The Storytelling Quilts of Harriet Powers

3 Posted by - October 10, 2018 - LATEST POSTS

was an African-American slave, folk artist, and quilt maker. She was born in on October 29, 1837 in Athens, Georgia. For most of her life she lived in Sandy Creek. She had her first child at the age of 18, and would later have eight more with Armstead Powers her husband. It is believed that Powers was a part of the plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester.

women slaves learned needlework either from their mistress or other older black slaves. Most women made the quilts to keep their families warm at night. 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.


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.

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.





  • Dino Dreuitt May 27, 2019 - 8:34 pm Reply

    Good post. Thanks.

  • Ralph Hanshaw June 27, 2019 - 4:47 pm Reply

    Remember my grandmother making quilts that I slepped under very warm

  • Shela Xoregos June 28, 2019 - 8:32 pm Reply

    August 25 to September 15, 2019 in NYC a play, Quilting the Sun by Grace Cavalieri will be a part of the Dream Up Festival at Theater for the
    New City. It tells the story of Harriet and her Bible Quilt. Reservations/Information 212-254-1109.

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