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Culture Smart: Sew Me a Story

by Sheron Long on November 10, 2013

Story quilt by Harriet Powers, showing African American artistic traditions and the influence of African heritage on quilts created by slaves

Story quilt created in 1898 by African American quilter Harriet Powers

The Quilt Designs of Harriet Powers

Harriet Powers (1837–1910) never learned to read or write, yet her story quilts left a significant record of life and events in the American south of the 19th Century.

Powers was born into slavery and lived her entire life near Athens, Georgia. Though only two of her quilts survive today, she is widely praised for translating oral tradition into tangible art. She was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 2009.

Powers’ quilts, stitched by hand and machine, are immediately recognizable for their bold use of appliqued designs. In the quilt above, each of the 15 panels tells a story from the Bible or documents a natural event. For example:

  • Panel 4 tells the story of Adam, Eve, and the tempting serpent. Powers includes the merciful hand and the all-seeing eye of God. Even Adam’s rib appears at the right.
  • Panel 8 represents the Leonid meteor storm that occurred on November 13, 1833, before Powers’ birth. She captures the fright of people who thought the end of the world had come.
  • Panels 7, 9, and 14 show pairs of animals, male and female, that God created.
  • Panel 11 documents a cold Thursday in Athens, Georgia (February 10, 1895) when temperatures dropped below zero. The mule’s breath shows in the frigid air, or as Powers described it,  “Icicles formed from the breath of a mule.”
  • Panel 15 tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ. The appliqués at the top show the sun turning from bright to dark.

The technique of using strong lines to divide a textile into panels and the use of appliqués to tell stories are also prominent features of artistic traditions in West Africa. Powers’s creations reflect the influence of her African heritage.

At the same time, quilting as an activity and her European-style stitching, were obvious reflections of the time and place into which she was born.

Harriet Powers created her remarkable quilts in Georgia’s back country. The two that remain have now found their way to prestigious museums that honor her contributions to American art.

To read Powers’ descriptions of all 15 panels in the quilt pictured above, visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website. To view her other surviving quilt, visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History website.

Learn more about the Georgia Women of Achievement.

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