Bettye Kimbrell was raised on a cotton farm in Fayette County, Alabama, with her father, grandparents, and four younger siblings. Her grandparents grew or made everything they needed, including the bedcovers that kept everyone warm in a house with one fireplace and a wood-burning cookstove. Bettye learned to quilt from her grandmother who, as she says, "believed your stitches reflected your character." For quilt backing she used feed and fertilizer sacks, while the fabric was dyed with walnut hulls and yellow root, and cotton from the fields was used for batting. As her quilting skills developed, she began experimenting with new designs and techniques. After she married and moved to Mt. Olive, a friend recommended her to a local department store as someone who could finish quilts for customers and local community members. In the early 1970s, she won her first blue ribbon at the State Fair in Birmingham. In 1979, she organized a quilt show to raise money for the Mt. Olive Community Center, a frame schoolhouse that is now used for social functions and as a nutrition site for senior citizens. Out of this effort came the formation of the North Jefferson Quilters' Guild that meets twice a week to this day. In 1995, Kimbrell was awarded the Alabama Folk Heritage Award. Folklorist Anne Kimzey says of her work: "Her expert skill reveals itself most powerfully in the intricate needlework and ornate, detailed quilting that has become her trademark. People are amazed by her subtle but complex designs and of millions of tiny stitches that cover her ‘whole cloth' or ‘white on white' quilts."
Interview by Mary Eckstein for the NEA
NEA: I want to start by congratulating you on your award. Could you tell me how you felt when you heard the news?
Bettye Kimbrell: I was out of the house. I had a quilt meeting that morning, and came in for lunch, and I had a message on my machine from Barry Bergey. I knew Joyce Cauthen nominated me and had worked very diligently to keep my portfolio up to date, so I called her and I said, "Joyce, do you know a Mr. Barry Bergey?" "Oh, Bettye! Call him! Call him! Call him, and call me back!" I don't know who was the most excited between the two of us! It's one of those unbelievable dreams that you have that you're not sure is ever going to come true. I'm not sure that it's really sunk in good yet. I have a hard time thinking that I meet the qualifications. I'm still reeling under the weight of it all.
NEA: Tell me a little bit about learning how to quilt and your earliest memories.
Bettye Kimbrell: When my parents divorced back in the late '40s, I lived out in a very rural area of Fayette County, in middle-western Alabama. My dad moved me and my two brothers and two sisters in with my grandmother on her farm. Everybody had a job. Back then there was not anything to heat with in the wintertime except fireplaces and wood stoves, so we had to have a lot of quilts on our beds to stay warm at night. My grandmother was a firm believer that idle hands were the devil's workshop, so anytime we ran out of jobs to do, she had us quilting. She always had a box of scraps left over from clothing and had us working on putting together what we called scrap quilts, which is still one of my favorite method of doing quilts.
NEA: I read that you once said, "Your stitches reflected your character." Was that something that your grandmother said?
Bettye Kimbrell: She was pretty much a perfectionist in everything she did. No matter how menial the chore, it had to be done with the best effort that she could give it. She really instilled in us that the stitching showed our patience, our diligence, and our desire to achieve our best. It was very important to her that we not just slam something together and do it half-way. It had to be done to the very best of our ability. Of course I was nine and ten years old at that time, and having worked with children since then I know it was difficult to get me to stick to it and do it as well as she wanted it done. But that's always gone with me, that I should try to do it to the very best of my ability.
NEA: How does someone get started quilting and what special skills do you think it takes to really excel at it?
Bettye Kimbrell: The desire. If you have the desire to do it, but you're totally at a loss as to how to start, seek out somebody that has done it before who can be your mentor. Taking classes is a wonderful thing to do -- I don't know where we'd be without that -- but if you can find a friend, or join a guild where you have constant encouragement, that's the really best resource in learning. Classes teach you a lot -- it's time and money well-spent -- but once that two, four, six, eight weeks is over with, you've lost your instructor. But if you can join a quilt group, or if you just have a friend, or a family member that's done this, then you have someone to troubleshoot for you. If not, you're going spend a lot of time learning!
NEA: You helped form the North Jefferson Quilter's Guild. Can you tell me how that came about and about the importance of it for you and for the community?
Bettye Kimbrell: For me, it was the desire to share what I know. I can't tell you how much I've grown from this. I've probably gained more and grown more than anybody else affiliated with the Guild, just by working around everybody. We feed off each other, we gather ideas. Our purpose in forming this Guild was to protect and promote the art form of quilting, and to be in support of the Community Center where we met. Those are our two simple bylaws. We just wanted something to unify us. We constantly have new people coming in, and when we have a new person come in, some of us will sit down with them, and talk about what they want. Everybody's wants and desires are different. We get a lot of people come in and say, "I want to learn to hand-quilt. I have grandmother's quilt top, and it needs to be hand-quilted." We'll find one of our members that's a good quilter, and we'll set them down and go through the steps of hand-quilting and stay with them until they're comfortable. I think that's a real asset to the community, to the area at large. We're not just in this little nest here. We're from pretty much throughout Jefferson, Shelby, Walker and Blount Counties. We cover a great area.
NEA: You have Quilt Sharing Days, when people bring quilts to document and share their stories. Tell me about the importance of that.
Bettye Kimbrell: Quilt Sharing Days are an educational thing that everybody should experience. If you're standing there looking at, say, a white quilt that was made 110 years ago, you have to go back to what the lifestyle was like when that person made that quilt and understand that that was a hard life! How did they find time to do that? And then you stand back and you say, "Wow! She did that by a kerosene lantern! She had to milk the cow. She had to go work in the field!" And you realize the limited amount of time they had, and yet you're looking at something that took an enormous of time to make, and you stand in awe of that person. You would like to be able to congratulate them on a project well-done. We have so much rich heritage that's recorded in our quilts, especially our old quilts.
NEA: When you're looking at a quilt what do you look for in terms of excellence or authenticity?
Bettye Kimbrell: First of all, you look at the workmanship. Whatever the technique is, it's the workmanship. The originality of the design also counts greatly now. You know, we'll never lose the old most-loved traditional designs because somebody's always repeating those. But if you can create something that's new, then that gives you an extra spark. I think my greatest challenge is to keep the very traditional art form alive, because I'd say about 98 percent of the quilts being produced are machine-quilted, so we're losing some of the traditional values. I want to work on that as long as I can.
NEA: What makes a quilt uniquely yours in terms of the design or in construction?
Bettye Kimbrell: The amount of hand-quilting in it. I probably over-quilt a lot, but that happens to be what I like best. When I get to the point that I'm quilting, I'm finished with all the challenges. I've either selected -- or not selected -- the right color. I've chosen the right pattern. And some of the designs that I do are patterns that my children and I put together – we'll come up with an idea, and we'll execute something that has the traditional flavor, but it's still uniquely ours. So I guess like I said, the quilting portion would probably be the one thing that I would be best known for in my area.
NEA: What would be an example of a design that would have more traditional elements, but with your own unique flavor?
Bettye Kimbrell: I'm thinking of one that I finished a few years back for my youngest son. He had helped me in a lot of events, so when he got to the point that he chose a quilt that he liked, he picked Mariner's Compass. In order to make that uniquely mine, I had to really lean heavy on creating different quilt designs and things like that. I couldn't change the patchwork and the appliqué and all that because that's what he wanted, that particular look. But when it came to the quilting, I was able to make it totally our quilt by just adding different quilt designs -- very heavily quilted -- and that made the whole thing uniquely ours. That design has a lot of open space in it and filling that open space with interesting needlework is sometimes a real challenge.
NEA: What's it like to actually go through making a quilt?
Bettye Kimbrell: In my mind I have an idea of what the finished project should look like. But when I back up and see the finished project hung to where I can see everything, the first thing I look for is the mistakes. Believe me, I have them! I have not made the perfect quilt. But usually they're not that obvious, it's things that basically I'm aware of. And I've learned not to point those out, by the way. I tell my students, "Don't tell me your mistakes. Just leave those." But you know, some of the projects I've done are pretty extensive and they take a long time. But the satisfaction of having done it and having done a job somewhat well-done is rewarding. I'm very humbled when I'm complimented on it -- it makes me really happy that someone else is enjoying something that I've done.
NEA: What about the community reaction to quilt-making -- has that changed in terms of how people receive or use quilts?
Bettye Kimbrell: In the South, we have a problem. John Doe has somewhat of a problem accepting quilts as an art form. I've been in shows and arts festivals, selected outdoor events and things like this, and if I happen to win, say, First Place, or Best of Show or something, I have these artists and potters and other people that look at me and they say, "You quilt?" "Well, yeah!" "And you won Best of Show?" I mean, they have a hard time moving quilts from the utility process to the art form. And it's been amazing to watch that evolve and to see it get the honor that it really deserves.
We have a lot of collectors in the quilt world now, just like you do in all other art forms. It's been a wonderful surprise that there are people who are willing to pay you what you think your piece is worth. I've had people say, "How can you let someone have it after having spent that many hours on it?" Well, if they're going pay me that price, they're going to treasure it as much as I do, so I know it has a good home. So it's like everything else in the art world. I think it's at its time, you know, which is a wonderful thing to be a part of.
NEA: What advice you give or you have for younger quilters?
Bettye Kimbrell: I just finished teaching a group of 4-H girls that are home schooled. I had 15 children, and they ranged in age from five to fourteen. This was a real challenge. A couple of ladies in the Guild helped me with this. Each person chose their own project and it was very exciting to see. How they put things together really showed me that, "Hey, these children are going to be carrying on a tradition that will still be here when I'm gone." And I think one of the most exciting experiences for the children was when their projects were finished, I asked them to put a dollar value on their project. They looked at me real wide-eyed, and said, "Why?" I said, "Because if you continue doing this, some day you're going make a quilt that somebody's going want to buy, and you need to know how to price it." So we spent two different sessions on talking about how you arrive at a price, and which things are more valuable than others. I have people ask me all the time, "What would you sell this for?" And I basically say, "What I do is look at how much it cost me physically to make it. Then I think about the amount of time I spent on it, and what it'll take to make me happy." You know, it's not like going and buying groceries. You can't say, "Well, I paid 79 cents for this can of peas." It doesn't work that way. So you know, it's a real challenge, being able to put a dollar value on your work.
NEA: Seems like a good lesson to have them go through that process.
Bettye Kimbrell: It really broadened their eyes, and they looked like hey were thinking, "Wow! This pillow I made is worth 25 dollars!" And when you say, "Well, you spent this much on fabric. You spent this much on batting. You've had this many hours in it. And you've got a pillow form in it that you paid eight dollars for" they begin to realize, "Hey, this is really worth something!"
NEA: As a final question, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what has kept you quilting through the years?
Bettye Kimbrell: Just the love of the art form and the desire to create. And being respected by my peers for what I can do. God knows I'm still learning. I learn every day. We all have the same 24 hours. I'm not a good TV person. I just don't get into a lot of television, so I need something to fill my time. Having been raised by my grandmother, where every minute was important on the farm because of what we had to do, I think that's stayed with me. So I have a desire to be doing something. And this is something that I can sit in the evening or early morning and do that I truly enjoy. I mean, people shop, and they do all these other things, which is not something I want to do!
You know, God created all of us uniquely different, but I think in every person that I've ever met there's a desire to do something artistic. And this is just a way that is possible for me to do something artistic, because lord knows, I can't paint, I can't draw, I'm not a sculptor. All those art forms are beyond me. But this allows me to be creative, and do something art-worthy.