Quilty Pleasures: Kaffe Fassett and the History of Patchwork

The Colorful Craft of Kaffe Fassett

Kaffe (pronounced ‘kayf’) Fassett is a world-renowned and much-loved American textile designer and artist who started his long career in an unlikely place: on a train. On a visit to the wilds of Scotland, he was captivated by the palette of the landscape, and bought armfuls of Shetland wool in the colors he saw around him. On his way home,  he asked a lady in his train carriage to teach him to knit, and not so very long later, his first knitwear designs had been commissioned by Vogue.

Kaffe grew up in California, at his parents’ family restaurant, Nepenthe. Set on a sunny peninsula above the Pacific Ocean, the building was designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright and became a popular haunt of the colorful, crazy and creative set of the 1950’s and 60’s; Kaffe was surrounded by painters, artists, sculptors, dancers, writers and film stars. A love of  form and color bloomed, and the energy and exuberance of this rich childhood milieu found its way into his art.

At nineteen, he won a scholarship to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but, inspired by his conversations with Christoper Isherwood, he left for London and set up home near Portobello Market at the height of the swinging sixties.  Fassett had actually started out as a minimalist painter, a fact which shocks anyone familiar with his designs, but was so enamored of the colors of the market, particularly the fabrics, that he switched to working in needlepoint. Then came the visit to Scotland, the spreads in Vogue, and commissions from fashion houses, films stars and royalty.

In 1988 the V&A hosted an exhibition of Kaffe’s work, making him the first living textile artist to have a one-man show at the museum. He has written more than thirty books and hosted television and radio programmes for the BBC and Channel 4, including his own very popular series, ‘Glorious Colour’. He has also worked with Oxfam on a project that works with villages in Guatemala and India to produce fabric designs for sale in the west.

As well as knitting and needlepoint, Fassett works in mosaicrugmaking and paint; but these days, he concentrates on patchwork. It appeals to his two great passions, pattern and color. He’s skilled in a variety of media, but Fassett is actually far less concerned with the technical aspects of making things – and would insist that he is technically mediocre in everything he does – than with the thrill to be had from solving the puzzle of organising colors into pleasing patterns.

He exhorts his fans to go crazy with pattern and color, to let loose and dare to experience them in unexpected and unconventional ways. He now devotes his life not just to the production of his own pieces, fabrics, books and designs, but to sharing his passions with as many people as possible by talking about his work all over the world. His love of color and pattern is infectious, and that’s why we are thrilled that Kaffe Fassett will be visiting our Amsterdam Treehouse to present his autobiography Dreaming in Color, on Thanksgiving Day, November 22nd.

To Fassett, quilting is a thrilling puzzle of pattern and shape. To most of the rest of us, it’s a dowdy sort of hobby, albeit with practical results, that’s been around for maybe a couple of hundred years. Read on to find out how the humble quilt has a history long as infinite spools of thread and as varied and colorful as patchwork itself.

Quilting for Function

In The V&A in London, is a small and yellowing, frayed and inconsequential looking piece of fabric. Actually, it’s three layers of fabric, sewn together; at more than 2,000 years old, The Stein Fragment is the museum’s earliest example of quilting and was likely part of a shoe. The very earliest pieces of quilting  found so far are 5,000 years old, which rather quashes my previously held idea that quilts were a recent invention.

In the middle ages quilting was used as armour; two layers of fabric sewn over fluffy batting could be quite effective at keeping out cold winds and sharp arrows.  Quilts have been used practically for thousands of years, but our love of them for their beauty, and for the sheer pleasure of piecing them together, that’s a recent development. If you call the 11th Century recent – that’s when the temperature in Europe dropped significantly, and the method was employed to make warm bedspreads.

As the popularity of these counterpanes increased, so did the practice of embellishing them with pattern and design, something that reached its peak in the Victorian era, when random shapes cut from cast-off dresses in luxurious fabrics were stitched together and gloriously embellished to make crazy quilts. At the same time, women across the world were piecing together more ordinary scraps as a way to save money and keep their families warm. They found patterns in magazines or swapped ideas with friends to create something that was bright and beautiful too.

Quilting for Comfort

This sort of practical but pretty patchwork has given comfort in some of our most trying times. Women on the American pioneer trail were told to take sufficient bedding for a few years and so took their quilts with them. These pioneer quilts were often made by, or together with, friends and family, and had many uses in addition to covering beds: a folded patchwork quilt cushioned soft behinds on hard and bumpy wagon seats. They could also keep out the dust and cold, protect precious items in transit, and even shroud the dead when there was no coffin to be had. Once the pioneers settled, quilts kept out draughts at doors and windows of log cabins and made makeshift room dividers. Far from home, in bleak circumstances and surroundings, pioneers drew comfort and cheer from these colorful reminders of home.

A few decades later, during the Great Depression, when not even old clothing could be spared for quilting, resourceful women used the cloth sacks that contained flour and animal feed. The producers caught onto this marketing opportunity and gave their feedsacks cheerful prints that were rather lovely.

When the war came to Europe in the 1930’s, women across America met in sewing circles to create quilts that were sent to offer comfort and warmth to those living in bombed-out homes. Some of them survive today and have been collected together as symbols of love and inspiration. You can find out more about these special quilts in Passing on The Comfort by ABC’s own Lynn Kaplanian. And you can find out more about the role of quilts in the American Civil War, their possible use as codes on the Underground Railroad, and their significance in the Amish community in this overview on Wikipedia. There’s also a thorough general history of the craft on womenfolk.com.

Given their practicality and frugality, it’s not surprising that patchwork quilts were seen as something made by the poor for the poor, certainly not things of artistic merit or beauty. Not even the crazy quilts which were often considered to be gaudy and in poor taste. This began to change, first with the Arts and Crafts Movement in Great Britain which valued the authentic and simple and, shortly afterwards, during the 19th century Colonial Revival in America, which looked back to pre-industrial times and emphasised hand-made items. And some of us are old enough to remember the popularity of patchwork in the 1960’s and 70’s, loved for its bright colors, feminist credentials and back-to-nature authenticity.  In the post-war era, we yearned for simpler times, and we had more time and money for hobbies. Quilting rose in status.

Quilting as Art

How far did it rise? As far as the Saatchi GalleryThe Tate and The V&A. The shift really started in 1971 when The Whitney in New York staged the exhibition ‘Abstract Design in American Quilts’ and presented 19th and 20th century quilts as genuine artworks, on stark white gallery walls, with gallery labels. Emphasising  abstract color and design, the exhibition fit perfectly into the aesthetic modes of the time. More recently, modern art darlings Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin have created patchworks that project messages about their lives and views, harking back to the commemorative quilts of the 18th and 19th centuries that were used to record births, deaths, marriages and historical events. These were included in an exhibition at the V&A that now tours the world (see some highlights here) and even has its own iPhone app. And a book, obviously. The V&A also has an excellent hub devoted to quilting on its website. Click at your peril – it’s fascinating and seemingly endless and, if you are a quilting fan or even just an aesthete, you will still be clicking and drooling three hours later.

Of course, despite being elevated to the walls of prestigious galleries, quilting is also just plain old patchwork. Piecing together shapes, solving the puzzles of pattern and color, providing warmth. But it’s sort of thrilling to know that something so ordinary hides such extraordinary stories.