Kaffe Fassett‘s marketer once came up with this snappy little mnemonic for pronouncing his name: “Kaffe Fassett’s a safe asset”. They’d appear to be right. Even in these troubled economic times, Kaffe looks like a winner. He burst onto the craft scene in the ’80s with Glorious Knitting, his colourful approach blowing the cobwebs away. Then there was the needlepoint. Then the patchwork. How many books has he published? How many thousands of metres of cotton designed for devotees to hack into small pieces and reassemble in myriad ways? Don’t even bother to try to count.
I’ve been lucky enough to hear Kaffe speak on three occasions in recent years. Each has been a hoot. I caught up with him most recently last Friday night when he was plugging his latest book at my wonderful local bookshop , Topping’s. Kaffe seems to come to Bath a lot and has a long-standing association with the American Museum at Claverton, just outside the city. Now in his 70s, Kaffe is still an elfin, twinkling, slightly waspish presence. He gives great publicity, telling colourful, non-broadcastable anecdotes, and having a poke at the often repressed traditional craft establishment.
After speaking compellingly about the new book, Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts,and its inspiration (more of that in a moment), he elaborated on some of the confusion caused by his unusual name: a customer at Hatchards, the famous Piccadilly bookshop, reportedly once asked : “Do you have Glorious Knitting by Yasser Arafat?” – Kaffe mincingly re-enacts the imagined lady’s voice before swishing some gems from his fabric range at us like a mesmerising toreador. No wonder the Topping’s cash registers kerching as I wait to pay for the book – the book I’d already promised myself I wouldn’t be buying; I have several Kaffe quilt titles at home already, and can I really say that this one is so unlike the others?
Well, yes, I’d say it is. Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts attempts to teach the reader how to see and compose quilts, to open up Kaffe’s own extraordinary creative vision. Kaffe dedicates it to ‘all the quilters worldwide who ask “Where do you get your ideas?”‘ – that infuriating old chestnut asked of all creatives. And inspiration is at the heart of this book. It’s arranged in chapters dedicated to various simple geometrical shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, diamonds, quarter-circles and full circles) and shows, via lush photos of source material, how you too can find such patterns in your own environment and translate them into stunning quilt patterns. As we’ve come to expect from Kaffe’s books, the pictures of completed quilts are rich and complex, the instructions simple and clear.
I’m not sure if I imagined it, but there’s just the faintest hint of the broader recessionary climate in the book’s production story. Unusually, Kaffe didn’t travel to exotic locations to drape his quilts (I say “his” though they’re made in collaboration with his quilt expert Liza Prior Lucy and an enthusiastic team of stitchers) over bucolic barn doors for these shoots. Instead, photographer Debbie Patterson‘s approach was rather more make-do-and-mend, with all pictures taken within a few miles’ walk of Kaffe’s home. Debbie is first and foremost a food photographer and takes a mighty appetising photo. However, the geographical restraint – using industrial sites and architectural locations – gives a pared-down quality, a back-to-basics approach, which I really like. A pile of car tyres and a heap of oil barrels are used to illustrate circles; industrial mesh gates and ordinary paving tiles to suggest diamonds. You don’t have to live somewhere exotically beautiful to find creative inspiration, it implies.
Circles inspiration page including tyres, oil drums and buttons
Why the stress on geometry? As Kaffe explained to us, he’s not interested in today’s art quilts with their looseness of form, their conscious rejection of traditional patchwork. Taking the old quilt patterns and doing them in a new way is what fires him up. Kaffe contends that the old-fashioned geometry of quilting is endless in its variety:
“Geometry is like Shakespearian language: you can never wear it out,” he says.
He’s fascinated by the effect of cutting up patterned fabric and placing it within another pattern (the patchwork pattern). As one might anticipate, therefore, he doesn’t “get” the modern quilts on show in the current V&A exhibition: if you’re just going to paint on fabric, he says, why not do a painting instead? He’s equally dismissive of what he calls the “Thimbleberry” style of traditional quilting fabrics: small-scale, dull prints in hundreds of shades of oatmeal.
In spite of his swatch-swishing, Kaffe claims that the book is less prescriptive than many of his others, and is not tied to a particular line of fabrics, but there’s an awful lot of his familiar perennial Rowan/Westminster Fibres range detectable in the quilts featured. It is slightly less hard-sell than it might be, though, and I really don’t begrudge the guy a few fat quarters in his bank account. Kaffe told us what a kind critic has said of this publication: “Your other books were recipe books. This is the art of cooking.” He must have a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of books ahead of him yet, the next one being, he tells us, his autobiography. He’s still looking for a title. Get in touch with him if you happen to have any suggestions. My best shots are Multi-Fassetted or possibly Fully Kaffeinated, though A Life in Colour looks like a safer bet.
Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts: 23 Original Quilt Designs by Kaffe Fassett with Liza Prior Lucy, photographed by Debbie Patterson, is published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang (an imprint of Abrams) price $35.00 (US) $45.50 (Canada) or £22.50 (UK)
Have you read Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts? What did you think of it? I’d love to hear your take on it, or anything you have to say about Kaffe. Has he inspired you?