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Powers, Harriet (1837-1910)

Harriet Powers, 1837-1911. Harriet Powers, 1837-1911. Copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Harriet Powers was an African-American quilter, who was born into slavery in Clarke County, Georgia (USA). She is famous for her two surviving story quilts. Both items are made of cotton and use appliqué to create pictures.

One of her quilts is now in the National Museum of American History (Washington D.C.). It is called the Bible Quilt (NMAH 283472) and was made in c. 1886. Its design is made up of eleven blocks depicting Biblical stories, including 'Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden' and the 'Last Supper'. The quilt measures 191 x 227 cm and was made using both hand and machine stitching. Powers’ Bible Quilt was sold for $5 to a local, internationally trained Georgian (US) artist, Jennie Smith, who compared Powers’ style with that of Impressionist painters. Powers carefully explained the story behind each block to Smith, who documented what was said.

Her second piece, called the Pictorial Quilt, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts (MFA 64.619). It dates to about 1895-1898. The design is made up of fifteen blocks that depict people, animals and astronomical phenomena, including a solar eclipse. It measures 175 x 267 cm. There are several accounts relating to the history of this quilt, one being that it was commissioned by faculty wives of Atlanta University, as a gift to a University trustee who was retiring. The trustee’s heirs subsequently sold the quilt to a collector, who donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). Powers’ appliquéd figures have been linked to the appliqué textiles that portray stories of the Fon people (Benin, formerly Dahomey, in West Africa).

It is thought that Powers made at least three other story quilts, including one of the Last Supper, but their present whereabouts are unknown.


  • HICKS, Kyra E. (2009). This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces, Black Threads Press, USA.
  • (retrieve 2 April 2016)


Last modified on Tuesday, 08 November 2016 10:57