Kaffe Fassett is known worldwide for his celebration of colour and pattern, a hallmark that feeds through to all his designs in knitwear, patchwork and needlepoint.
Born in San Francisco, Kaffe grew up on the California coast and was always artistic, winning a scholarship The Boston Museum of Fine Arts School when he was 19. But three months later he packed up to move to London and paint full-time.
There he found the creative inspiration he was seeking and eventually settled in England eight years later. Kaffe became interested in the world of fashion and worked closely with 70s designer Bill Gibb.
It was during a trip to a Scottish wool mill with Gibb that Kaffe first saw the potential of yarn as an art medium. Entranced by the colours in the surrounding landscape he bought 20 shades of Shetland wool in the same palette and some knitting needles. The legend goes that he was taught to knit by a fellow passenger on the train home to London.
Kaffe embarked on his first pieces of knitting and his first design appeared as a full page spread in Vogue Knitting magazine. He continued to collaborate with Gibb, as well as Italian design house Missoni and began to give lectures and inspirational talks.
After one such event that he was approached by Rowan founder Stephen Sheard who asked him to produce some kits for Rowan. The kits defied all expectations and Kaffe has remained popular with Rowan fans ever since.
Kaffe’s first book ‘Glorious Knitting’ (Ebury Press, 1985) quickly became an essential addition to any serious knitter’s library and was accompanied by a series for Channel 4, Glorious Colour, a year later. By the mid 1980s Kaffe had also become heavily involved in making tapestries. He was interested in surface decoration on china and artefacts as well as vegetation and natural landscapes and published Glorious Needlepoint, all about his new obsession. This drew him into the field of patchwork and quilting and many subsequent publications and books.
Despite decades of designing Kaffe says he doesn’t really have a set process, but usually begins with colour and works from there. “With the vaguest of concepts I start on a swatch and see how it develops. Hanging it up on the far wall in my studio to see how it adds up from a distance, I proceed till I have a wearable design.
“It’s a very instinctive method and often I get what I want first go. But I always stay open to several trials to perfect an idea if that is what it takes!” Kaffe’s love of textiles has led him to travel extensively and work with charities, partnering with Oxfam to advise weavers in India and Guatemala on designs that would be more marketable in the West and undertaking other charity work in South Africa as well.
In 1988 Kaffe became the first living textile artist to have a one-man show at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The show eventually travelled to nine countries, including Iceland where one in 20 people out of the entire population attended.
Throughout Kaffe’s shifts in his own inspiration – be it painting, needlepoint or patchwork - he has continued to contribute his knit designs to Rowan. His older patterns, such as Foolish Virgins, remain some of the best-loved among knitters and designers alike, while newer pieces continue to showcase his endless love of pattern and colour. Kaffe says, “Being the dinosaur of patchwork and knitting guarantees that people will come and listen to me.”
In 2016 Rowan joined with Kaffe to celebrate their partnership, holding a catwalk show of his designs, past and present, at the launch of the new season. It was yet another iconic moment in the lifetime of a designer who remains one of the most influential and important in modern knitwear.