American knitwear designer working in London
Born: San Francisco, California, 7 December 1937. Education: Museum of Fine Arts School, Boston. Career: Moved to Britain, 1964; created knitting patterns for Women's Home Industries, Browns of London, and Rowan Yarns of Yorkshire; knitting stores opened, mid-1980s; television series Glorious Colour, for British Channel 4, 1988; flowing coats and shawls showcased in Stockhold ballet, 1990; produced video, Kaffe's Colour Quest, 1998; queue opened in Liberty's Department store, London, 1999; radio series, A Stitch in Time, for Britain's Radio 4, 1999. Awards: Chelsea Flower Show, for garden design for Hilliers Garden Centres, 1998. Exhibitions: Kaffe Fassett at the V&A, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1988; Art and Industry Museum, Stockholm, 1990; paintings, Catto Gallery, London, 1997, 1999; quilt exhibit, Japan World Quilt Fair, 1998; needlepoints, wall hangings, rugs, displayed at the Luise Ross Gallery, 1999. Address: c/o Ebury Press, 20 Vaux-Hall Bridge Road, London, SW1V 2SA, England. Website: www.kaffefassett.com .
Glorious Knitting, London, 1985.
Glorious Needlepoint, London, 1987.
Kaffe Fassett at the V&A (exhibition catalogue), London, 1988; published as Glorious Colour, New York.
Family Album, with Zoë Hunt, London, 1989.
Glorious Inspiration, London, 1991. Kaffe's Classics, London, 1993.
Glorious Interiors: Needlepoint, Knitting and Decorative Design Projects for Your Home, Boston, 1995.
Glorious Patchwork: More Than 25 Glorious Quilt Designs, New York, 1997.
Welcome Home: Kaffe Fassett, Bothell, WA, 1999. Mosaics, Inspiration and Original Projects for Interiors and Exteriors, with Candace Bahouth, Newtown, CT, 1999. Kaffe Fassett's Glorious Inspiration for Needlepoint and Knitting, New York, 2000.
Kaffe Fassett's Glorious Color for Needlepoint and Knitting, New York, 2000.
Passionate Patchwork, Newtown, CT, 2001.
Sutton, Alan, British Craft Textiles, London, 1985.
Mably, Brandon, Brilliant Knits: 25 Colorful Contemporary Designs from the Kaffe Fassett Studio, Boston, 2001.
Coleman, Marigold, in Crafts (London), March/April 1975.
"Craftsmen of Quality," Crafts Advisory Committee, 1976.
Green, William, "Kaffe Fassett, the Colour Man," in Vogue (London), April 1980.
Innes, Jocasta, in Cosmopolitan (London), January 1984.
Polan, Brenda, in The Guardian (London), 21 March 1985.
Schneebeli, Heini, "Observatory," in the Observer (London), 9November 1986.
Roberts, Glenys, in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine (London), 15February 1987.
Kendall, Ena, "A Room of My Own," in the Observer Magazine (London), January 1988.
Interview, in New Pins and Needles (London), May 1988.
Hilliard, Elizabeth, "A ***** in the Life of Kaffe Fassett," in the Evening Standard (London), 16 November 1988.
Campbell, Sylvia, "Kaffe Fassett: Fiber Artist," in Needlepoint Plus (California), May/June 1989.
Molesworth, Melanie, "Table Manners," in Woman's Journal (London), January 1990.
Smith, Roberta, "Art in Review: Kaffe Fassett and Steve Lovi—'Two About Color,'" in the New York Times, 17 December 1999.
Koplos, Janet, "Kaffe Fassett and Steve Lovi and Luise Ross," in Art in America, June 2000.
Kaffe Fassett was born in 1937 in San Francisco. His family moved to the former home of the Aga Khan and Rita Hayworth in the wild and rocky Big Sur region of California. An unconventional childhood in an artistic household fostered a creative talent in the young Fassett, and days spent at a school run by followers of the Indian guru Krishnamurti were also to be a lasting influence. A scholarship took him to study at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, but Fassett stayed only briefly and left to make his way as a society painter. Arriving in Britain in this capacity on a three-month vacation in 1964, he met the newly graduated fashion student Bill Gibb. He accompanied Gibb on a trip to Scotland and fell in love with the colors of the landscape and the Shetland wools. A woman on the train home taught him how to knit, and he says, "that is all I've done in 20 years."
His first waistcoat sold for £100 in 1969 and earned a full page in Vogue. Thus began "a wonderful obsession," which was to ensure him a place in fashion history. "I think knitting is just mysteriously, incredibly magic. I mean who would ever think that you could just take two sticks and rub them together with a bit of thread in between and out would come this incredible tapestry of colour?"
Abandoning his paints but still with the painter's eye, he set about using yarns to explore the world of color. He designs organically, learning techniques when necessary. He has never been interested in rules or in a variety of stitches and claims to have arrived at nonangst knitting. He abhors the hard-and-fast rules that have kept hand-knitters enslaved for so long. Fassett uses only stocking stitch and rib. "I wanted to make it elegant so there was no point in trying anything fancy which immediately goes wrong when you drop a stitch. If you make a mistake according to my method, it can be a positive benefit." He works with as many as 150 colors in a garment—"anything worth doing is worth overdoing," he claims. After a brief spell working in machine knits with dress designers—notably Bill Gibb—Fassett turned his back on the machine. The intricacy of pattern he sought was incompatible with the industrial process.
Fassett works impulsively and intuitively and at an astonishing pace. Using circular needles he sits cross-legged, barefoot, on his bed, the design emerging line by line. He seldom uses a graph. For him, color and pattern are paramount, styling very much secondary. "The colouring is totally instinctive, a gut thing." He worships color, uses it with great abandon and total assurance, seeing it everywhere, even in the most inauspicious surroundings. He advocates "if in doubt, add twenty more."
His inspiration comes from the world of ethnic decorative arts: Turkish kilims, Islamic tiles, Chinese pots, Spanish brocades. For him, knitting garments is about patterns, not pictures. He doesn't feel that large pictorial sweaters are really flattering to wear. Repeats and stylization render the figurative more appropriate for knitwear. Decoration follows through the entire garment, often using a contrasting tartan or stripe on the back. Favorite themes—circles, spots, squares— recur, transformed by a change in scale or color.
As well as individual commissions, he began to design for Women's Home Industries and for Browns, who made up the patterns and sent them out to home knitters. His early work used mainly small repeat geometric motifs inspired by oriental rugs. Next there were grand romantic coats like the Romeo and Juliet coat inspired by the Nureyev ballet, with extravagant gathered shoulders and floor-sweeping skirts in stripes of mohair and bouclé with a tight jewelled bodice. A commission from the Aberdeen Art Gallery produced the huge "map coat," a landscape extravaganza.
Of enduring appeal have been his ballooning coats: large, simply cut, T-shaped garments gathered at mid-calf into horizontally striped ribs—loose, enveloping shapes sized to fit anyone. They are vast canvases for oversize geometric patterns or stylized Chinese pots or autumn leaves—more than garments, more three-dimensional works of art, but very much intended to be worn, to swirl, to drape, to cling around the figure. He makes giant triangular shawls resplendent with a dazzling variety of dots and spots inspired by the Roman glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In October 1988, the ultimate accolade in craft circles came with his exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was the first by a contemporary textile designer.
High fashion has been influenced by Kaffe Fassett. At the London Fashion Week in 1985, in collaboration with Bill Gibb, he produced "simply-cut, richly-coloured, knitted suits and throws," and closed "with a series of fairy-tale exercises in the baroque, the beaded and the burnished"—all in "the glowing richness of Kaffe Fassett's colours." Bill Gibb's huge American Indian style coat-sweaters came from Fassett's American past.
Missoni, the renowned Italian designers, invited Fassett to Milan to design knitwear for them. Fassett generously left the Italian fashion house with years of ideas. In 1990 in Stockholm, a ballet featuring flowing Fassett coats and shawls was staged at the Art and Industry Museum for the opening of his exhibition there. The queues were so long that the opening had to be restaged three times, and 107,000 people attended. A 1998 exhibit of quilts from Fassett's book Patchwork at Tokyo's Japan World Quilt Fair drew 120,000 spectators. In 1997 and 1999, Fassett exhibited his paintings at London's Catto Gallery. He mounted a New York City show at the Luise Ross Gallery in 1999, displaying needlepoints, wall hangings, lampshades, rugs, waistcoats, and other designs. "For many of us, any one of these creations would be more than enough," noted Roberta Smith of the New York Times. "But to see them massed together is to glimpse a grand obsession expressed with consummate exquisite control, hedonistic flair and historic sophistication." Collectors of Fassett's work include such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Ali McGraw, Helen Frankenthaler, and Princess Michael of Kent.
Extensive lecture tours and workshops have brought Fassett's message to millions of people the world over. Students have described these talks as "electrifying." He also starred in a series on color on British television in 1988. Ten years later, he released a video called Kaffe's Colour Quest, which explored the influence of travel on Fassett's design and color inspiration. In 1999, he recorded a radio series entitled A Stitch in Time for Britain's Radio 4.
Fassett freely shares all he knows with the hand-knitting public and has tirelessly campaigned to awaken the unexplored potential he believes lies in everyone. To that end, he was asked by the international charity Oxfam to give marketing and design advice to weaving villages in India and Guatemala. He performed similar work in South Africa.
His first book, Glorious Knitting (London, 1985), sold 180,000 copies, and a string of knitting shops opened in its wake. London's Liberty's Department Store opened a concession featuring Fassett's one-of-a-kind designs and products in 1999. Fassett's eleventh book, Passionate Patchwork, was published in 2001.
In recent years, Fassett has turned some of his attention to more unusual projects. In 1998, he won a medal in the Chelsea Flower Show for a garden design for Hilliers Garden Centres. Several performance groups have commissioned Fassett's designs, including Britain's Northern Ballet Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
updated by LisaGroshong