Kaffe Fassett




Kaffe Fassett


Kaffe Fassett designs fabrics used for quilting. He describes a quilt he chose to bring for the interview because, unlike the vast majority of his quilts, he sewed it himself. He is known for designing quilt patterns and fabric; his quilts are usually sewn by Liza Prior Lucy, for demonstration or publication purposes. In 1995, Liza Lucy encouraged Fassett to start designing quilts and fabrics based on his noted knitting designs. The first textile artist to have an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Fassett feels personally rewarded by how the art quilt world has embraced his fabrics and quilt designs. Fassett does multiple crafts, although knitting is still a major part of his life. He designed his first striped fabric by first knitting a sample, which was then handwoven in India. The production of these fabrics by handweavers has had a beneficial economic impact for their villages. He paints his designs on fabric, which is then produced into yardage that can be cut up and re-assembled in patchwork. He generally designs one or two fabric collections a year.




Textile designers
Quiltmaking process
Quiltmaking purpose
Art quilts


Kaffe Fassett


Meg Cox

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Houston, Texas

Interview indexer

Sarah Cleary


Sarah Godoshian


Meg Cox (MC): Okay, I'm Meg Cox and today's date is November 4, 2010. It is 9:10 AM and I'm conducting an interview with Kaffe Fassett for Quilters' S.O.S.--Save Our Stories a project for the Alliance for American Quilts. We are at International Quilt Festival in Houston [Texas.] and we are sitting in front of a quilt, one of many quilts here that Kaffe has made. So Kaffe thanks for doing this with us and why don't you tell me about why you chose this quilt as your touchstone quilt for the project?

Kaffe Fassett (KF): Well I think probably the first reason that I chose it is that it has some of my favorite [inaudible.] which are [inaudible.] that I get hand woven in India but it's basically a very rare example of my work in that I made it entirely myself. And most of my quilts are made my Liza Lucy who dragged me kicking and screaming into this quilt world with the offer, 'I'll make the quilts,' you know, 'I'll make all the points join up and sew them together for you.' So I think the uniqueness of it being my own hand sewn quilt makes me like it.

MC: What are your plans for this quilt? What has--is this going to go somewhere with you or--

KF: I never have any plans, you know--I mean I make them for--I mean when I make something by hand that's just what you get [inaudible.] folding off my chest you know to actually follow the entire process of quiltmaking and make decisions as I'm going along, which is of course my favorite thing to do, but when I'm designing a quilt I usually have to put it up on a quilt wall and you know, get it right and then have somebody else sew it together and I probably would change things as I went along. So I just make it in order to have it ready for a book or to demonstrate, you know, the use of these stripes and lines. And whatever life it has after that is in the lap of the gods and you know, I'm just open to anything that happens.

MC: Okay can you tell me what age you were when you started making quilts? I know you did many other crafts before--

[MC and KF speak at the same time.]

MC: --quilting.

KF: You know that's a really difficult question. Time is so abstract to me, I absolutely have no idea. I think it was about fifteen years ago and I'm 73 this December seventh so that gives you some--you can work out the math.

MC: And why was Liza able to convince you to start making quilts?

KF: Well she's an extremely persuasive woman and a great, great friend and I have huge respect for her and she had been one of the first people in America to absolutely get me when I was a knitting designer. And she went out and bought my books and gave them to people and you know, led a crusade in America to convince people that this was worth taking note of, what I was doing. So when she said, 'You really should get into patchwork,' I kept saying, 'But isn't that just cutting up old clothes and sewing it back together?' You know, 'Do I need to do that? And how would I make any money doing it?' and she said, 'You know, you have no idea. You are going to design your own fabric ranges and you're going to do this, that, and the other thing.' And I couldn't really see it but I trusted her instinct. And also she started taking all of my knitting patterns and doing them into quilt blocks and sending them to me. So I would get these things in the post and I was like, 'My goodness this is a nice idea but you should change this and that.' And the second time I did that she said, 'All right, you're already designing. We're in business.'

[MC laughs.]

MC: That's great. How do you feel it fits into the other crafts you do? I mean I'm sure you don't say this is a lesser craft or a greater craft. How does it fit within the whole--

KF: No--

MC: --whole scheme of them?

KF: No. I don't see any expression of people's creative urges which is, you know--I mean I'm interested in knitting, beading, weaving, mosaic, collage anything people do. Painting of course is where I come from as a painter but I think what I love about quilting, what I--where I see it [inaudible.] First of all I love traditional quilts where you use the same old geometry over and over and over again so you limit something in the great scope of possibilities. And out of that limitation comes the most wonderful things. So there's that about it that makes it special. And then you try to pour your creativity into making that those geometric forms really juicy and really dancing. But I think the thing that really gets me about quilting and where I see it, is that it's very immediate and quick. And I am one impatient bugger--

[MC laughs.]

FK: I cannot bear it to sit in a knitting workshop and watch people, you know, go through the slow motions of trying to knit something. I knit very very quickly and so like to watch people knitting slowly, I can't--you know watching paint dry is more interesting--I cannot do it. So the immediacy--I mean, you know, I started a quilt workshop with thirty people. We have blank, you know, walls all around us, all this pale place and in 15-35 minutes we have the place filled with color. And that is a [inaudible.]

[MC laughs.]

KF: That's orgiastic you know--

[MC laughs.]

KF: It's wonderful you know.

MC: So I was going to ask you what you've been--then this--your career path as a quilter is following all these other things and some of them you're keeping up. Would you--is there something you would consider a high point for you as a quilter in your career thus far?

KF: Oh goodness there's so many high points. I mean I just had the most extraordinary honeymoon from the world when I got into quilting. We came straight to Houston [Texas.] that very first year that I really got going and I was bringing out all these Indian stripes. Mostly that's all we had and we had a few other little prints. But we covered our booth with stripes and won best booth. Now that has never happened and I'm sure it never will again. But that was an extraordinary thing. So I've been received very, very well--I'm sure you've--very well by the world and given, you know, so many museum exhibitions and been honored in so many ways that I never win any prizes and I probably never will but I'm--the people that like me really like me. They get it, you know. And that is extremely rewarding. So like the high point--I mean probably the highest point in my career was having an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, [London, England.] it being the first textile artist to ever show there. I don't even think I had a quilt in that show but that was all my other textiles. Needlepoint and knitting and all of that. But I don't know, you know. As I say, you know, I'm on a high all the time. High, high, high points all the time.

MC: Did you ever come to Houston for--and see like a first-prize quilt? And a lot of these are-- have so much work in them and say, 'It would be nice to be in that winners' circle to get that ribbon, to do that kind of a quilt.'

KF: It's an interesting thing. I see those quilts that win the prizes, the first thing that washed over me after the terrible jealousy of not receiving, you know, the big gold badge or whatever, is that they're usually incredibly, impeccably perfect. It's like perfection is being rewarded. I'm afraid to say I don't see that--some of them are fabulously created as well--but first and foremost they're perfect. They popped out of the machine of somebody's very correct way of doing things and I will never be that correct and that perfect. So you know that kind of bothers me that perfection is such a king in this industry. To me, something that's kind of--not crudely made, I want stuff to hold together, I want it to last, I want it to be practical. But at the same time an artist is not a person who thinks in terms of perfection, you know, we think in terms of expression and flashings of color and emotion end up [inaudible.] So I find it a little difficult, this whole perfection bit.

MC: I think it can be intimidating to--

[MC and KF speak at the same time.]

MC: What do you think--this is sort of something you've been touching on a little bit--what makes a great quilt? If it's not perfection in your eyes, how do you--what is the quilt that you stand in front of and say, 'That is a great quilt?' What are the qualities?

KF: Well I met one on this trip, a lovely, lovely quilt. It--and I'll just describe that because it's hard to sort of just get too general. But this particular quilt was very scrappy and had lots and lots of wonderful little finds. You know you can see this person collecting from charity shops and from little bits of antique things as well as fabric stashes everywhere. It was put together with wonderful feeling, arranged beautifully. It was lovely sort of shapes that were on top of colors instead of on top of white or cream so that it had this wonderful color resonance, this soft green was behind it. All of the color was working well, the quilting was witty and perfect. They kind of have radiations that just described somebody looking very careful at what they had created and then quilting it to make that come more alive and come into our vision with great clarity and humor. It had wit, it had loving collection of fabrics, it had a wonderful way of putting stuff together, it just warmed my heart when I looked at it. I wanted to buy it.

[MC laughs.]

KF: I just thought it was the most beautiful quilt. And so that's, you know, that's what I consider. I think where there's a real feeling of serendipity, I think it's that somebody was open to possibilities. That quilt would not have been all thought out and done by the textbook. There was something about it that was spontaneous and yet had this wonderful sort of precision as well.

[announcement over the loudspeaker.]

KF: Is what? Anyway--

MC: Okay, on we go.

KF: I missed the whole point of his talk.

MC: So change. So when we're talking about the things that catch your eye and the things that you--with your own work, color is huge. You were talking about the way that person used color so--

KF: Yes.

MC: For you that's usually the way in when you're starting a new project?

KF: Oh yeah. Yeah absolutely. And I'm a total extremist when it comes to color. I love dense passionate dark jewel-like color. I love everything else right down to the white on white. A very pure and delicate use of almost non color can be extremely beautiful or shades of gray or whatever. So I love extremes. I mean I usually get involved with quite high color because that is exciting to me and it's irresistible but I do love things that are restrained to a soft color scheme. But anyway, so color is--yes, foremost and is like one of the biggest things that draws me into a work. And it's very interesting because I read that Bonnard [Pierre Bonnard.] the great French painter said, 'A painting is first and foremost and arrangement of color, everything else follows.'.And to me that's what a quilt is all about. That's why I find it a little difficult to get involved with quilts that don't have a color aesthetic, that are very pale or very contrasting and you can figure them out very very quickly. The don't intrigue me, they don't pull me in.

MC: Are there--now you were saying that Liza often is doing the quilting and you're consulting on the design and moving things around.

KF: Yes.

MC: Are there parts of the technique that you enjoy? Do you ever do machine quilting? Or do you ever get--do--can you, you know, use computers to design? Or is it just all the intuitive and--

KF: It's very intuitive and I don't involve myself with the machines. I am a complete Luddite. I don't drive a car or type or do computers or any of that stuff and so you know, the idea of getting on a machine--you know, I have been--I've learned how to work a machine and I didn't go back for a second lesson, you know, because it just didn't intrigue me at all. I sort of feel like there was a woman who was a fabulous artist and she learned a computer program for arranging a painting by computer and she did the whole thing and she said, 'Yeah that was okay, I didn't learn anything, nothing was different,' and I thought, 'Yeah that's what I felt about machine [inaudible.] I mean I can see that one could explore with a machine in a very particular way the quilting and all of that and I don't get very interested in that. I mean I do my own hand quilting, you know, which is very sort of--as Liza calls it--

[MC and KF speak at the same time.]

MC: Is it also tactile for you?

KF: Yeah. I mean yeah there it's very tactile. It's very--I love to just jump in there with a contrast color. If I'm ever gonna do it I want to show--

[KF clears throat.]

KF: I don't want it to disappear. So yeah, I'm--yeah well, what was the question actually?

MC: Oh just asking about technology and it being tactile and what are the reasons why that's not interesting to you. But in terms of the quilt--quilting in general and long arming and all of that kind of stuff and machine quilting, how do you feel about, you know, for quilting to be going down that path?

[pause for 3 seconds.]

[MC and KF begin speaking at the same time.]

MC: As opposed to you not making the quilts?

KF: As I indicated with that question about what was my favorite quilt, you know,what turned me on. That quilting was extremely sensitive to the design of the quilt. Now I noticed that sometimes people get so carried away with quilting that the whole thing becomes like a sort of Brillo Pad--

[MC laughs.]

KF: And it's, you know, it's this kind of stiff thing that is quilted within an inch of a side. And to me it's showing off. Sometimes there is a call for that, you know I can see there's certain situations where you want to quilt something to death because it's a passionate response to the piece. But when it's just kind of done that way, it's kind of like making a very souped up car or, you know, wearing showy tattoos or something.

[MC laughs.]

KF: There's something, you know, it's a display of expertise, you know. And I find it a little bit off-putting, let's put it that way. But I love any technique that is used--

[KF pauses for 2 seconds.]

KF: --to enhance a work of art, you know. And sometimes, you know, a work of at absolutely cries out for total perfection. And is clean, and is, you know--no roughage. Is everything, very very sharp. And that's fine. Then you respond to that in that way. But you know I'm very loose usually when it comes to techniques.

MC: So how much of your time is devoted to the pursuit of quilting? And, I know you have a lot of other things that--

KF: I do have a lot of other things. I mean I'm still knitting. I find probably of all the crafts I've taken up, knitting is a very very powerful force still in my life. It's a wonderful way of express--in fact, this quilt in most of the stripes that are in it, come from this little village. And when I first designed for this little village in India I sat down and I just knitted a great big piece of knitting and it had all different stripes on it. You know it had sort of very even stripes. And then it had sort of two color stripes, you know, put together. And then it had a, you know, lots of different variations. And I sent that to the weavers and I said, 'Weave it.' And they said, 'Knitting is not weaving.' And I said, 'Well, you know, that's the way I express myself. That's the colors, just make it look like my knitting with some weaving.' So then we got there and it was fine. And we supported this village. I mean they were really destitute when we went to them. They were hand weavers in the jungles of India. And it was--

MC: How did you even find them?

KF: Through Oxfam, which is a charity. And they said, 'We're trying to bring ideas to these people that, well, they'll make something that's more marketable in the West--Western markets.' And so I thought, 'Well how do I do that? I don't know about Western markets.' I thought, 'All right. I would like a striped shirt. I'll design myself a striped shirt and I'll send [inaudible.] and see where we go from there.' Well nobody did anything with the striped when they first came out. I think Johnny Depp got a shirt which he wore in "Chocolat" you know.

[MC laughs.]

KF: And somebody else got a duvet cover and that was about it, you know. There's like no one. So I thought, 'Well this is ridiculous, these are beautiful textiles.' I mean I just was knocked out about them. And I ordered a bolt of every fabric and then I just went to Westminster and said to Ken Bridgewater, 'Don't you think this would be great to give to patchworkers and Liza to have that idea too?' So we started giving it to different patchworkers who did the most beautiful things with our stripes. I mean immediately the first ideas that rolled in we knew we were on to something fantastic. So, and that range of stripes stayed in the collection for like six or seven years. Which you know in this industry is unheard of for it to last more than six months a design. And we've just brought them all back which has been extremely exciting to me. This is a sort of interim collection which I designed, which wasn't so popular because it was a little more restrained in color. So we've gone back to our multicolored stripes. And that's very very exciting to see those come in and see people get excited about them again.

MC: But that's the interesting way in which quilting goes way beyond sort of the bounds of the a little bit--the sort of social piece and--

KF: Absolutely.

MC: --the economic piece. And is the village still making these crafts?

KF: Yeah. Well they had clay floors and stick looms and, you know, pit looms that would dig out, you know, a bit of the clay of their floor of their house and sit in the pit and the little loom would come up here and they would weave away. And so if floods came which they often did or tidal waves or you know whatever, they would end up, you know, not being able to work for months until their house dried out.

MC: Oh my God.

KF: And we got them so that they had concrete floors and, you know, proper houses and electricity and all kinds of things that they never had before. So they, you know, they prospered from that collection of stripes that just went on and on and on selling. And then eventually we moved to another village as well because it got so out of hand they couldn't cope, you know, with the demand for the weaving.

MC: How does the quilting and the fabric--this is such a great story--but how does that--the geography part of it also interest you? Does that affect the quilts that you make and the fabrics that you design?

KF: Well yeah. [inaudible.]

[KF clears throat.]

KF: I love it that the world invites me to come out and play, you know, on their nickel. Fly to South Africa fly to, you know, Iceland or have an exhibition or wherever. So that--and then you're passing into these worlds that are so intensely different. You know I've just shot a book in Scandinavia. Very few people seem to travel to Scandinavia if they don't have connections there or something. They don't think of going North for a vacation. It is the richest most wonderful culture and they were, you know, they're now rather pared down with good sensible grownup designs. But they started out being full of passion, you know, big roses that big painted on the ceiling and you know, so I went to these old houses that were gathered together in Stockholm and shot a book which is going to be my next book. And that's to put my quilts against these beautiful painted furniture and painted ceilings--everything was just a dream come true, absolutely wonderful. So I pass into these cultures--go to Africa and see what they're making with whiskey bottles and telephones wire and things like, you know, when they use found objects and stuff like that it--all of this just feeds into your imagination and gives you wonderful things. And then of course you go to a culture like India or Guatemala or Mexico where they just eat sleep and breathe color. I mean the poorest person who hardly has a crust of bread from day to day will come out dressed in the most fabulous handwoven colors that you just--and that's just her laundry on her head--

[MC laughs.]

KF: --wrapped in a fabulous piece of weaving and you're going, 'Oh my God,' you know, and I mean I've gotten--I've come home and I just design stripes that I get onto such a stripe kick after being in those cultures because they love stripes and they just--that's the easiest thing to do. And they can feed all the color ideas through it. So it's just, you know, I'm just very grateful that the world throws me this inspiration.

MC: And you know, you have something to do with it. I mean you work with it but--

KF: Yes.

MC: What artists influence you?

[pause for 3 seconds.]

KF: I think the artists that are free and spontaneous. Like I think of a German expressionist--I think he was a [inaudible.] who was a colorist. You know fantastic flowers and things. Not all of his work but some of it just hit on a color thing that made me be much more adventurous with my color. Matisse is a fabulous free thinker and doer. Bonnard [inaudible.] all of those people who loved everyday life and made it magical. You know, I mean, Bonnard would paint a tablecloth and some oranges and some little tea cups and when I'd check the cloth, you know, and a little few of the [inaudible.] out the window. But--or his wife in the bath or something. And he would make it so that you just would give anything to be there in that room. That it was like the magic place to be. And that's what I feel about how life--you know we have the capability of heightening wherever we are and making it special. And that's what I get from great artists who have that spontaneity and who package their wonderful vision of the world for us in their art.

[pause for 3 seconds.]

MC: Why is quiltmaking important in your life? We've touched a little bit on that--

KF: Quiltmaking is important I think because it's that wonderful immediate thing. It's quick--I love the scale of it. You know, I know some people work on little [inaudible.] sized things, you know--

[MC laughs.]

KF: You know, but it's--so that doesn't interest me so much. I love being able to make a nice big statement with a sheet of color and pattern. I think probably the most important thing to me is that it brings me back to my painting. I'm able to paint my fabrics, which I paint by hand. And that's like a wonderful meditation, you know, to take all of the influences of the world of design and culture and so forth and feed it onto a page and then send that away and that page becomes yardage that I can chop up and use as paints in my paint box.

MC: That's very unusual now to be doing a painting on a fabric isn't it? It's--

KF: Yes. It's very--

MC: It's all, 'Turn on the computer now.'

KF: Yeah, yeah. And I'm afraid--a lot of designs really feel computer generated. Sometime, you know, somebody looked at one of my patterns the other day and said, 'That feels like it was made by computer.' I went, 'That was the worst thing you could say.'

[MC laughs as KF mumbles inaudibly.]

MC: How many collections a year do you do?

KF: I've--for the last few years I've been doing two collections a year. I used to do one. I'm back to doing one for the moment and then see what happens. I think there's a hell of a lot of stuff flooding onto the markets all the time so I'm trying to work a little more restrained. And give lots of color ways and keep bringing color to my older designs. Which to me don't date--you know, I think a lot of--we keep a lot of things as classics because they have a lot of use. And you keep thinking of ideas for things that are in the pipelines of the work.

MC: When you design the fabric, are you thinking of the quilt you're going to put it in? Or are you just thinking, 'I'm going to make this beautiful fabric and this is what I wanna paint on it.'?

KF: Yeah. You would go mad if you had to think of an idea for every single pattern you design. But of course you do. You're thinking I've wanted to play with something like this for, you know--like I'm into stripes. And so I've just done very, very bold stripes for the next collection. I've done sort of maps. I love old maps. I would love to see kind of map forms come into quilts. Because--and I love lichens and lichens are a bit like that. And those kind of interesting kind of organic forms are interesting to me. So I don't know, I suppose it's all vehicles for color and it's how you deal with it color wise. Basically I'm making little paint chips for a paint box for somebody to play with.

MC: I think a lot of people are sort of a part of their geography. They make quilts partly to reflect the scene where they are. But you sort of seem to be a citizen of the world so do you have a sense of community that is worked into the mix somehow?

KF: Well, I mean one of the things that's always fantastic about coming to Houston is that it's this huge family reunion, you know. I'm, you know, meeting people from Korea or from Russia or from Scandinavia, you know, from Africa, and it's just amazing that in this strange surreal city of Houston, you know, where these towers and nobody on the streets, that you meet these fabulous people that could wash up from Japan and all over. I just find that wonderful. And that community it just goes on getting richer and you know, and I travel the world a lot going to shops and seeing how shops operate and giving workshops in shops or a lecture--connect with the shops. I'm very interested in how those labors of love--because boy, they never make enough money to make it, you know a financial reward. It has to come from, you know, loving the craft and loving to work with people and loving to give people their ink box.

[MC laughs.]

KF: You know that's basically what these people are doing. So I have a lot of respect for them and I love to go and see how they work how they lay out their shops, how different it is in some little town in Georgia, you know, compared to, you know, some place in Iceland or Africa or wherever.

MC: Just wrapping up--what do you think is going to be going on with quilting going forward on into the future?

[pause for 4 seconds.]

KF: Well I love traditional quilts. That's my absolute passion now. I don't think I'll ever--I can't see myself ever moving that far away from traditional quilts. And what I'm interested in is that traditional quilts seem to be getting more interesting. People seem to be--maybe this is because my--I'm very interested in that and I'm watching it all the time. But I do see examples here and there of people taking traditional forms and putting more inspiration and more color into them. So that's my hope for the future that those traditional quilts will go on living and breathing and feeding us wonderful ideas and being wonderful vehicles for peoples' imagination in color.

MC: Do you see challenges for quiltmaking that--in the future, what are the challenges?

KF: I think the challenges are to go and study color. You know, I mean, don't--everyone couldn't possibly come to my workshops. But our workshops--people come loading it with their sewing machines and I say, 'Just put those under the table, you're not going to use them. We are going to concentrate on getting the color right.' They can't believe it. They can't believe they're going to spend a whole day doing nothing but color. But it's very important at the end of the day they say, 'Yeah you're right. I needed that time.' You have to make color important. And then not be too precious about it. It's not matchy matchy, it's not--there's no formulas to it. It's wide open as to what you can do. But you must, you know--somebody said the other day--I heard a wonderful thing--that if--'A mind is like a parachute--if it's not open it doesn't work.'

[MC laughs.]

KF: And that's what I feel, you know, you have to come in with an open mind and stay open. And don't say, 'I don't like polka dots. I never use blah blah blah with blah blah blah.' You know, it's all bits of color and you're just placing it so any old thing--and the more any old thing it is probably the juicier it is.

MC: That is fantastic. That is fantastic. Okay, I think we've got to wrap it up now. I would like to thank Kaffe Fassett for allowing me to interview him today as part of the Quilters' Save our Stories Q.S.O.S. project. Here our interview concluded at 9:45 on November 4, 2010. Thank you so much.

KF: Well thank you very much.

Interview Keyword

Liza Prior Lucy
Fabric - Striped
Fabric design
Quilt design
Victoria and Albert Museum
International Quilt Festival
Quilt shows/exhibitions
Hand quilting
Machine quilting


“Kaffe Fassett,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2642.