For local artist, quilting is a connection to the past

When Sharon Tindall looks at a quilt, she sees more than just stitching and cloth. She sees an ingeniously coded path to freedom.

Tindall has studied the theory of quilt codes, the idea that slaves on Southern plantations sewed patterns into their quilts that other slaves could use as maps of the Underground Railroad. Although the existence of such quilts has been denied by historians, Tindall and others think the code was real. And Tindall does more than think — she creates such quilts herself.

Her rich, colorful creations, hand-sewn using fabrics from all over the world, as well as scraps of her outgrown dresses, make use of patterns that have been popular since before the Civil War. She sells them at special events for $175 to $800. Tindall has studied the fabric crafts of many cultures; she even taught a quiltmaking class for diplomats at the Indonesian embassy in the United States, who sent their creations home to donate to poor children in their country and gave her some Indonesian fabric in exchange.

But Tindall is most fascinated by antebellum slave quilts, particularly the idea that they could convey messages that white plantation owners would never understand. “You could see this, and I could see this, and it means two different things depending on where you come from,” she said.

Tindall, 55, of Centreville is an administrator at Northern Virginia Community College by day and a quiltmaking instructor there by night. To mark Black History Month, the college’s Manassas campus is showcasing several of her quilts.

One of the quilts on display uses five patterns, known as “North Star,” “Flying Geese,” “Drunkard’s Path,” “Charm” and “Catch Me If You Can.” Tindall said that the dark blue background of the North Star block would have told slaves to follow the North Star at night, and the light blue background of the Flying Geese pattern would have told them to follow birds so they could keep walking north by day. The wobbling Drunkard’s Path is an instruction to cut a zigzag path, which would be harder to track than a straight line. The remaining two blocks stood for luck and speed, respectively, Tindall said.

Another quilt includes a jagged shape representing mountains, then a more open design representing a cotton field — indicating that escaping slaves would see a cotton field after climbing a mountain and know they were on the right path, Tindall said.

Tindall said she became convinced that quilt codes had been used as a means of communication among slaves when she traveled to Liberia to teach a quiltmaking course and met a weaver teaching at the same center who wove messages into his cloth.

Tindall thinks that the Liberian weaver knew how to encode messages in cloth because the skill has been handed down in Africa for centuries, and that Africans who were taken to America and sold as slaves brought the codes with them. Only during the tumult of the Civil War did the art disappear in America, she thinks.

She plans to explain that theory in a book, after another trip to Liberia to research her conjecture. “I know that it’s true,” she said. “Some researchers say that it’s not. I have the proof that it is.”

“The Underground Railroad Quilt Codes: Fact or Fiction?” is on view this month from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Northern Virginia Community College, 6901 Sudley Rd., Manassas. Free. 703-257-6657.

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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