We’re sure you enjoy quilting as much as anyone out there, but did you know that there’s a long, storied history behind many of your favorite quilt patterns? It might seem silly at a glance, but there’s some intriguing backstory buried beneath famous names like Jacob’s Ladder and Bear’s Paw.
You might never know it, but the quilting tradition stretches back to Biblical times, with a rich tapestry (pun intended) of humanity running all the way up to today. We want to begin by talking about one of the most well-known patterns because it has an unusually twisty story.
Jacob’s Ladder was first discussed in writing in a 1915 book called Quilts : Their Story and How to Make Them, by Marie Webster. It was the first authoritative book on the subject, making the claim that this pattern got its name from the Bible. At the time, Biblical names were popular for quilts for the same reason they were everywhere else in culture: reading the Bible was a big part of everyday family life in America. It seemed like a good assumption, but it turns out that she may not have been right.
The real origins of the pattern are a bit more interesting. In 1929, a writer named Ruth Finley described the Jacob’s Ladder as having a pre-Revolutionary origin, but this idea has been shot down by modern quilt historians. In fact, no example of a quilt with this pattern has been identified before the 20th century, making it a lot more modern than most would assume.
This brings us to the core mystery behind Jacob’s Ladder. Finley noticed that the same pattern was often called the Underground Railroad, bringing to mind the story of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, making the brave trek north toward Canada where runaway slaves could be free. While the pattern was unknown during the early 1800s, before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps this was evidence that it was originally named in honor of this harrowing chapter of our country’s history?
Quilts with similar patterns were common in that era, so perhaps the Underground Railroad evolved from a shared ancestor. The name honors the brave people who escaped slavery and helped others do the same, granting an extra layer of importance to the classic pattern. The significance of this part of American history can never be understated, so it’s encouraging to learn that such a common quilt pattern pays homage. We can nod to our shared history while crafting something beautiful for our own families and friends, in times of struggle or otherwise.