The flair q&A

Bets Ramsey

Tell me about your business or specialty.

I am a fiber artist. My primary form is in quilts and quilted wall hangings. I have been exhibiting and selling my work since 1961. For the last eight years, no longer entering competitive art shows, I have prepared an annual exhibition with all proceeds going to a worthy institution, first to a girls’ church-related school in Honduras and presently to a new Episcopal school in Nashville, TN.

How'd you get to where you are now?

I became a fiber artist exhibiting fabric collage and stitchery in upstate New York in 1961, followed by a move to California three years later. There I found opportunities to participate in group and solo exhibitions in the San Francisco Bay area and the Central Valley, as well as in New York and the mid-south. Eventually we moved back to Chattanooga, TN where I began teaching at the Hunter Museum of American Art and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. By then I had added other types of fabric surface design to my offerings. While taking a Master of Arts degree at UT in Knoxville I stumbled into the quilt world while doing a research paper. I taught myself to quilt and it changed my life. As I began teaching quilt making, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York was showing quilts as art and the media couldn’t get enough of it. When a traveling section of that show came to the Hunter Museum I was called on to arrange some coordinating activities. Thus the Southern Quilt Symposium was born and for seventeen years I produced an annual weekend of lectures, workshops, and networking with other quilters, augmented by an exhibition of nationally known quilt artists and collectors. It was the first series of meetings allowing quilters to come together in an art museum setting. The next forty-eight years of my life were filled with travel in the United States and Europe giving workshops, lectures, and showing quilts. I continued to curate quilt shows for various institutions, wrote numerous articles and four books on quilt making and history.

How has the Covid crisis affected your work or business? Any new ideas or approaches…or lessons learned so far?

Being house-bound during the COVID-19 crisis has allowed me to have uninterrupted time in my studio. I have tried out new techniques and worked with unusual material, including waste matters related to conservation themes.

What surprises you in your work, now or in the past?

My early work was usually designed for a specific purpose or theme and involved a preliminary sketch and a search for corresponding fabric. Eventually I learned that working directly with scissors and not following a pencil-drawn line gave a much more fluid flow to lines and shapes.

What drives you crazy?

I find that work made to perfection and precisely matched has no surprises to delight the viewer. I love off-beat crazy things done by untutored quilters but it is not a way I can imitate. I do value good workmanship in my own work and others but look for the unexpected bits to make it sing.

Who inspires you? (it can be anybody you know, or don't know)

I am inspired by artists of all periods in history. I work in both traditional quilt styles and original contemporary forms. My main inspiration comes from the material itself telling me what to do, rather than finding material to fit a preconceived idea.

You're a trailblazer - what are some highlights in your career to date?

Highlights? I suppose helping people find fulfillment in working with textiles has been my greatest reward. The climate of the ‘60s left many women seeking security and a sense of worth. Teaching women (and men) to quilt, solving problems, and achieving a gratifying finished project did fill that need of satisfaction and accomplishment. I enjoy all aspects of my work but find the greatest joy in seeing a year-long preparation and curating of a show come together for an audience. Being inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame was, indeed, an honor. Receiving the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts at a lavish reception represented life-time achievements as an artist, educator, and author.

Words of wisdom or thoughts?

Following your passion requires diligence, eliminating distracting elements, seizing opportunities, and having confidence in yourself regardless of trends and fashions. A little luck doesn’t hurt.


Bets Ramsey is an award-winning artist and added to a career in art, beginning in 1971, with the making and study of quilts and their history. She has taught, lectured, and written about quilts ever since. In 1984 she and Merikay Waldvogel began a survey of Tennessee quilts, in 1986 published their findings in a book called The Quilts of Tennessee and presented a touring exhibition of the quilts. For 17 years her Southern Quilt Symposium at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga attracted participants from coast to coast. She wrote a weekly quilt column for the Chattanooga Times, also for 17 years. She is an award-winning exhibiting artist and was included in the exhibition “The Art of Tennessee” at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. A forty-two-year retrospective of her fiber works was shown at the Carroll Reece Museum of East Tennessee State University and the Leu Art Gallery of Belmont University in 2003. She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 2005. The Alliance for American Quilts produced a biographical video for its website in 2008. The following year she received the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts for her work as an artist, author, curator, and teacher. The Southern Highland Craft Guild honored her with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

published 2021