Kaffe's Press Archive
A PAINTER'S PALETTE
Kaffe's Article in Vogue Knitting International
Kaffe Fassett is known for his signature knitwear designs: intricate intarsias and elaborate patterns rendered in layers of glorious colour. But VK readers may not know that Kaffe's unique sense of colour and design has inspired legions of devoted fans and brought him recognition worldwide as an expert on colour and craft. "I'm a painter, knitter, quill needle artist and designer", he says, "but my approach to every discipline is the same - manipulating pattern and seeing how colour comes alive in different forms".
Until age 28, Kaffe devoted his life to painting. Born in San Francisco, he won a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston at age 19, but left after three months to paint in London, where he took up residence in 1964.
He had no experience with needle work but was often drawn to the richly patterned textiles he saw in museums and flea markets. "As a painter, I often tried to render them", he says, "but I had an urge to move from the canvas to something someone could wear". During a visit to a Scottish woolen mill, Kaffe succumbed to the "exquisitely subtle colours" of the yarns, bought twenty shades and some knitting needles, and was taught to knit by a fellow passenger on the train ride home. "I got the gist of it, and from there I taught myself".
His first design appeared in VK in 1986, and he went on to produce commercial collections for designers Bill Gibb and Missoni. Celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine and Lauren Bacall have collected his one-of-a-kind knits, and in 1988 he became the first living textile artist to have a one-man show at London's Victoria & Albert Museum.
Kaffe has traveled extensively and communicated his design philosophy through numerous workshops, television and radio lectures, books and videos. He has been interviewed countless times on the subjects of colour and design and has inspired thousands of crafters to incorporate vibrant colours into their projects. "Colour is my inspiration", Kaffe says. "When it comes to knitting, it's about using big, strong geometrics and as rich and complex a colour palette as possible".
He often designs "right in the middle", beginning with one idea but letting the piece develop as he's working. "When I knit, I work as a painter", he explains. "In my workshops, I tell people to pretend they're painters and to just let the dreamy part of themselves take over". He believes that knitting is not cerebral - it is intuitive. "Don't do it with your brain; just let your hands take over".
To make it simpler to layer in countless shades of colour, Kaffe developed a technique for knitting-in the ends of yarn as he goes along. "This saves knitters hours of laborious darning in when they're done knitting", he says. "When introducing a new colour, leave ends of about 3 inches (8cm) on the old and new yarns. Work the next two stitches with the new yarn, holding both ends in your left hand; lay them over the working yarn; and work the next stitch. Now insert the right-hand needle into the next stitch as usual, then bring the ends up over the point of the right-hand needle and work this stitch past the ends.
Calling himself "an old hippie", Kaffe says he prefers clothes that are romantic and intriguing. For this issue, Kaffe shied away from doing a classic crew- or V-neck sweater. Instead, he created a lush jacket with a generous shape, inspired by one that was given to him by his sister Holly, who Kaffe describes as "a sensational knitter who bakes wonderful pies and runs our family business".
Describing the design for the jacket as a combination of abstract shapes and colours, Kaffe began by choosing hues that struck his fancy. "I pulled together a mix of juicy watermelon pinks, rich browns, swimming-pool blues and lapis lazuli", he says, and then sat down and started knitting. "I just designed it as I knit. One of the things I love most about knitting is that you never know how something is going to turn out. It could be a disaster, but you'll always come away from each project having learned something new".
He encourages knitters to take advantage of all the wonderful yarns available today. He has a preference for the sophisticated palette of Rowan yarns, saying, "They know what I'm all about. They have gorgeous shades, and their natural-fiber yarns are wonderful". For years Kaffe's designs have appeared on the pages of the company's pattern books, which revolutionized the industry by introducing imaginative designs to knitters of all ages.
Kaffe's limitless drive to create has led him to branch out into other mediums, including tapestry, fabric weaving, quilting and mosaics, and he has published a highly popular series of how-to books on each. Over the years, he has never stopped painting, and says that his style has evolved as a result of his work in other media: "There's a glow and intensity to my work that I've learned from textiles". But he says that knitting offers him the greatest creative freedom. "When I sit down to paint, I have something in front of me to get me going. It's more limiting", he explains. "But when I'm knitting, I feel fearless and free. Knitting is living row by row".