by Marie Claire Bryant –
What We Know, What We Believe, and What Inspires Us.
According to legend, a safe house along the Underground Railroad was often indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill. These quilts were embedded with a kind of code, so that by reading the shapes and motifs sewn into the design, an enslaved person on the run could know the area’s immediate dangers or even where to head next.
Bow Tie = Dress in disguise to appear of a higher status.
Bear Paw = Follow an animal trail through the mountains to find water and food.
Log Cabin = Seek shelter now, the people here are safe to speak with.
I can see the promise of such a system. Nimble fingers working in secret, armed with needle and thread, doing their part for freedom. I want to believe it happened. Some do, and maybe it did, but others question the authenticity of such events.
Sharon Tindall is a Virginia-based quilter, educator, and one in a tradition of contemporary quilters who design textile works inspired by this “quilt code.”
“When I’m creating a quilt, I’m focused on the purpose of the quilt,” she says. “I’m thankful I am able to create something of comfort.”
Tindall hopes her handmade quilts hanging in the Johnson House, a crucial station on the Underground Railroad and now a National Historic Site in Philadelphia, embody the spirit of the house and the presence of those who passed through. Built in 1768 in the heart of Germantown, Johnson House’s woodwork, flooring, and glass are all original to the house.
“You really get a sense of enslaved people there,” she says. “I walked around where they slept, where they ate. You feel their presence. I want to convey a message of hope, freedom, love for the slaves.”
At its center, a quilt is an assemblage of historical and creative cues in the form of fabrics, shapes, symbols, textures and colors. Tindall uses combinations of cottons, raw Dupioni silks, Swarovski crystals, natural fibers, Malian mud cloth, and even glitter to convey the spiritual, intangible components of her narrative compositions. For Tindall, the quilts become vehicles for the voices and footprints of people running for their lives.
Some historians float the issue that many of the quilt patterns cited as directives for enslaved peoples probably did not yet exist during the height of the Underground Railroad, between 1850 and 1860. Based on surveys of quilts made during these years, the evidence for some of these patterns just isn’t there, breaking the spell of this captivating story.
Twining-Baird specializes in kente cloth quilts made on the Sea Island chain off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but she maintains a firm stance on quilt codes.
She encountered an old quilt that “was stitched like it had been sewn with a crowbar.”
“It was a map, of course! The wide woolen stitching lines were roads.”
Regardless of the disputed history, Tindall and other quilters have been making coded quilts: glimmering, spiritually charged, stop-you-in-your-tracks, hanging textiles based in deeply believed and debated historical events.
Perhaps the code, true or not, is a vehicle for African Americans to explore the trauma they inherited—and the hope.
Marie Claire Bryant is a poet, storyteller, and archivist interning at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.