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When African-American master quilter Sharon Tindall, 55, of Centreville began noticing that her self-inspired quilt patterns did not resemble traditional ones, she started questioning how they had been influenced.

“I generally seemed to use different textiles, colors and patterns than traditional quilters, and wondered why my quilts were so unlike other quilters’ pieces,” she said. “I was curious.”

Her curiosity led her to begin researching the history of quilting patterns until she made an astounding discovery.

“I found out that quilts with colors and patterns most like mine descended from African-American slaves who used coded patterns in quilt blocks to pass information along Underground Railroad routes,” she said.

Her examination and research of these quilt codes has since taken her to such places as Charleston, S.C., and Monrovia, Liberia.

“In Liberia, I came across an elderly gentleman who explained to me that by using certain colors and patterns, messages could in fact be conveyed through quilting patterns, and often were,” she said. “The genesis of that idea was indeed African.”

According to Tindall, because most escaped slaves in the U.S. could not read, coded quilts sewn by former slaves were designed with these escapees in mind. Quilts that hung in plain sight on clotheslines and porches contained secret codes that enabled the runaway slaves to follow paths to their own freedom; letting them know what to expect around the next bend, or offering them guidance as they made their way via the Underground Railroad.

Tindall says certain popular Underground Railroad patterns are documented as meaning certain things.

“The ‘Drunkard’s Path’ or ‘Solomon’s Puzzle’ pattern for example, was a way of telling travelers to travel by the river in a crooked line — as would a drunkard,” she said. “Others, such as the ‘Monkey Wrench’ or ‘Wagon Wheel’ pattern, would instruct them to get their tools together in a bundle and prepare to travel the next leg of their journey hidden in a wagon.”

Tindall received professional textiles training at Montclair State University in New Jersey and has more than 25 years of experience in quilting and sewing. She enjoys sharing her passion for textiles as an instructor, speaker and commissioned textile artist. She teaches for G-Street Fabrics, Northern Virginia Community College and Morgan State University in Baltimore, but says it was not until her discovery of the Underground Railroad codes that she began to comprehend how her own quilting was influenced.

“Now I understand that my quilts reflect my style and my unique heritage,” she said.

Seven quilts designed and created by Tindall are currently on display at the Manassas Campus of Northern Virginia Community College through Feb. 28 in honor of Black History Month. The exhibition is free and open to the public 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. The campus is at 6901 Sudley Road. For more information, contact Barbara Lash at blash@nvcc.edu or call 703-257-6657.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com