Kaffe Fassett ‘A Life in Colour’

I intended to visit the Kaffe Fassett retrospective at London’s Fashion and Textiles Museum as time off. Turns out, Kaffe is a master of vegetable-themed cross stitch and embroidery, so of course I had to write about it.


Born in San Francisco in 1937, Kaffe Fassett’s childhood was spent among the dramatic scenery of Big Sur on the Californian coast. His parents built a modernist restaurant there, Nepenthe, which opened in 1949 and became a favourite haunt of artists and writers. As a child, Fassett was inspired by the colourful people that frequented the family-run business, as you can tell from the crazy characters depicted in his early drawings.


Fassett went to art school in Boston and worked as an artist in New York before he visited England in 1964, fell in love with the place, and decided to set up a studio in Notting Hill Gate. Some of Fassett’s paintings from this period are on show: mostly still lifes of blue and white crockery, colourful jugs, vases and shells. The paintings are not to my liking at all, but once you see Fassett’s textile work, it becomes clear how the discovery of a new medium can transform an artist’s work for better and for good.


On a trip to a Scottish wool mill in 1966, Kaffe was struck by the colours of the yarns that reflected the many hues of the Scottish countryside he had travelled through. He bought two needles and twenty shades and learnt the basics of knitting from a travelling companion on the bus back to London.


His discovery marked the beginning of a life’s work, and Fassett went on to collaborate with the Missonis, exhibit at London’s V&A, and be pronounced ‘King of knitting’ by British Vogue. He has since held a longstanding collaboration with Rowan yarns, designed fabrics for Liberty, and authored dozens of books on knitting, pattern and quilting.


Fassett’s work continues to be driven by an exploration of colour, and is often inspired by foreign travel, as he says, ‘there’s nothing like going out an experiencing exotic things’. Exotic is a good way to descibe his work, because Fassett really does put colours together in ways you have never seen before. To put it mildly, his work is totally and fabulously garish.


I love that Fassett’s patterns and colours are so lavish, and his working method so leisurely. He chooses and applies colours at will: drawn from his surroundings at that moment, so that his work ‘becomes a diary.’ From a reclining pose on a video and busy with his needles, he extols the virtue of his medium as something that can ‘happen anywhere’, and that, for me, is something special. If you can find work that doesn’t tie you to a place, it feels less like hard graft. A bit like blogging, perhaps.

Kaffe Fassett ‘A Life in Colour’ is at the Fashion & Textiles Museum until 29th June 2013

Thanks to Georgia Harrison for the funky portrait/company.

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About Chloe King

I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.

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