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Purls of Wisdom

Ripping good yarn.
  • Ripping good yarn.
Looking at Kaffe Fassett's artwork could make your granny choke on her tea biscuit. No, he's not another Mapplethorpe; he's a knitting, quilting, rug-making, needlepointing, interior-designing maven whose wild colors and patterns break all the old rules of textile art. His sweater designs normally contain at least 30 different shades of yarn, and some have up to 200.

"I want people to not be afraid of color but to indulge in it," professes Fassett from his London studio. Born in Big Sur, California, some 60 years ago, Kaffe Fassett (rhymes with "safe basset") spent his early life painting and running free around his parents' ocean-view restaurant. After moving to London in 1964, a trip to Scotland inspired him to try knitting, and he's been captivated ever since. The first living textile artist to be featured in a solo exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Fassett has knitted commissions for celebrities including Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Candice Bergen, Shirley Maclaine, and director John Schlesinger. His one-of-a-kind garments made on commission cost into the thousands of dollars.

Fassett is also a bestselling author of numerous craft books, and he teaches his techniques in lectures and workshops. The Textile Art Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art is bringing Fassett to the museum on Friday, November 12, to lecture on the sources of his design inspirations.

"Last year, when Fassett's name came up as a possible visiting artist, the museum's curator of textiles, Louise Mackie, jumped," says Ruta Marino, past president of the Textile Art Alliance and the person in charge of the artist's visit to Cleveland. "When Fassett lectured in Toronto, people came from all over to hear him -- they were from all walks of life, too."

Fassett's lecture here will include an 80-slide presentation of his designs. He and his studio manager, artist Brandon Mably, also will present knitting and quilting workshops while visiting the Cleveland museum. "We've got people flying in from Boston, New York City, and other states to attend this event," reports Marino.

What is it about Kaffe Fassett that draws such a following?

"He's a sweetie," says Liz Tekus, owner of Fine Points, a Murray Hill knitting supply store. Tekus attended one of Fassett's workshops several years ago.

"Kaffe is a great coach, because he gives people confidence," adds Tekus, herself a 30-year knitter. "He reinforces the idea that people can -- and should -- deviate and grow from his ideas.

"Sometimes people will come into my shop with one of Kaffe's design kits and decide not to undertake the project, simply because we don't have one or two of the exact shades of yarn in stock," says Tekus, dismayed.

Fassett wouldn't like that at all. He has said that people should "just get the general idea and then run away and create." A look at several of Fassett's books leaves no doubt that he advocates individuality. One page turns up a man's diagonally striped sweater scattered with squares, knitted in shades of tangerine, scarlet, bright green, salmon, mustard, and about 17 other colors. Another shows off a four-paneled room screen clustered with a collage of portraits clipped from art books.

Will this colorful expatriate ever return to the U.S. permanently? Not bloody likely. "England is definitely home," he says. "I love England because you can just shut the doors and make a fire and work." -- Lisa Palazzo

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