Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist written by Barbara Herkert and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (2015)
Harriet Powers was born a slave in 1837 in Athens, Georgia on a cotton plantation. She grew up learning about cotton, cloth, dyes, and sewing. She listened to the stories told from the Bible and legends of Mother Africa. She learned to quilt and appliqué. In 1855, Harriet married Armsted Powers and they started their own family still as slaves on the cotton plantation where she was born. In 1864, the slaves of Georgia were freed, one year after the Emancipation Proclamation. But the aftermath of the Civil War was harder on the slaves than the war itself. Food was scarce and Harriet didn’t know how she would feed her five children. Armsted farmed cotton and Harriet sewed quilts. Soon they had enough to buy their own land and grow their own cotton, which they sold to the cotton mills. When Athens, Georgia announced their first Cotton Fair, Harriet made a quilt to enter the contest. It didn’t win the contest, but it did capture the attention of Jennie Smith who asked to buy it. Harriet hated to sell it, so she said no. But when things got worse, she sent word to Jennie Smith who paid her five dollars for the quilt. Harriet told her about each panel on the quilt and Jennie wrote them all down. She exhibited the quilt and their stories at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta. Harriet made another quilt which she sold to some ladies in Atlanta. Harriet died of pneumonia in 1910. Most of her work has been lost or unaccounted for, but these two quilts are still on display in the National Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
This picture book biography is so well written, it can be read simply as a story or with the added information quilted to each page. The sweet illustrations depict the childhood and adulthood in both happy and difficulty times of Harriet Powers’ life.
Children may be interested in learning more about slavery, cotton plantations, and the production of cotton products in the United States. Below are a few activities to extend readers’ experiences with cotton.
Use press on fabric squares to let kids make their own quilts.
Beginning sewing project for kids.