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A Harriet Powers Quilt Made in China? Not so Fast, Say the Quilters

Harriet Powers is one of America’s most famous quilters. Her two surviving quilts from the late 1800s are considered priceless treasures of American art. But there was a time—in the early 1990s—that the Smithsonian Institution flat-out underestimated the fame and adoration that American quilters held for Harriet’s quilts. They learned quickly just how far quilters would go to protect their most treasured historic quilts, and the episode that followed is a fascinating and little-known chapter in American quilt history. 

Museum gift shops are chock-full of reproductions of just about every kind of famous art—from Mona Lisa magnets to Frida Kahlo umbrellas to Andy Warhol mouse pads. Sometime around 1990, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History (NMAH) thought they’d do the same with a few American quilts. What could possibly go wrong?

The very idea that priceless American antique quilts, especially one made by a former enslaved person, would be mass produced as a cheap bedspread was appalling to quilters. But even more outrageous was the fact that this revered Smithsonian museum intended to outsource that mass production to China. American quilters prepared for battle. 

Today, millions of products we use every day are made in China—everything from quilting cotton to luxury leather handbags to iPhones. But in the 1990s, before China modernized, the “Made in China” label was not as common. So, the outrage that the quilters expressed about the mass production of Harriet’s quilt and the three other antique quilts was rooted in dual motives. First of all, quilters did not want to see cheap reproductions at all; they’d prefer that “real” quilters like themselves construct authentic copies of these quilts rather than let someone in a factory produce them. But secondly, let’s be honest, the outrage also stemmed from ethnic bias against China that existed at that time. 

The four quilts at the heart of the issue were Harriet’s Bible Quilt, which she made in 1885-86; an Album quilt made by Eliza Jane Baile in 1850-51; Sunburst Quilt made by Anna Sophie Shriver in the mid-1800s; and the Great Seal of the United States made 1825-1840 by Susan Strong.

Susan Strong’s Great Seal of the United States reproduction quilt made in China (c. 1992). Hand appliqué, hand quilted. 84 x 64 in. International Quilt Museum. 1997.007.0727. The original quilt was made between 1825-40 and is part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History collection.

Here’s what happened. In 1992, the NMAH signed a multi-year licensing agreement with American Pacific Enterprises whereby Chinese workers were asked to faithfully reproduce, in mass quantities, these four quilts. The reproduction quilts were sold in mail order catalogs such as Land’s EndSpiegelSundance, and department stores. In the Bible Quilt reproduction, Harriet’s quilt is depicted in the faded colors now seen in its current state, and the hand-appliqué scenes are sandwiched in between two large, drab borders on the top and bottom. Anyone who still owns one of these mass-produced bedspreads is definitely in possession of a curious piece of quilt history. 

Bible quilt reproduction made in China (c. 1992). 85 x 67 in. (216 x 170 cm.). Made with cotton and calico prints. Hand quilted. International Quilt Museum. 1997.007.0726.

The retail price for four reproduction quilts were $150–$250 each. The low price irked many quilters, especially ones who created handmade, one-of-a-kind quilts for the NMAH gift shop that were for sale for $1,000 and up. These cheap imports were bad for business.

Equally appalling was the fact that the first batch of these reproduction quilts were sold with certificates stating they were authentic Smithsonian reproductions, leading buyers to assume they were purchasing legitimate objects of American history. Rather than protecting these American treasures, the NMAH was selling them off. And the inclusion of Harriet’s quilt was the most egregious to the quilters. 

Harriet Powers was an astonishing artist. Her quilts are powerful works of art, and they were made during a period when most quilters were interested in replicating traditional quilt styles using precise patterns, yet Harriet’s quilts were completely original. With her hands and her talent, she recorded her most cherished scenes from the Bible into that quilt. The quilters argued that any mass reproduction of this quilt stripped it of its history.

Harriet Powers. Bible (1885-1886). Cotton. 75 x 89 in. (191 x 227 cm.). Hand appliqué, hand quilted. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.

So, the battle lines were drawn, and quilters took action. In 1992, some 25,000 people signed 500 petitions that denounced this business deal between NMAH and American Pacific Enterprises. Quilters could sign the petitions at their local quilt shops across the country, and also at the International Quilt Festival in Houston. On March 21, 1992, dozens of quilters assembled on the steps of the National Museum of American History with picket signs. In addition, thousands of quilters faxed letters to their elected officials—a popular communication tactic known at the time as “fax attacks.” Everyone felt the deal was downright un-American. 

Even a few legislators spoke out in favor of American quilts. Republican Congressman Ralph Regula (Ohio) asked “How can the Chinese reproduce an American quilt? The answer is they cannot and should not.” And Al Gore, who was the Democratic Senator from Tennessee at the time, added his two cents: “There is great irony and insensitivity in the Smithsonian’s decision to have Chinese workers reproduce classic American quilts.”

On April 10, 1992, 16 representatives of the quilt community met with the NMAH leaders. Representing the quilters were Candy Bell, Jinny Beyer, Karey Bresenhan, Fred Calland, Viola Canady, Hazel Carter, Lorraine Carter, Judy Elwood, Virginia Gunn, Sue Hannan, Bonnie Leman, Karen O’Dowd, Diann Paarman, Lee Porter, Marie Salazer, and Glenda Shriver. The Smithsonian attendees were Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History; Lisa Stevenson; Spencer Crew; Marilyn Lyons; Linda St. Thomas; and Margaret Gaynor. 

In July of that same year, 1992, five quilters from Tennessee formed the American Quilt Defense Fund in order to help protect the integrity of American quilts. In November, as representatives of the AQDF, Merikay Waldvogel and an attorney, Pete Claussen, met with Constance Newman, who was the Under Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Smithsonian Institution at the time. According to Hazel Carter, an American Quilt Study Group member and author of a 2013 article in the group’s newsletter Blanket Statements, it was this meeting that helped Newman fully understand the quilter’s concerns.

Here’s what the quilters wanted. They asked NMAH to rescind the licensing agreement with American Pacific Enterprises; permanently identify every quilt as an import; attempt to have the remaining quilts made in the US; verify that only voluntary, paid laborers were working in the Chinese factory (not prisoners, children, or unpaid labor); and if the contract cannot be rescinded, then all proceeds should go to the Museum’s neglected textile division.

There were two quilt industry leaders who went even further. Karey Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes were the founders and owners of the International Quilt Festival and International Quilt Market (a B2B event), and as such, they were uniquely qualified to speak for the entire quilt industry. First, they also met with Constance Newman. Meeting with her in person proved to be a powerful moment that helped ensure the voice of the American quilter was heard. 

Next, these two testified on Capitol Hill. While people typically wanted to give the Smithsonian more funding, Karey and Nancy had the courage to testify against the taxpayer funded Smithsonian budget. That got the curiosity of Congress. On March 25, 1993, they appeared on the agenda of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, the committee that oversees the annual budget for the Smithsonian.

When Karey Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes went to Capitol Hill in 1993 to testify against the Smithsonian’s taxpayer-funded budget, they brought quilts to show legislators what a true American handmade quilt looked like. These were made by Yvonne Porcella and Helen Young Frost. Photo courtesy of Quilts, Inc.

As the two walked out of their Houston office to head to the airport, Karey ran back inside and grabbed two small quilts that would be easy to pack and show. One was a contemporary quilt by Yvonne Porcella (founder of the Studio Art Quilts Associates), and the other was a traditional Lone Star by Helen Young Frost. Both quilts were excellent examples of quilts made by “real” American artisans. 

As soon as they sat down to begin their carefully planned presentation to the House committee, and before they could utter a word, one of the legislators quickly asked, “Well, what have you ladies brought to show us?” Karey quickly replied, “Well y’all, we brought quilts!” 

In the end, the Smithsonian could not cancel their contract with American Pacific Enterprises, but they agreed not to renew it. The quilt world considered this a major victory. The NMAH also agreed to discontinue the certificates of authenticity that were inside each quilt and ensured that every quilt would include a label and a permanent marking indicating it was made in China. They also agreed to require American Pacific to have the five remaining quilts on their contract reproduced in the United States. 

The quilters put forth ideas that were eventually successful and were intended to help the NMAH generate gift shop revenue. One of the suggestions was to retail a special collection of cotton fabrics sold by the yard featuring reproductions of antique fabrics originally used in the museum’s quilt collection. “The Rising Sun” fabric collection featured 39 prints and was produced by RJR Fabrics. 

Texas quilter, author, and teacher Kathleen McCrady took note. She purchased every fabric in the collection and began making a new quilt she titled Tribute to the Smithsonian I. This handmade quilt was finished in 1995, and two decades later, when she located this quilt and showed it to this author, she proudly explained that she had used 29 of the RJR fabrics. Kathleen went on to win numerous awards with this quilt, and she was even featured in a late 1990s multi-page article and photo spread in the Land’s End Coming Home catalog with this quilt and other quilts she’d made over the years. Kathleen Holland McCrady, age 98, passed away on January 15, 2024. She and her daughter-in-law Rosie McCrady were featured in Quiltfolk, Issue 22: Texas Hill Country. 

Kathleen McCrady constructed a quilt in 1995 using a special collection of textiles manufactured by RJR Fabrics that featured reproduction cotton prints of antique fabrics used in the Smithsonian’s antique quilts. Photo by Jimmy Wong.

Some important changes in the quilt world did emerge in the years following this odd chapter of quilt history. The first was the formation of the Quilt Alliance, which was founded by Karey, Nancy, Eunice Ray, and Shelly Zegart as a nonprofit (originally named the Alliance for American Quilts). These four women founded this organization as a way to ensure the voice of the American quilter would be heard. The Quilt Alliance has grown to be a powerful advocate for saving and documenting American quilts. They are also the repository of the world’s largest quilt oral history collection. 

Another effort the four founders created was the establishment of the popular online Quilt Index, a single bibliographic source that currently includes thousands of quilt images and records as well as articles, publications, videos, and ephemera related to quilts. Quilt Index is now managed by the Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences at Michigan State University.

Meanwhile, Harriet Powers and her two quilts continue to fascinate and captivate quilters everywhere. Today, the process of making handmade reproductions of her quilts and reinterpreting her imagery into one’s own quilt is a popular practice and widely accepted as a way to pay homage to Harriet and her art. Many quilt guilds have encouraged members to remake parts of Harriet’s quilts and have exhibited these newly made recreations in public exhibitions. One group of quilts made by the Princeton Sankofa Stitchers Modern Quilt Guild can be seen in Quiltfolk, Issue 29: New Jersey. 

PSSMQG members in front of the guild’s recreations of Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt (1898): (L-R) Lesyslie Rackard, Rose Mary Briggs, Tamara L. Francis, Mada, Juandamarie, Tarsha-Nicole Taylor, Victoria Meisel, and Gail Mitchell. Photo by Azuree Holloway.

As P. T. Barnum once said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” And if that’s true, then perhaps the misguided efforts by the NMAH to mass produce Harriet’s Bible quilt in China may have made her even more famous. But there is no way to really prove that theory. In either case, she has been revered by quilters and art lovers ever since her Bible quilt first debuted at the Athens Cotton Fair in Clarke County, Georgia, in 1886. 

Quiltfolk writer and quilt collector Teresa Duryea Wong displays two of the 1990s reproduction quilts made in China. On the bed, is an album patchwork named Bride’s Quilt by the manufacturer. The original was made by Eliza Jane Baile in 1850-51. The quilt on the right is a reproduction of Susan Strong’s Great Seal of the United States quilt, which was originally made in 1825-40. Photo by Jimmy Wong.

Harriet Powers died on January 1, 1910, and she was buried in Athens, Georgia. Over the years, the marker for her grave and the grave of her husband, Armstead, had disappeared. On December 2, 2023, more than 140 people joined a committal ceremony organized by the Women of Color Quilters Network at the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens. While the front of the new marker lists the dates of birth and death for Harriett and Armstead, the back is a stunning tribute to Harriet and her quilts. Her photo is engraved into the stone along with detailed images from her two quilts, leaving no doubt for future generations as to the astonishing accomplishments of this incredible artist. With so many attendees at her gravesite that day, Harriet must have felt the love and adoration from so many folks who treasure and respect her lasting contributions to quilting history. 

You can read more about Harriet Powers and this event in Quiltfolk, Issue 30: Georgia.

About the Author

Teresa Duryea Wong is a writer, quiltmaker, and antique quilt collector as well as a member of the International Advisory Board of the International Quilt Museum. Learn more on her website

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