Humbug - A Quilt Pattern

Humbug - A Quilt Pattern

The humble humbug with a murky past.  Deception, poisoning and slavery.

Let me start at the beginning as you will probably be wondering how this is all linked to my free Humbug quilt pattern. Which if you haven’t got your hands on it already, you can download the free quilt pattern HERE. You’re welcome!  

Three Humbug quilt tops hanging on a ladder.  Green, grey and yellow

So, the Humbug.  There were a couple of options when it came to naming this quilt.  ‘Bah Humbug’ or just plain ‘Humbug’.  

Originally I wanted to call the quilt, ‘Bah Humbug’. The term uttered by the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge in the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.

The origins of the word meaning to trick, a deception.  Which I felt suited this quilt design.  The Humbug Quilt is deceptive in that it looks like it is more work than it actually is. This quilt is fast!  I would go as far as to say it is the fastest quilt top I have ever designed. Depending on how quickly you quilt and bind I reckon it could be considered a quilt in a day.  Certainly for the smaller sizes.  A bold claim indeed, I know!  

And if it were not for some bright spark trademarking the phrase ‘bah humbug’ in 2019… that is what it would be called.

From there I went down a rabbit hole looking at the history of the humbug sweet which uncovered a surprising and unfortunate past.

grey stripe humbug quilt top by Lucy Engels

Firstly the obvious link between the quilt top and the hard boiled sweet (candy for my US audience) is the stripes.  Traditionally black and white striped, and mint in flavour.  The boiled Humbug sweetie was a favourite amongst us Scots and the UK as a whole.  Personally I found the way they always seemed to be warm and produced from a pocket or handbag enough to conjure up the dry boke.  They all stuck together in one big congealed mass.  And lets not forget the choking risk they posed. (I was a risk averse child..)  But that is not the only risk the humbug has ever posed to the unsuspecting consumer.


Let me tell you about the Bradford Humbug poisoning of 1858.   When unsuspecting sweet eaters were poisoned after “Humbug Billy’ accidentally made and sold sweets containing arsenic.  

At the time the price of sugar was high.  And it was common place to substitute ingredients to bulk up the sweets. These substitute ingredients were commonly called ‘draft’.  Which could actually be plaster of Paris.  These inferior sweets were apparently sold at a cheaper rate.

Now, Humbug Billy, who was a maker of sweets, took delivery of some ‘draft’ to bulk up his humbugs.  Unknown to him there had been a mix up and he had been supplied with arsenic trioxide instead.   Unfortunately he went on to make and sell tainted sweets. 

Word has it that each sweet contained enough arsenic to kill two people.  Needless to say several lives were lost and around 200 people were affected by the poisoning.  ‘Billy’ was a contender for the name of the quilt for a while. 

three humbug quilt tops hanging on a ladder - quilt design by lucy engels 2022

From there I was led to the sugar trade in Scotland.  Scotland is famous for its’ sweet tooth and became a power house during the 18th century sugar trade.  It is home to many old fashioned sweets such as the humbug, sour plooms, couters candy to name a few. 

This is where things got very murky.  Many Scottish merchants became extremely rich off the back of sugar.  Which really is not something to be proud of given that this wealth was directly related to slavery.  I feel I haven’t done enough research to comment on what went on and with who concerning the sugar trade in Scotland and UK.  But it has to be noted and recognised.  I can guarantee it was not good.  Another sordid dishonest history of the rich getting richer due to the exploitation of other people.  Which continues today...

Humbug indeed.  

So, for quite different reasons than when I started I settled on simply naming my quilt Humbug. 

For further reading see below.  Down the rabbit hole you go!


three humbug quilt tops hanging

humbug noun (DISHONESTY)

dishonest talk, writing, or behaviour that is intended to deceive people:  the usual political humbug. I know humbug when I see it.




Naive melody quilt pattern by lucy engels



Further reading: Early Glasgow Sugar Plantations in the Caribbean, STUART M. NISBET, Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1/2 (2009), pp. 115-136 (22 pages), Published By: Edinburgh University Press

The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775–1838- Stephen Mullen

And there is an actual sweet historian if you want to indulge further in that side of the tale.
Sweets: A History Of Temptation Paperback – 1 April 2004
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1 comment

thank you for this! i love words and the history of words… and often find myself ‘down a rabbit hole’ to borrow the phrase. …and i love the pattern, looking forward to making mine!

Barb Ballantyne

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