Harriet Powers – Folk Artist

Harriet Powers Quilt american artist.jpg
Quilt by Harriet Powers [1] 
Appliqué quilt, dyed and printed cotton fabrics applied to cotton. The quilt is divided into fifteen pictorial rectangles. Worked with pieces of beige, pink, mauve, orange, dark red, gray-green and shades of blue cotton.[1]

This extraordinary quilt was created by Harriet Powers, an African American woman who was born a slave in Georgia in 1837. Powers is thought to have orally dictated a description of each square of her quilt to Jennie Smith, who had purchased the first quilt Powers made, and arranged for it to be exhibited at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. This second quilt is thought to have been commissioned by a group of “faculty ladies” at Atlanta University, and given (together with Powers’s descriptions) as a gift to a retiring trustee. What follows is Powers’ descriptions of all fifteen blocks starting in the upper left and moving to the right.[1] For an in depth description on each block of Power’s quilt visit here. 

Photo of Harriet Powers 1837–1910

Harriet Powers used traditional techniques in her quilts to record local legends, Bible stories and astronomical events on her quilts. One of the panels on Powers quilts illustrate the “dark day” of May 19, 1780 (which is now known as dense smoke over North America caused by Canadian wildfires) and the November 13, 1833, as the “night of falling stars” that convinced many terrified Americans that Judgment Day had come, but was later identified as the Leonid meteor storm. Two of her quilts are on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC; Bible Quilt of 1886 and Pictorial Quilt of 1898.[2]

To gain a better understanding about the significance of Power’s quilt you can read “A Sermon in Patchwork: New Light on Harriet Powers” by Gladys-Marie Fry.[3] Below is a brief excerpt from the Fry’s writings that connect Power’s quilt depictions to African tapestries.

harriet powers book excerpt.png

Powers began showing her quilts in 1886. She put her first quilt on display at a cotton fair in Athens. Powers never had intentions of parting with the quilt, but she ran into financial difficulties and sold the quilt for 5 dollars. The woman who purchased the quilt from Powers recorded the meaning of each picture and added in her own personal notes about the quilt. The quilt was later put on display at the Smithsonian Institution. Information about the second quilt is still unclear. One account suggests that it was commissioned by the wives of faculty members of Atlanta University, who had seen the first quilt at the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895.[2]

Powers quilts were hand and machine stitched, they were through applique and piecework. They both tell a story, and had religious meanings behind them. Years later, after Powers learned to read and write, she sent a letter to prominent Keokuk, Iowa woman. The letter shared information about Power’s life as a slave, and talked about another quilt called the Lord’s Supper Quilt. It is not clear if that quilt ever resurfaced or exist today. Powers died in 1911. In 2009, Powers was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame. In October 2010, there were a series of events in Athens, Georgia, around the theme “Hands That Can Do: A Centennial Celebration of Harriet Powers.[2]


[1] https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/pictorial-quilt-116166


[3] “A Sermon in Patchwork: New Light on Harriet Powers” by Gladys-Marie Fry


Additional Sources:


This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and other Pieces by Kyra E. Hicks


Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers



The information on this web-page is for educational and research purposes.  Article entries and images are not my own. Please review sources and links above for more information. This blog post is for educational purposes only and for sharing valuable information to others interested in the arts.

Thank you.


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