Kaffe Fassett lecture

I was super- excited on Thursday to be setting off from Winwick for the short drive to the next village where Black Sheep Wools were hosting a lecture by a very special visitor – none other than legendary designer Kaffe Fassett.  He and his studio manager Brandon Mably were at Black Sheep for two days running quilting and knitting workshops and a lecture was planned for the evening in between.

Kaffe Fassett and Brandon Mably

Source: American Museum in Britain

One of the reasons that I was so delighted to be invited by Black Sheep to go to the lecture is that although he had absolutely no idea of this, Kaffe Fassett has had a huge influence on my knitting career.  Back in my late teens, I started to knit properly after seeing a pattern for the most wonderful jumper and my Mum telling me that if I wanted it, I had to knit it myself.  Entrelac with alternating rainbow and black and white blocks (it was the 1980s after all!), it was quite an achievement for someone who had never knitted more than straight lines before, and my jubilation at making that jumper led me to look around for the next challenge.  I got to know the lady who owned the yarn shop in my village and started knitting jumpers for her shop.  She showed me some kits that she’d just got in from a company called Rowan – I’d never heard of them or the designer with the exotic name, but I knew from the moment that I saw them that I wanted to knit them.  Despite not having years of colourwork experience under my belt, Jenny the shop owner trusted my abilities and handed the kits over for me to knit for her to be sold.

Many of the kits were for patterns that were featured in this book, Family Album, and they were a revelation to me.

Knitting with two colours at once, two different types of yarn at once, different textures, rows of knitting using umpteen balls of yarn – my favourite jumper contained 24 different shades and each row used 48 strands of yarn.  I was fearless and never once thought that I couldn’t do it (unlike dressmaking, after being told by a teacher that I wasn’t that good at it really even though before that I’d been quite competent).  I watched those jumpers grow on my needles and my confidence and my skills grew as well.  Between them, Kaffe Fassett and Jenny from the yarn shop helped me to become the knitter that I am today and I am forever grateful.

(And just to show that you never know how life is going to work out … one of the jumpers from this book that I knitted was a child’s jumper in the same diagonal box pattern as you can see on the cover.  It was knitted in 4ply and I vowed that I would never knit in 4ply again.  Funny that I didn’t hear the universe laughing at the time 🙂

There was one kit that I absolutely adored and bought for myself.  This is my Geometric Star jacket.  Yes, it’s huge and really quite heavy, but I still love it!  I ummed and ahhed over whether to wear it or not and then decided that I’m always delighted when people show me the socks that they’ve knitted, so I hoped that it would be the same.  It did make me laugh though when it was described as “vintage Kaffe”!

So, back to the lecture.  There wasn’t enough room at the Black Sheep Craft Barn for all the people who were there, so it was held at the British Legion in Culcheth village which is a short distance away.  It was very well attended and I wasn’t the only one wearing a Kaffe Fassett design!  Can you imagine what it felt like to be in the same room as the person who was partly the reason that I was – and still consider myself to be – a fearless knitter?  There was huge excitement, yes, but there was also a feeling of trepidation.  What if I didn’t enjoy the lecture? What if I didn’t like him?

Luckily, that wasn’t the case.  Kaffe is great to listen to, and spoke with passion and engaging wit for the hour of his slideshow, answering questions from the audience as he went along and also in a question and answer session afterwards.  The photos you can see are the garments and quilts that were brought as part of the display.  No photos were allowed during the slide show so I can’t show you exactly what he talked about, but I’ll do my best to give you a flavour of it, and the man himself.

The slides were pictures of Kaffe’s projects – knitted, painting and quilting – from vintage like my jacket (ha!) to more modern designs.  There were also many pictures of things that inspire him and he showed how he sees something, maybe a scene from nature, or of rooftops or even a derelict building site and uses that as the base of one of his colourful projects.  It’s quite remarkable to see the original and then in the next picture to see how that has become something that you would wear or wrap yourself up in.

Kaffe Fassett originally comes from San Francisco and grew up in a small community along the coast at Big Sur in California where his parents ran a well-known restaurant.  He was fascinated by the people who came from all over the world to visit the restaurant, and when he was old enough, travelled to many of the countries that they had come from to see them for himself.  He arrived in London in 1964 and has been here in England ever since.  Why England?  Because he loves our sense of humour, and our sense of “silly” which is quite different to the American sense of humour!

He started out as a painter (Brandon describes them both as artists, “guys that are interested in arrangement of colour” rather than knitters or quilters) specialising in white-on-white still life paintings, dropping out of art college to study by himself and originally not interested in colour at all.  Indeed, his view of the colour wheel is that it’s the “work of the devil”, but all that changed when he saw vibrant Indian and Persian paintings at the V&A Museum in London.  He is still fascinated with those colours and patterns, collecting tablecloths, beading, even the endpapers on books which catch his eye.  A trip to Scotland with the designer Bill Gibb in the late 1960s was the turning point in his relationship with colour use in his work.  He found yarns in shades that he had never seen before, the American palette being rather limited at the time, bought 20 colours and learnt to knit on the train home after asking another passenger to teach him.  His first cardigan was striped (“you can never have enough stripes”) and had none of the ends sewn in, but he took it along to Vogue – the rest, you could say, is history!

I think the main thing that you get from listening to him talk is his sense of energy.  He was born in 1937 and yet he still designs, writes books, knits, tours, teaches … he reminded me very much of my uncle whose view on life is that “if you don’t use it, you lose it”.  Kaffe still does everything at speed.  He says that he works fast to bypass the brain; working at speed lets you get out of your head to respond instinctively to colour – and you only have to think about how often we talk ourselves out of something instead of just getting on and doing it to know the truth of that.  He knits spontaneously with colours (“I’m highly motivated by not knowing what the hell I’m doing” J), never pre-planning the sequence, and then passes his swatches on to someone else to work out the colour details, draw graphs and write up the patterns.  He never suffers from creative block as he says that every idea gives birth to 10,000 more, but his answer to those that do is to go and look at something beautiful for five minutes – even petrol spilled into a puddle has its own beauty.  “Open your eyes and look at the world,” he says, “it’s full of inspiration.”  He also recommends working to a soundtrack with a beat that you can sing along to as that helps you not to overthink what you’re doing.  Oh, and my favourite quote of the evening was “anything worth doing is worth overdoing”. I love it!

The workshop that had been running at Black Sheep during the day was a quilting workshop.  He spoke about what a great day they’d had, and how well everyone had grasped the idea of working with colour; some of the people from the workshop were at the lecture and I liked that he congratulated them all as part of this.  It’s important – this is what makes us fearless!  Kaffe pieces his fabric quilts by placing the pieces on a grey flannel backdrop pinned to the wall which is a completely new concept to me.  He says he had to come to terms with the colour grey once he came to live in the UK (and we do have our fair share of grey days!) and now loves grey backdrops to bring out the colours.  I love looking at the fabrics in his design range but although my Canadian aunt is a wonderful quilter, it’s never really been something that has gripped me in the same way that knitting does.  Perhaps I needed to go to that workshop!

He’s a prolific quilter, and one of the questions that was asked is what he does with them all. They’re all carefully stored and then if any are required for an exhibition they are taken out of storage.  It’s not unusual for there to be 4-5 exhibitions displaying Kaffe’s work at any one time – that’s a lot of quilts and knitwear!

Time spent at events like this always seems too short and suddenly it was all over.  There was just time for a book signing and some photos and then Kaffe and Brandon were ready to leave – a workshop and a lecture in one day is quite a hefty workload!  I treated myself to a new book …

It reminds me of Family Album and I know that even if I don’t knit as many of the items in it as I did with the other book, I will still get a lot of pleasure from looking at it often.

Here I am with Kaffe, and as you might imagine, there’s a story to go with this photo … the light wasn’t great for taking photos and the auto settings on my camera went into overdrive trying to correct it.  There was flash when there shouldn’t have been, the photo style changed even whilst it was trying to focus and that’s why I’m looking a bit worried and Kaffe is looking away.  The photos got worse – I’m absolutely not going to show you the one with me looking particularly anxious and Kaffe with his head in his hands.

Big daughter and I did our best to restore this picture which was the best of the lot but actually, it doesn’t really matter.  I met him, and it feels as if I’ve gone a full circle from who I was as a knitter all those years ago to who I am now.  Oh, and he said how nice it was to see my jacket and to see the pattern again.  I’m glad I wore it after all.

I’m going to finish this post with a few facts about Kaffe Fasset that you might not know.

  • Kaffe doesn’t own a mobile phone
  • He designed costumes for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It in 2000
  • His favourite season is winter, particularly pearly, misty winter mornings
  • Kaffe loves stones
  • He also loves cabbages and roses
  • There is a rose named after him
  • The quilt on his bed was bought from another maker!

With huge thanks to Black Sheep Wools for inviting me to the event.  I really appreciate it, and loved the evening! xx

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18 Responses

  1. thrift deluxe says:

    Wow, how fantastic to attend such a great event and to meet such a wonderful designer – his were some of the designs that aroused my interest in textiles when I was young.

  2. Bethany says:

    The only knitting celebrities 🙂 I've met are Arne and Carlos at a workshop they held here in the States on their fall book tour. It ranks up there as one of the best days of my life. Every week when I watch their new video I think "I met those guys. I shook their hands. Arne liked my knitting needles!" And here you are with the king of color knitting. How did you not faint?

  3. Terri Mc says:

    I loved this post! How sweet of you to share so much with us. When I first started doing a little quilting, the first fabric I bought was by Kaffe Fassett. Love the colors and patterns. That jacket you knitted is Spectacular! Last year I made a simple striped tote bag in Kaffe fabric and refashioned the handles so they would slip over wheelchair handles. It was for my cousin. She loved it of course, and that bag went to many, many doctor visits and therapy visits. It caused a sensation wherever she went, for it was always hanging on the back of the wheelchair. Everyone who saw it wanted one. (The kit was from Craftsy). Isn't it amazing how a designers ideas and talent can touch so many people in so many different ways. I'm a beginner to knitting and haven't tried socks yet, but I love reading your posts and maybe some day I will conquer them! Terri in the USA.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      You're absolutely right, Terri, it's a bit like dropping a stone into the water as you never know how far the ripples will reach. Socks are perfect waiting room projects 😉 xx

  4. FB says:

    Such a good post, I remember buying the same book as you in the 80's, I'd never seen anything like it. I still have it along with a few others because they are jam packed with colour. Thank you for sharing your evening, I think your jacket looks wonderful x

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Thank you! I'd forgotten how much I loved that jacket until I got it out again – I haven't worn it for quite some time as it's so big, but now it's out I'm reluctant to pack it away again! xx

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lovely jacket.

  6. Luisa Holistic Massage & Healing says:

    Wow all this post sounds fascinating! I learnt to knit when I was little and although I have knitted a few items for myself I never got deep into it, but I would really love to because despite I am not an expert I love it and I could do with some help to get deep into it, anyway. … love your jacket, absolutely stunning!!! 🙂

    Luisa xx

  7. AnnieOBTextiles says:

    It was very enjoyable to read about your evening and reminded me of a Kaffe Fassett lecture I attended several years ago. I had forgotten about his remarkable energy and he obviously has not slowed down. Your jacket looks wonderful and might be classed as 'vintage' but still looks fresh and modern.

  8. Bossymamma says:

    It really was a fantastic evening, wasn't it? I really enjoyed being amongst so many people with common interests and watching and listening to Kaffe Fassett. Your jacket drew many admiring looks and comments during the evening. I was sorely tempted to come and speak to you but decided to leave you in peace.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      You should have done, it would have been lovely to say hello! Maybe we'll get chance another time 🙂 There is something about being with such a big group of like-minded people, isn't there? It all seemed to go past too quickly! xx

  9. Sharon xx says:

    What a totally wonderful, exciting and inspirational post. Thank you so much for sharing, I've read it three times straight. Can you still buy Kaffe Fassett kits?? I can see where your confidence comes from and it's catching because you've passed that on to so many of us through your sockalong. I can knit socks because of you…..that's quite impressive considering we've never been in the same air space….Thank you xx

    Sharon xx

  10. Jennyff says:

    Now I wish I'd kept my Kaffe books, they went to charity when we downsized. But I too still have an 80s cardigan, a zig zag pattern from a kit I bought at a shop in Aberdeen run by two very glam ladies. I feel inspired by your post, you must be totally fired up to knit colour, lovely.

  11. Angel Jem says:

    Kaffe is a great guy, isn't he? I wonder how many more knitters were inspired by him. I love your vintage Kaffe… although I don't see why vintage? I'd call it classic. And it must be such a buzzy feeling meeting a hero!!

  12. Loraine McLean says:

    Thank you Christine for sharing your evening so thoroughly, the next best thing to being there. I must admit to not knowing too much about Kaffe before, but wow, what a guy. Up till now I haven't done any colourwork, something I intend to rectify soon. In fact I bought a kit by Ysolde Teague, a fair Isle cowl. Wish I was a fearless knitter!! If it goes well maybe I will try something by Kaffe. I love your jacket, and how wonderful that he commented on it xx

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