Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist

Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist

Barbara Herkert
Illustrator:  Vanessa Newton 
Nonfiction Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Random House, 2015   ISBN: 978-0385754644

When Harriet was a baby she used to lie, in between the rows of cotton plants, on a quilt that her mama had made. There she lay while her mother, who was a slave, toiled in the hot sun to pick cotton for her master. At that time, in 1837, there were about five thousand slaves in Clarke County, Georgia, which is where Harriet and her family lived.

As Harriet grew up she watched the slave women processing the cotton to turn it into cloth. The cloth that they made was used by the people living on the plantation. In the evenings the women would cut shaped patches out of flour sacks and old clothes, and then they would applique them onto quilt tops. Since the women were not allowed to learn how to read or write, they used their quilts to tell stories, which would be passed on to the next generation. Harriet helped to stuff the quilts with cotton filling, and she watched as the women quilted the fabric and finished the quilts during gathering called quilting bees.

When she was a young woman Harriet joined the women in their sewing and quilting sessions, and after the quilts were completed she participated in the meals and dances that followed. It was during one such “frolic” that she met Armstead Powers, a young man who “caught her with a story.” The couple was married when Harriet was eighteen and soon she was a mother. As the guns of the Civil War boomed, Harriet hoped that her family would be able to stay together and not get “sold away.”

The war brought freedom to the slaves when the Emancipation Proclamation was declared on New Year’s Day in 1863, though the slaves where Harriet lived had to wait longer before they too were freed.  Though being free was wonderful, life in Georgia after the war was over was very hard for Harriet and her family. Supplies were hard to come by, and Harriet did her best to help by sewing quilts that would keep her family warm at night.

Eventually Harriet and her husband were able to buy a farm and times became a little easier, though everyone who could had to work hard to take care of the cotton crops and the plants in the little family kitchen garden.

The people of Athens, the town near where Harriet lived, decided to host a special Cotton Fair, and Harriet chose to submit a quilt for the craft exhibit. Carefully she brought stories from the Bible to life using pieces of fabric, stitches, and quilted patterns.

When the quilt was displayed at the fair, an art teacher, Jennie Smith, offered to buy the quilt. Jennie could see that Harriet had created a work of art. Harriet refused to sell the quilt at first, but when the price of cotton fell, Harriet sold the quilt to Miss Smith for five dollars.

Miss Smith displayed the quilt at an exposition in Atlanta and it caused quite a sensation. Some ladies who saw the quilt at that event commissioned Harriet to make another story quilt for them. Selling her creations was hard, but Harriet took comfort in the money they brought in and the praise that they garnered. Harriet never imagined that one day her quilts would be considered works of art, but they are.

This wonderful picture book biography tells the story of a hard-working woman who, despite the privations she suffered in life, created beautiful quilts that are highly prized and admired today.

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