Out of Whole Cloth: The Life of Bettye Kimbrell is available on-line at the following sites:
For Nook, go to
Search for it on iBooks, as well.
The following review by Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, author, Star Quilts, Mississippi Quilts and the upcoming Alabama Quilts, provides an excellent summary of the book.
Out of Whole Cloth: The Life of Bettye Kimbrell by Joyce Cauthen is a testament to the healing power of art in a human life. Through trials and tribulations, ups and downs, Bettye Kimbrell repeatedly turned to her quilting to get through rough times. She had no idea what a lifeline it would become when she pieced her first quilt at the age of nine and quilted it during the Christmas holidays that year. Taught by her grandmother, who was an exacting disciplinarian and believed that “the finer your needlework, the finer your character,” Bettye was sure that she would “never quilt again when she got out on her own.” Little did she know how wrong that assumption would prove to be.
Bettye’s childhood was traumatic, bereft of security, love, and nurturing parents. The grandparents who reared Bettye and her four siblings believed in the liberal application of the rod when a mistake was made; displays of affection and encouragement were missing. It is understandable that she married Calvin Kimbrell when she was a mere 13 years old: they “had the same ideas and beliefs, and I was certain that life with Calvin would be better [than her current living conditions].”
During the early years of her marriage and the birth of five children, Bettye sewed for her family, even making cheerleader outfits for her girls (and later, their wedding dresses). She stitched shirts and tailored blazers for Calvin and the boys. She accumulated bags of fabric scraps. It was perhaps inevitable that Bettye, who knew the value of thrift, would turn those fabric scraps to another purpose. That purpose would be determined through a change in attitude about quilting that occurred during a visit to the Birmingham State Fair in 1970. There she saw a display of quilts that were different from the strip quilts her grandmother had made; Bettye went home and made a Double Wedding Ring. She entered her quilt in the 1971 Birmingham State Fair and took a blue ribbon; the next year her Missouri Daisy took Best of Show.
“I [became] addicted—not to making quilts to keep my family warm, but to the process of creating art in my own way,” she says. “[It was the] one constant, besides my faith, [that] accompanied me through the dark days as well as the sunny ones . . . I stitched my way through trials by cancer, rebellious daughters, and a wayward husband. In the midst of these tribulations my quilting took on a new aspect. I became a public quilter.”
The public greeted the new public quilter with enthusiasm. She began her public career locally, organizing a very successful quilt guild and teaching at a junior college in Birmingham. Soon she started entering national quilt contests and taking top prizes, either first place or Best of Show. She was stunned when one award was accompanied by a check for $1000, and even more stunned when the quilt sold a year later for $3000.
She taught herself new techniques and quilted to please herself. “I had stacks of quilts, closets full of quilts, patchwork, appliqué, whole cloth—always trying out new designs and techniques.” She became an extremely technically proficient quilter, accomplishing the almost unbelievable feat of 18 to 20 hand stitches per inch.
In 1995, she received the highest crafts award given by the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the Alabama Folk Heritage Award. It was accompanied by a $2,500 check, greatly appreciated by Bettye and Calvin. In 2008 she received the most prestigious award given by the federal government for traditional artists: a National Heritage Fellowship, from the National Endowment for the Arts. The award is accompanied by a $20,000 honorarium, which Bettye greatly needed, as by this time she was a widow, Calvin having died thirteen years earlier from a heart attack.
Bettye’s story is told in her own words, in the first person. Cauthen provides a deft, light touch in the way she establishes the different chapters and links them together.
Although the story itself is heartbreaking in many passages, the text is highly readable and flows so smoothly that the reader doesn’t want to put the book down. It is a welcome addition to the literature of women’s lives in the mid-twentieth to early twenty-first century. And it undoubtedly represents the story of many other women whose voices will never be heard. Unfortunately, Bettye’s early childhood and troubled marriage are not unique: what is unique is that she found redemption through art. Her quilts helped save her marriage, her sanity, and her quality of life.
——Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, author, Star Quilts, Mississippi Quilts and the upcoming Alabama Quilts. Co-author The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750 – 1950.