Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Quilt Bonanza: Kaffe Fassett’s Collection of Quilts & Costumes

Kaffe_Fassett_Shirt_Stripe_BoxesBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Quilt Bonanza: Kaffe Fassett’s Collection of Quilts & Costumes

The American Museum in Britain at Claverton Manor near Bath, houses, quite appropriately, the largest collection of American quilts outside the United States. It is here that the celebrated textile designer Kaffe Fassett’s modest beginnings can be found: illustrating a booklet for the museum and subsequently studying the impressive textile collection housed on the beautiful grounds in Somerset’s rolling countryside. Born in the United States, Fassett has made England his home since in the 1960s. Today numerous international exhibitions and workshops, as well as a series of how-to books on quilting and knitting, have made Fassett as near to being a household name as any textile designer can hope for.

Famously quoted as saying “I paint in yarn,” Fassett’s early interest in the fine arts soon turned to the decorative arts and textiles in particular. He explains that “the one art form that gave me not only an approach to colour but the exciting geometric forms to hand any colour scheme on was the patchwork quilt.” Ironically, his “more is more” approach to color and pattern stands in contrast to today’s often austere design sensibilities. Instead. Fassett’s aesthetic is firmly rooted in the decorative tradition that brought about some of the most lavish textiles of the past centuries.

“Quilt Bonanza: Kaffee Fassett’s Collection of Quilts and Costumes,” exhibited at the museum last March through November, did much to reveal just what painting in yarn means to Fassett’s design process. The exhibition paired quilts from Fassett’s private collection with the contemporary works that they inspired. In addition to traditional quilts, a collection of quilted costumes designed for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It and examples of quilted clothing from around the world illustrated the versatility of quilting as both a decorative and functional art form. Also included were several motifs from historical quilts that have been transferred back to paintings and even ceramic surfaces by the artist. But it is undeniably the quilt that puts Fassett’s investigations to clearest resolve.

Works such as Shirt Stripe Boxes Quilt take the subtle pinstripes of men’s shirting fabric and create a simple geometric study. While the source quilt, a 19th century “crazy patchwork” quilt, is endearing in its randomness, Fassett’s contemporary rendition imposes greater structure and control. Tighter and more uniform than the historical version, the contemporary quilt nonetheless displays a similar quiet beauty and simplicity. Other works such as Red Court House Steps and Stars and Stripes reveal the bold layers of pattern and color for which Fassett is more widely known.

When compared to the impact technology has had on the weaving and printing industries, quilting and knitting – Fassett’s most recognized techniques – are structures that have changed little over the past centuries. Fassett’s talent lies in the simple techniques he has mastered to capture his energetic sensibilities. He explains, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Always go to extremes. If in doubt, add 20 more colors.” His philosophy may not be for everyone, but his popularity indicates an interest in the textile arts and the handmade that few others have been able to elicit.

FiberArts (Jan./Feb. 2004: 50-51)