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Born in San Francisco, Kaffe studied painting at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston USA. Kaffe left the United States after just 3 months at art school and travelled to London in order to paint. He settled there in 1964.
Kaffe became interested in the world of fashion and worked closely with designer Bill Gibb, creator of intricate and iconic kaftans and dresses of the period. It was during a trip to a Scottish wool mill that Kaffe began to be inspired by yarn as an art medium. Inspired by the colours in the landscape he was thrilled to find the same colours in yarns and so he bought 20 colours of the Shetland wool and some knitting needles. And – as the legend goes – was taught to knit by a fellow passenger on the train home to London.
Kaffe embarked on his first pieces of knitting and his first design appeared as a full page spread in Vogue Knitting magazine. Whilst continuing to work with Bill Gibb, Kaffe found himself in demand and was commissioned to produce designs for Missoni and his one off designs have been collected by Lauren Bacall, Barbara Steisand and Shirley Maclaine to name but a few.
Kaffe began to give lectures and inspirational talks and it was after one such event that he was approached by Stephen Sheard who asked him to produce some kits for Rowan Yarns. At the time Kaffe was producing chenille knitting kits of his own, but he was so inspired by the beautiful yarns and vibrant colours being produced by Rowan Weavers that he agreed to get involved. In 1983 the first Kaffe Fassett knit kit range – packaged in luxury boxes was launched and sold through wool shops and department stores. At first the trade considered these kits too costly and believed they were too complicated for the home knitter, however they were thankfully proved wrong with Rowan knitting kits becoming a staple income for Rowan over the years.
Kaffe’s first book ‘Glorious Knitting’ was published by Ebury Press in 1985. The book contained 30 designs and has over the years become a compulsory addition to every knitters’ collection. To aid and inspire knitters yet further Kaffe presented his own 6 part television series entitled ‘Glorious Colour’ for Channel 4. The series was aired in 1986 and proved so popular that it has been repeated 3 times.
By the mid 1980s Kaffe had become heavily involved in making tapestries and accompanying kits. He was interested in surface decoration on china and artefacts as well as vegetation and natural landscapes. His work reflected this and in 1987 Kaffe launched a needlepoint book entitled ‘Glorious Needlepoint’. His interests in needlepoint continued and soon lead him into the field of patchwork and quilting and many subsequent publications and books.
Kaffe’s love of textiles led him to travel extensively. The international charity Oxfam asked him to work with poverty-stricken weaving villages in India and Guatemala, to advise on designs that would be more marketable in the West. As a result, a range of colourful hand woven fabrics have been produced for use as shirt fabric, bed throws and patchwork fabric. This is available on an international basis through Rowan UK and Westminster Fibres, USA. Other charity work has also taken him to South Africa.
In 1988 Kaffe became the first living textile artist to have a one man show at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition attracted such crowds that the Museum doubled attendance figures during the run and the show proved so popular that it was subsequently converted into an international travelling show which visited nine countries including Iceland where 5% of the total population attended.
Throughout Kaffe’s shifts in his own inspiration – be it painting, needlepoint or patchwork - he has continued to contribute his knit designs to Rowan. His older designs such as ‘foolish virgins’ and ‘red diamonds’ have become iconic knitted pieces of the century, whilst newer continue to show his trademark use of colour and surface pattern.
Kaffe’s current passion and idea of heaven is creating cloth for patchwork, yet he continues to lecture and tutor knitting workshops. His excitement for all his chosen crafts shines through and his company is exhilarating and exciting for knitters and non knitters alike. Kaffe says “being the dinosaur of patchwork and knitting guarantees that people will come and listen to me”.