Kaffe is Born
Kaffe Fassett was born on 7 December, 1937, in San Francisco. His parents Bill and Lolly named him Frank after one of his great-grandfathers, but he chose the name Kaffe at the age of 14 after reading a novel about Ancient Egypt - the main character was a boy who, in the cover illustration, looked very like young Master Fassett, with his dark hair in a 'pudding-bowl' style.
The family moved house a few times, but in 1947 they settled in Big Sur, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Kaffe's parents bought a log cabin and 12 acres of land that had previously been owned by Orson Welles. The land enjoyed spectacular views, so Kaffe and his siblings enjoyed living there, but people also flocked to visit Nepenthe, the restaurant that Bill and Lolly built with the help of their family and friends - diners included well-known actors and celebrities Ramon Novarro, Gloria Swanson, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda and Olivia de Havilland, amongst others. A film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (The Sandpiper - 1964) included scenes set in Nepenthe, and Kaffe and his family were involved with the project - the restaurant was recreated in France for the filming.
Kaffe's talent for art was recognised from an early age - his task at Christmas was to make cards for the family to send. He went to the small local school until he was 15, when he moved up to Monterey High School. Shortly after he started there, an artist friend of the family suggested he should move to Happy Valley Boarding School, which had an excellent reputation for teaching the Arts. As well as painting, Kaffe took acting lessons and dance classes. He had known he was gay for several years by then, but it wasn't a problem for him as his parents had gay friends, including a man who liked to knit - although Kaffe didn't learn the craft then, the knitting did attract his interest. Kaffe enjoyed his first relationship with a boy at Happy Valley.
At the age of 17, he went back to Monterey High School to graduate, then decided to go to Performing Arts College.
Turning to Art
Being tall2, dark and handsome, Kaffe thought a career in acting beckoned. However, his fellow student, the small, dark and interesting Dustin Hoffman said, 'Kaffe couldn't act his way out of a paper bag!' and his teachers told him to stick to painting stage scenery.
Not sure what to do, Kaffe joined the army, much to the surprise of his father. Bill offered to pay for Kaffe to travel as a civilian instead, and Kaffe jumped at the chance - he went to New York, Paris and Rome then returned home to Big Sur when his allowance had been exhausted.
Kaffe next enrolled into the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but dropped out when lessons tried to teach the science of colour rather than encouraging students to use their instincts for colour, which was what he preferred to do.
His first commission as an artist was to paint a mural for a friend's children. It took him months to complete, and he didn't charge much for the work, so he was very disappointed when his friend judged it to be too scary and had the wall painted in a plain colour. Many of the murals he painted after that shared a similar fate, but he learned to charge more for the work to make up for it.
Kaffe spent some time in New York and met famous people including Leonard Bernstein, who considered him to be 'the most handsome man in the world', but he moved back to Big Sur in 1961. He had his own studio there, but was still restless - he went to San Francisco in 1963 and just about sold enough work to keep himself afloat financially. In 1964, he was offered the chance to live in London at the home of Jeremy Fry, who was a friend of Princess Margaret. His art became much simpler - he painted still-lifes in shades of white rather than the bold colours he had previously favoured, and was commissioned to create line drawings to illustrate guidebooks on major cities including London, New York and Paris.
He didn't earn much for his art at first in London, but he did receive an unexpected bonus of £5,000 after he met the film director John Slesinger and told him about a novel called Midnight Cowboy that went on to be made into a successful film. Kaffe also turned to modelling to earn extra cash, and was photographed by David Bailey.
In 1966, he met Bill Gibb, studying for a degree in Fashion (Bill went on to be a well-known fashion designer of the 1970s). Together they went to Scotland, where Kaffe discovered wool. Kaffe designed a striped jumper and commissioned someone to knit it for him. Impressed by the result, he learned to knit so he could design and make garments in collaboration with Bill.
He approached Vogue magazine, as he knew they published the Vogue Knitting Book, and he was commissioned as a designer for them, as well as featuring in an article in the magazine dubbing him 'the king of knitting'. He was also invited to be a designer for the Missoni fashion house.
In the 1970s, Kaffe was busy designing knitwear for Bill Gibb Ltd, and carrying out private commissions for people including George Harrison. He also learned techniques in needlework so that he could work for the Designers' Guild on textiles, tapestry and embroidery. As a result, he established his own studio team, including machine knitters, hand knitters and designers. Kaffe continued with painting, setting up an exhibition in New York in 1972, but he also put on an exhibition of textiles in 1977 in London, and in 1978 became a featured designer at the Ehrman Needlepoint Kit company.
As knitting was considered to be a woman's hobby, Kaffe was seen as an 'oddity' and he used this to his advantage. He gave lectures in association with the British Craft Council, including giving talks to Women's Institutes, and inspired 'a frenzy of knitting'.
Becoming an Author
In the 1980s, his friend Steve Lovi, a photographer, suggested Kaffe write a book about knitting, to be lavishly illustrated with photos of the garments included in it. Kaffe had produced knitting kits for the wool manufacturers Rowan in 1980, and they agreed to supply the wool for his designs, so he got to work and finished the book in 1985. 40,000 copies of the book Glorious Knits were printed and distributed to wool shops as well as to book shops, and they sold out within two weeks.
As a result of that success, Kaffe was commissioned to write another book, this time entitled Glorious Needlepoint, including designs for cushions, wall hangings and rugs. The book was published in 1987, and Kaffe did a round of publicity on television and radio to promote his work, including appearances on the BBC's Pebble Mill and Women's Hour.
In 1988 a television series was commissioned by the UK TV station Channel 4 - six episodes of 30 minutes each called Glorious Colour starring Kaffe in his studio and on location in places such as Arundel, Brighton, and the Cotswolds, celebrating colour and the crafts he enjoyed. Not only were his distinctive designs recognised, but now his face became familiar to people as well, and the programme inspired other men around the world to take up knitting.
Kaffe became the first living textile artist to have a dedicated exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. The 1990 exhibition consisted of knitting designs inspired by items in the V&A, displayed alongside those items. It was a huge success, becoming the second most successful exhibition ever at the V&A. The exhibition toured around the world, with the knitting being displayed alongside museum pieces from the countries it visited, including Denmark, Iceland, Australia and Canada.
The success of the exhibition led to more TV and radio appearances, including the BBC's Desert Island Discs, more books, workshops, and lectures, and more travel for Kaffe - in particular he visited India, South Africa and Vietnam. He was ably assisted during this time by his new partner Brandon Mably, who had a natural talent for craft and design, and also for organisation.
More Crafts and Adventures
Kaffe's travels inspired his knitting - in 1991 he visited Istanbul and bought a carpet, and on his return he designed the 'Kilim Jacket' for Rowan. It became one of his most popular knitting patterns and was also a key moment in the career of supermodel Kate Moss, who wore the jacket in the photo on the cover of the pattern booklet.
Interior design was the subject of Kaffe's writing in 1995, as Brandon and he bought a house and refurbished it so it featured in Glorious Interiors. He had travelled to India again in 1994 and learned weaving, quilting and patchwork, so his work was then written up into the 1996 book Glorious Patchwork by him and his friend Liza Prior Lucy.
He opened a shop in 1996 with an antique dealer friend in Bath to sell his own work alongside antiques, textiles and pottery. Sadly it was not a success and closed in 1997, but Kaffe continued to have a presence in the city, exhibiting his crafts regularly at the American Museum there. He next turned his hand to mosaics, designing a gold-medal-winning garden with Hilliers Nursery for the 1998 Chelsea Flower Show. He decorated a wall at his old school Happy Valley, and wrote a book about mosaics with Candace Bahouth. He also did some work designing costumes and sets for theatre productions, recalling the days of his youth at Performing Arts College.
In the 21st Century, Kaffe continued his work on knitting and needlepoint kits, but also became a designer for Peruvian Connections, a company of knitters in Peru, and he visited the country for Saga Magazine. He still runs workshops in the UK, but focused on quilting for a change instead of knitting. Brandon wrote his own book about knitting, Brilliant Knits, in 2002, so he took on the knitting workshops.
Kaffe's autobiography, Dreaming in Colour was published in 2012. As the Kaffe Fassett Collective, Kaffe and his team continue to design and create, write books, exhibit and promote their work around the world, in person and online.