Sarah Quinton in conversation with Kaffe Fassett, 2005

Kaffe Fassett is a multi-facetted artist and an internationally renowned figure in the world of textile design. For over 20 years, he has been a phenomenon in the world of how-to books, television programs, do-it-yourself kits and hands-on workshops. His charismatic personality and near-evangelical desire to share his insights into colour, pattern and design in the everyday world is endlessly applied to all that he produces: knitting, needlepoint, patchwork quilts, ceramics, mosaics and printed fabrics. His London, England studio is a hive of activity, with skilled craftspeople and assistants working alongside him at all hours of the day.

While some might shy away from being called a populist, it must be noted that for Fassett, this is a positive indication of success. He has developed a highly accessible and tremendously popular approach to the intuitive application of colour and design for the serious craft aficionado. When I asked him how he accounts for the fact that his name is a household word in many parts of the world, he plainly stated that:

“It's basically because what I do, anybody else can do. It's very accessible - it's not like writing poetry, or Bach cantatas or brain surgery. I don't do anything highly technical that people would find difficult to do. Some people do find it difficult only because they perceive it to be. The complexity that I bring to it is one of colour and pattern. The construction of anything I make is always very straightforward."

When asked to discuss his proclivity for sourcing design ideas from cultures not his own, his response was that that aspect of his design work is best left up to others to investigate. He sees his formal analyses as quite independent from social or cultural interpretations:

“I'm not interested in the intellectual or social aspects of traditional designs, particularly, unless there is a very good story that catches my ear. I'm interested in the colours and motifs found in textiles. I'm interested in textiles for their aesthetics. It seems to me that a lot of the world goes by without much visual attention. Enough time isn't spent looking and digesting the visual aspects of things. That seems to be my job - that's what my visual antennae pick up: 'My god, that looks stunning! What an unusual group of colours.' I let the intellectual side go because there are plenty of other people who analyze things in that way... but it's not what interests me.”

What follows is a transcript of the rest of our conversation:

Sarah Quinton: Many practitioners work with others in the making of their work, and you certainly give credit to the sewer and the quilter, for instance. Would you say that these people are your collaborators?

Kaffe Fassett: Yes, certainly. A lot of divine decisions made in the studio are made with the help of people around me, particularly Brandon [Mably] who I consult with all the time when I am working. One of the ways that we get so much done is that there is an ongoing conversation about what is happening. It isn't that there is a private time for me to work, when I might go into a closet and write some poem or something. Everything I make is in conversation with the people around me. Including printed fabrics, which bring me back to my painting techniques.

Quinton: You were a young man when you began your artistic activities as a painter. How does painting fit into your world today?

Fassett: I've never stopped being a painter. But it got waylaid by knitting and patchwork and so forth. To me they are all the same thing... I still look at pattern all the time, and form... how to place colours next to each other in different configurations. I never get bored. When I was a painter, I did get bored at times. But that never happens with textiles. Every single day, I can't wait to get started. The process is so life enhancing. Talking about it gets tiring, but the actual making is extremely energy giving. It's an amazing process.

I think of myself as an artist who is playing with patterns through my paintings, it's just that I have moved into different media. I know that some people see a huge division between the crafts and the arts, but I don't see that. For me, it's the same thought process.

Quinton: I would say that you are also a teacher.

Fassett: Yes, that's part of it too. What I love about this craft [patchwork] is that it is humble. Anybody can do it, and if they say that they can't do it, it's like waving a red rag in front of me and I say, “All right, give me a weekend!” and that is what the workshops are all about. Because it is so life enhancing for me, I want to pass it on.

Quinton: Are your quilts made for the wall? Do you make “art” quilts?

Fassett: I pour myself into my work, and how somebody uses one of my pieces is up to them. Things become transported by how you see it and how you use it. A quilt can become a tablecloth. It can be something that is thrown over a couch or covers a pile of rubbish in the corner of a room because you want it to look harmonious, or it can be placed on a bed or on a wall. There is sensuality about a beautiful arrangement of colours.

Quinton: Is there an element of nostalgia in the work that you do?

Fassett: Huge. I don't think there is any such thing as new fashion. What we get into with this sort of work is reminding ourselves of happy moments from the past. When something is really successful, it's because I have pushed a button, I have reminded somebody of what it was like when she first fell in love, and she saw some amazing shape or fashion, which was probably from some other previous time... everything is always referenced back in time to something. That nostalgic thing is a very important and mysterious element.

Being an American, I don't mind making minestrone - a touch of the Orient, mixing it with 18th-century Dutch and Tudor decorative styles - all of these interesting times get rolled together into quite an interesting soup.

Quinton: You travel a lot. How would you describe the influence of your travels on your own creative “soup?”

Fassett: Enormous. I am constantly buying fabrics in very odd corners of the world, so I am picking from somebody else's choice of fabrics, and from their choice I make mine. I also collect postcards and bits of embroidery, jewellery, basketry and beading, etc., that end up on my desk or on my walls and remind me of the potency of these other worlds. I have French, African, Indian, South American and Japanese textiles in my collection. It's a universe of pattern. And there it now is for other people to stitch up as a cushion!

The reason that I am interested in what other people think is I'm looking at my world and seeing what knocks me sideways! Often I'm standing in a group of people and I can tell that they are simply just not as moved as I am by something that we have all witnessed. I am seeing something miraculous such as a person walking down the street in an amazing kimono, or in a street dress that has an incredible combination of flowers or colours, and I'm seeing a vibe in this colour, but it is just passing them by. I look at that, and wonder, “Why didn't it seem to move them, but it moved me practically to tears?” So I go to the studio and I make something that others can then sit and stitch, or put into a quilt or something, and I make them look at it more intensely. I try to give back, so I can share my first impression, the thrill that I got.

Japanese Brocade is a quilt in the exhibition that is made from sample fabrics - subtle damask that is printed with taupes and old rose colours. They aren't old, but they were made to look antique. We wanted to feature those fabrics and not lose their subtlety. I got the fabric from the Houston quilt market from a group of Japanese vendors. These were the samples that they were using to sell yardages. It was hard to convince them to sell to us.

Quinton: Do you have a following in Japan?

Fassett: Yes, it's the most interesting thing about my life. There are these pockets of extreme enthusiasm for what I do, people have acquired the books and have digested every aspect of them so when I get to their part of the world, they already know what I am about. They are into it, and it reflects their own quirkiness.

Quinton: Did you design any of the fabrics in the quilts in this exhibition?

Fassett: I designed some of the fabric in Dot Galore. The marbled cloth in that piece is by Carla Miller who just joined our design team. I've always adored buttons and beads, and I loved sewing on all of the buttons that are on this piece. I sat there, day after day, just sewing on these buttons, as happy as Larry!

Quinton: For some time now, you have been researching quilts at the Victoria and Albert Museum for a new series of quilts and an accompanying book. We are lucky enough to have one of those quilts in this exhibition. What would you like to say about Folk Art Quilt?

Fassett: If you were to see the original you would just drop your teeth! It is wonderfully funny and amusing. For mine, I used a background of my own material, called the “Peony” print. We are trying to bring that print back into the collection and redo the colourways.

Quinton: Folk Art Quilt is not a replica, is it?

Fassett: No. I looked at it, and I made similar type shapes to the original. It's roughly the same kind of placing, but not as many objects. We tried to do something similar to the border to what she - the original maker of that quilt - had done. What was a great surprise in ours was the echo quilting that Liza [Prior Lucy] had done after sewing it together. Rows and rows of obsessive quilting.

All the quilts in this book were made because we were turned on by the quilts we saw in the museum collection. We went back and back and back to look at them. We took in the spirit of each of the quilts... the fabric used, the obsessiveness, and the simplicity of whatever was going on in the quilt. We took that as a starting point and made our own. The quilts we were looking at are from the end of the 1700s through to 1900. It was fantastic to bring my patterns and my sense of colour to them.

Quinton: What do you think of the Martha Stewart phenomenon?

Fassett: Martha says, “Here's how to do this with taste. Here's how to have your white wedding with a touch of elegance, flowers, how to do this and that.” People needed it, wanted it. It's kind of anathema to me because it's a style that has (admittedly) been getting a lot richer, a lot more colourful, but it started out a little bit bloodless, a “grown-up” taste, and tried not to “scare the horses.” I like to scare the horses!

I made Wedding Quilt for Martha Stewart. I picked all the colours that she was into, all those soft, chalky pastels - you know those creams and beiges, and those soft greens and pinks - sugared almond sorts of colours. And I put them all into that quilt.

I take something and transform it so that people can't ignore it. I want to give it to them in such a way that they can't miss it.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada