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Mariner's Compass and Mummies


Have you ever wondered about the history of some of your favorite quilt patterns? I am so fascinated by the historical and regional significance of quilt patterns. Maybe, I’ve been spending too much time on Pinterest, is that possible? ;-) Patterns change over time reflecting history and culture. The same pattern can be known by different names depending on where you live, often enveloped in oral tradition, like Civil War quilts, and influenced by native plants and animals. Crystal did some sleuthing, and we thought we’d share what she found!


Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder is known by multiple names. They all convey the excitement of moving from one place to another. Names like “Underground Railroad”, “Road to California”, “Off to San Francisco”, “Gone to Chicago”, “Stepping Stones” and “Trail of the Covered Wagon” evoke a true sense of time and place. Often quilt names, like “Jacob’s Ladder”, had biblical names in a time when Bible reading was a daily activity. “Underground Railroad” is often associated with the Civil War, but historians say the pattern did not exist at that time. Four patches set on point in strips gave the sense of paths and the “Underground Railroad” pattern may have evolved from that earlier pattern.


Bear's Paw

Each claw in the “Bear’s Paw” Quilt block began as a sawtooth border in early American quilts. The sawtooth block appears in many early nineteenth-century quilts, arranged first in strips for borders and later as blocks.


The earliest date-inscribed version is dated 1823. In Ohio, it is called “Bears Paw” due to all the bear stories and bear paw quilts, made prior to 1850. On Long island, NY, it may be called "Ducks-Foot-in-the-Mud" because they have more ducks than bears. Another name is “Hand of Friendship" from the Quakers in Philadelphia. “Bear Paw” quilts have been attributed to a hand signal for the Underground Railroad, but historians says using quilts as directional devices are more folklore than fact.


Mariner's Compass

"Mariner's Compass" is the name quilters use to refer to star designs that radiate from the center of a circle as opposed to the star designs that grow from a square, like "Ohio Star" or "Sawtooth Star". A "Mariner's Compass" should probably have 16 or 32 points like the compass card on a magnetic compass or a map.


This is one of the earliest named quilting designs and is probably based on the windrose, a navigational chart used prior to the magnetic compass. The first known quilt to use this design was made in 1726, in England. Quilts with this design have names like "Chips and Whetstones",

"The Explosion", "Sunburst", and "Rising Sun".


Irish Chain


The "Irish Chain" actually originates in America in the 1800’s but may have been inspired by a Single “Irish Chain” pattern done on point making the chains appear in the shape of squares rather than diamonds.


The space between the chains may be why the quilt is so popular allowing the quilters work to be highlighted or to add signatures for an autograph. 1814 is the earliest known date for an “Irish Chain” quilt in America. The pattern has never lost it popularity over the centuries and is still popular with quilters today.

Double Wedding Ring

The “Double Wedding Ring” pattern may be inspired by a motif of interlocking rings going back to the 4th century. Gimmal rings, also interlocking, were popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. Interlocking rings were seen on ceramics, decorative objects and coverlets in America, since the late 17th century, possibly brought by German immigrants to Pennsylvania. The pattern, first published by Capper's Weekly in 1928, added a bit of romance, writing: "When some good but unknown man conceived the idea of a double wedding ring ceremony it gave his wife an equally good idea.She worked two circles into a double wedding ring quilt."


"Pincushion", a forerunner to the DWR is in the Shelburne Museum and dates 1825-1850. The DWR appears to have been rarely used until the 1920’s, but It is difficult to be sure since the quilt is known by more than 40 names, including: "Rainbow Around the World", "Pickle Dish", "Coiled Rattlesnake", "Endless Chain", "King Tut", and "Friendship Knot". It was first sewn together and appliqued on solid fabric until the beginning of the 20th century when it was sewn as a pieced quilt. The DWR was a great distraction during the Great Depression showing up as kits with precut fabric and featured in many magazines and newspapers.


Log Cabin


Perhaps one of the more interesting quilt patterns in history is the “Log Cabin”. Though associated with the Heartland, and Westward expansion, there is evidence of the “Log Cabin” pattern in Egyptian mummies referred to as the Mummy Theory. In the early 19th century, when the British opened Egyptian mummy tombs they found small animals wrapped in fabric with patterns similar to log cabins. Another theory is runrig farming, beginning in the Middle Ages, with fields were laid out in patterns very close to "Log Cabin" designs.



Like other patterns with historical and regional significance, the “Log Cabin” pattern has multiple names. In the British Isles, it is often called “Canadian Logwork”. On the Isle of Man, they call it “The Roof Pattern”. Other variations are: “Barn Raising”, “Sunshine and Shadow”, and “Straight Furrow”. Early blocks were pieced on foundation fabric, often scrappy, using narrow pieces of fabric. It is easy to construct with scraps or yardage, and the pattern appeals to beginners and advanced quilters alike.

Inspired by everything from travel to animals, quilt patterns and names change as they go from generation to generation. Since they are affected by the history of their time, the materials available, and even immigrant travel patterns, it is difficult to know the true origins, original names, and even what is true or folklore. Regardless of the name, they continue to delight, encouraging new creations and designs. Though the names we know today may not be the names we recognize in the future, our favorite patterns are an expression and tapestry of our shared history, traditions, and experience.

I hope you enjoyed this little trip down history lane :)

For more about these quilts patterns, see: Womenfolk: The Art of Quilting: Quilts and Quiltmaking Yesterday and Today Follow all my quilty adventures on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. Visit my website for free tutorials and tips. If you like my patterns, you can buy them on Craftsy, Etsy, and here on the website.


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Seattle, WA USA

© 2020 Krista Moser.