Alabama Folkways Articles
July 1995


By Anne Kimzey

Quilter Bettye Kimbrell of Mt. Olive was recently selected by the Alabama State Council on the Arts to receive the 1995 Alabama Folk Heritage Award, the state's highest honor for the traditional arts. An award-winning quilter, whose work has been widely exhibited in the region, Kimbrell has been a force for the documentation and preservation of traditional quilting in Alabama as a leader and founding member of the North Jefferson Quilters Guild.

Kimbrell grew up in the 1930's and '40's on a farm in Fayette County with her father and grandmother. She is the eldest of five children. "Like everybody else, we had to have a lot of quilts to stay warm." She learned to quilt from her grandmother, whose theory was "idle hands are the devil's workshop." After working in the fields all day, "she'd have us to sit and piece and do patchwork at night. Everything was time-oriented. Even though you didn't leave home to work, there were only a certain number of hours in the day" to get all the work done, said Kimbrell.

They made "string" blocks, pieced together from scraps of fabric. For the quilt backing, they sewed feed and fertilizer sacks together, dying the fabric with natural plant dyes, such as walnut hulls for blue and yellow root for yellow. The cotton for the batting, which is the filler layer of the quilt, came from their own fields. Her father took the first two pickings of the season to the gin to sell. The family kept the third, lowest-quality picking to make quilts and pillows, she explained. Bettye quilted her first quilt during the winter holidays when she was 10 years old.

These utilitarian bedcovers were "pretty much my thinking about quilts until the 1960s," said Kimbrell. By then she and her husband Calvin had moved to the Jefferson County community of Mt. Olive. Upon a friend's recommendation, Loveman's Department store, then a major craft supply center in Birmingham, began referring customers to Kimbrell who finished their quilts for them. As she quilted the embroidered and cross-stitched coverlets, and fancy quilt tops, she "started looking at what quilting could become." She began expanding her own repertoire. "Every time I saw something different, I wanted to try. It's sort of addictive."

In the early 1970s she won her first blue ribbon at the State Fair in Birmingham for a double wedding ring quilt from scrap pieces. "That was the spark that lit the fire," she said. "The desire to do it had always been there, but you have to have the time to do it," she explained. She had been raising her five children and cared for her youngest sister who had polio and had not had time to pursue quilting as a hobby until then, and the award served as further encouragement to her burgeoning interest in her craft.

She recalls the late 1960s and early '70s as a time of revival for quilting. Until then "quilting hadn't reached public attention as an art form. I don't think we thought of it as such, and a lot of people still don't think of it as such," she explained. "But as I started to read (about quilts), I could see that people respected it as an art form."

From the simple string quilts of her youth, Bettye has developed her artistry, mastering the complex piecing of various star patterns and "the Mariner's Compass" and even creating original designs. Her expert skill reveals itself most powerfully in the intricate needlework and ornate, detailed quilting that has become her trademark.

To achieve the precision in her stitching, she prefers quilting in hoops rather than the larger, traditional quilt frames that she used on the farm. "It's easier to do intricate work in a hoop, you can turn it in any direction," she said. Also she fears her work would suffer if she tried quilting at home in a frame, because she would push herself to finish just to get the sizeable frame out of the way. While quilting for Loveman's customers, she learned that "working on a deadline takes all the joy out of it."

She claims never to contemplate the time spent on a quilt. "People ask, 'How long did it take?' I have no idea, it would probably scare me to death if I thought about it." She doesn't worry about it because she knows she will eventually finish. "I always finish. I have to see the finished product. If it takes me a year, year and a half, two years to finish, that doesn't bother me, because I know I am going to finish. There's something about a finished product, the satisfaction."

Her contributions to the state's traditional art form go beyond mastery of the craft itself. Her leadership in the promotion of quilting is equally significant. Sixteen years ago she had the idea to organize a quilt show to raise money for the Mt. Olive Community Center. As a result of that first successful exhibition, the North Jefferson Quilters Guild was established with the goals of supporting the community center, educating the public on the art of quilting and providing a forum for the quilters in the community to pursue their mutual interest in quilting. The group spans all ages and accommodates members' busy schedules by meeting each Tuesday during the day and every Monday evening at the community center.

As Bettye Kimbrell's skill and reputation continues to grow, she has found herself involved in fascinating new projects, such as the restoration of a mid-19th-century applique quilt that she bought at a flea market for $10, and the construction of a 1930s-era quilt of an original pattern salvaged from a shoe-box full of quilt pieces belonging to a friend's mother-in-law. The historical research involved in this work adds another dimension to her knowledge and, potentially, to a deeper public understanding of quilting as an vibrant example of Alabama's cultural heritage.