.
Tradition holds the art form began in religious houses, and it seems plausible. (The term 'houses' and 'communities' used here refers to monasteries, abbeys, convents, and/or temples of an organized, communal nature and NOT to private residences of devout individuals.) Throughout the Medieval period and well into the Renaissance period begun in the 16th century, religious houses were recognized repositories of learning and scholarship. This was true not only in Western culture, but for most major religions throughout the world. Religious communities, temples and monasteries served as ‘custodians’ of knowledge. As such, copying, illuminating and preserving early manuscripts was an important focus of religious communities. Naturally there would be a supply of paper, parchment or vellum to support this literary work. When a page was trimmed for a manuscript or scroll, the precious scraps would have been saved rather than discarded. Some artistic soul with restless fingers likely began fiddling with these strips, discovering the delightful artistry of rolls and scrolls. Indeed, the quiet repetitive nature of paper filigree makes it highly compatible with the contemplative lifestyle of religious houses. The fact that paper was invented in the Orient around 105 AD and given the amazing dexterity and creativity with paper demonstrated within many Asian cultures, the art of paper filigree may have been practiced in the Far East well before it was ‘discovered’ in Western culture.
Despite the popular claim of numerous Internet sources that the early European quillers trimmed gilded edges from their Bibles to create paper strips, this seems highly improbable. Firstly, prior to the invention of the printing press, copies of the Bible were extremely rare. Each required a year or more to hand copy, so it is unlikely that a church or religious house would possess more than one or maybe two copies, and small parishes may not have even possessed a complete Bible. (Around 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented a moveable-type printing press and printed about 180 Bibles in a year’s time, though each copy still underwent the labor-intensive process of hand-illustration and illumination.) Secondly, the Holy Bible was held in such reverence (indeed, books in general) that the idea of a monk, nun or lay person cutting off gilded edges is very suspect. Such an act would have been considered irreverent, possibly even sacrilegious. While there is no concrete proof to support these objections to the commonly stated folklore above, the alternative theories offered in the previous paragraph seem more in keeping with the medieval mindset and values. However, until some historical account sheds light on its early history, there is no way to verify the origins of paper filigree, and vastly different theories and speculations will continue to circulate.
Most sources maintain that early work was used on religious articles like reliquaries, icons and possibly alcoves and niches in chapels and churches. Christy & Tracy reference anecdotal stories of elaborate paper filigree work in old European churches but could find no concrete documentation, photos, or records to verify this information. Since paper filigree can easily mimic the appearance of intricately carved ivory or, when the edges are gilded, fine gold metal filigree work, it is probable these were early uses of the art. There are many antique reliquaries with paper filigree, but most that are currently on display or in photographs were created in the 19th and early 20th century. Interested readers may view some exquisite examples here and here . At least one piece shown is attributed to the 1600's. (Special thanks to Regina Ribeiro for recently sharing these links). It is very likely that numerous reliquaries and other paper-filigree items created before the 19th century exist but are not available for public viewing, reside in private collections which have not been photographed, or the photos are not readily accessible on the internet. Paper filigree items are occasionally listed in offerings through famous auction houses. The writer recently stumbled this photo of a paper-filigree embellished cabinet from George III (this link also provides very good historical information). Interested persons traveling in Europe might inquire about paper filigree artwork at any historical church/monastery/convent they are near, in hopes of discovering a hidden treasure. Visitors to the famous Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City should be on the lookout for the framed paper filigree pictures hanging on display in the Vatican Museum (many thanks to Viviane Casale for sharing this information on the Yahoo ‘Quillers’ group, post #69430). Also, the Quilling Guild in the UK has published a list of places throughout Europe where one may view antique paper filigree.
In the 17th - 18th centuries, paper filigree moved beyond its religious origins, but the limited availability of paper and the time-intensive nature of the art restricted its practice mostly to wealthy, noble or royal families. It is verified that Princess Elizabeth (daughter of George III) purchased papers and a box to embellish. In addition, some 18th century finishing schools taught paper filigree along with other artistic subjects. In the Victorian Era (1837-1901), well-bred women in society, seeking diversion, would fill the long hours between social engagements with creative pursuits that included paper filigree, and numerous patterns were published in ladies' periodicals. Victorian women always had a tool nearby, for many rolled coils with their hatpins! In addition to framed artwork, items such as wall sconces, tea caddies, furniture, cribbage boards, and decorative urns were often embellished with paper filigree. Family crests were a common motif, along with flowers, borders and elaborate festoons. Paper filigree also went by the name paper mosaic and mosaicon; William Bemrose wrote a book by that title in 1875. Renown author Jane Austen referenced paper filigree in Sense & Sensibility(1811)
The art was carried to the American Colonies and several wall sconces from the 18th century still survive. Modern sources often claim that paper filigree took on the name 'quilling' in the Colonies, because papers were rolled on goose quills. However, in studying pictures of colonial quilling, the centers generally seem smaller than a goose quill would yield. It is possible that quills from smaller feathers were used, though the short length would make it more difficult to grasp and small feather quills are somewhat flimsy. This artist wonders if colonial women used porcupine quills as needle tools, which would still lend the name 'quilling' to their work. This is purely speculation but does seem probable; porcupine quills were used in traditional Native American bead work and would have been both visible to generate the idea and available--versus metal pins and tools which were likely imported from England. (An internet search for ‘quilling’ will reveal examples of Native American art with porcupine quills. Confusion between paper filigree and Native American quilling is also why ‘quilling’ is a less accurate and less preferred term than ‘paper quilling’ or ‘paper filigree.’)