American-born Kaffe Fassett, regarded as one of the most influential quiltmakers of our time, exclusively spoke to Homemaker to tell us about his colourful world.
Image © Debbie Patterson
How would you describe your style?
My style is bold and baroque with a huge fascination with colour. It never ends, it just goes on and on. I think it’s very romantic and I’m definitely influenced by the Orient. I’m a great admirer of ethnic cultures and the craft that comes from them. This has an impact on my own work. I value any culture or tradition that loves colour. Guatemala and India for example. Places that are passionate about it animate me.
Colour features heavily in your work and your pieces often feature a myriad of shades – do you have a favourite colour palette or shade, or one that you regularly return to?
I don’t really have a favourite colour or palette. Colour to me is never just one shade. It’s always a scheme or a combination. It has to be what I’m excited about at the time, it’s of the moment. There are certain times when I’m absolutely fascinated by high colour or circus colour, like right now. But when I first started as an artist I was only interested in white on white! And very pale shades of taupe and cream. I just go through different periods, I have a fascination with grey, the whole world of dried leaves and weathered wood is all very beautiful.
What makes your quilt and or fabric designs different from others?
I would say first and foremost the scale of the imagery in my fabrics and quilts is what sets it apart. It’s big florals and big geometrics and very strong colour, which seems to shock a lot of people! People in the patchwork world tend to work with very subdued and very quiet colours.
Autumn Crosses by Kaffe Fassett, photograph © Debbie Patterson
When you need inspiration, where do you look?
I always make a beeline for the museums when I’m travelling. When I am home I love the Victoria and Albert Museum, but even very strict modern art will give me ideas for colour or design. Every now and again somebody does something wonderful with textiles, great bursts of artificial flowers or something like that and that’s exciting to see!
What drew you to the UK and made you want to live and work here? How has it influenced your work?
I was drawn to the UK by the wit of Christopher Isherwood, the incredible writer of Cabaret. All the characters seemed so amusing and bright, I thought ‘I wanna go there!’ I also liked being close to Europe, being in the old world. I wanted to experience a European slant on furnishings. I feel inspired by old interior pieces and gather them from all over the world.
When you are travelling for work do you take projects with you? How does this influence or change their design?
My projects are the first thing I pack when I travel! A knitting or needlepoint project is always close to hand. It’s inevitable that they will be influenced by my location, particularly if you are going say on a train through Morocco, and you see the spice markets and colourful tents.
What is your work space like, do you have a favourite place to create something? I like to work near to my radio and listen to BBC radio4 in particular. I sit in a room that’s quite light but it’s got a lot of shelves filled with china and my fabric collections. And then there’s yarn, huge bales of it for my knitting projects. There’s a lot going on! It’s very ecclectic and I am surrounded by things I have brought back from my travels that inspire me. I have masses and masses of books, they’re just falling off the shelves!
You work in several mediums (painting, knitting, mosaic) but if you had to pick a favourite, which would it be and why?
It would be very difficult for me to pick a favourite medium to work in. I would say that my favourite thing and what I never go far away from is exploring colour. So all of those mediums are just another way of playing with it, collaging fabrics (it’s called quiltmaking to some people), but it’s really just pulling colours together. Knitting is making patterns from colour and mosaic is again breaking dishes and making a wonderful sort of patchwork of porcelain. It’s all exploring colour and that’s what my favourite thing is.
Rustic Checkerboard Medallion quilt by Kaffe Fassett, photograph © Dave Tolson
Can you describe your design process from your initial ideas through to the production phase?
It differs for each project but for example I might take a magazine, which features carpets and historic textiles and I might see a picture and think ‘that would make a great border’ or ‘that whole carpet would be great to do as a whole quilt’. With patchworks I designed a wall, which hangs a piece of flannel with a grid on it so I can stick pieces of fabric onto it. I can create a whole quilt this way by rearranging it very quickly, if I need to. It’s an immediate way of working. I photograph it and then sew it together.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make a quilt from your fabrics?
I gave advice for years when I first started knitting and I would say ‘when in doubt, add 20 more colours!’ People are so afraid of working with colour, they use six and think they are pushing the boat out! I say ‘Come on! The world is your oyster!’ You are not limited by the amount of colours a machine can use, you are the machine!
How important do you think it is that people learn needlework?
It’s totally important that people learn to sew. It’s a gentle art that anybody can learn and it’s a way of accomplishing something, making something practical for the house or for you to wear. And it’s something that you can do on the hop too, you can have a little bag with pieces of fabric in and you can sew them together. It’s very good for children too, to learn that they can make something for themselves.
What does the future hold for your work?
Bigger and better! I’m having an exhibition of antique quilts at the Quilt Museum and Gallery in York until September, which is exciting. I just want things like that to go on. The future for me is being given the freedom to explore all of these old worlds and bring them back to life.
Kaffe Fassett’s exhibition “Ancestral Gifts” runs at the Quilt Museum and Gallery, York, until 5 September 2015, quiltmuseum.org.uk. For more information and quilting inspiration from Kaffe Fassett visit his website kaffefassett.com