Counterculture design legend Kaffe Fassett: ‘I’m that bizarre beast – a man who does textiles’

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It took the knitter and textile designer Kaffe Fassett two goes at buying his four-floor Victorian home in north London. In 1971, he got one floor with a £400 deposit but had to wait 20 years before buying the rest. “When I entered textiles, no one was doing what I was doing with colour. I think a lot of the old hippy girls loved that, but some people thought I was a disgrace to the industry,” he says. “It took me a while to actually make any money.”

After a chance meeting with the director John Schlesinger at a party, Fassett handed him a copy of James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy, suggesting he make it into a film. Flicking through, Schlesinger told Fassett it was “too depressing – but then before I knew it, Dustin Hoffman had been cast and then they called me into Schlesinger’s office, told me to sign a piece of paper, gave me £5,000 and told me not to ask for any more.” This “hunter’s fee” became a deposit on the rest of the house.

Within the niche world of textiles and knitting, 84-year-old Kaffe Fassett (the name, he says, rhymes with “safe asset”) is both king and maverick, upending the idea that craft is a housewife’s hobby. Growing up in Big Sur, California during the 1940s and 50s, Fassett moved to Boston to paint, working his way through New York’s artistic circles before ending up in London, via Bath, in the late 1960s. “People said I was in the right place at the right time for what I was doing,” he says, “but really I was just drawn towards the whole experimental, Portobello Road, Beatles hippy thing.”

Still very much a painter, Fassett took a trip to a Scottish wool mill in 1968 with his friend, the designer Bill Gibb. What he saw there – a kaleidoscope of colourful yarns in the back room – changed Fassett’s life. He decided he wanted to make himself a colourful jumper, so he bought 20 yarns, persuaded a stranger on the train back to London to teach him how to knit “and here I am now – that bizarre beast, a man who does textiles.”

Over the past 30 years, Fassett has transformed his London home from “a mess” into four floors of freewheeling colour, coalescing in a vision of homeliness and maximalism. Barely a corner of the house is untouched by a Fassett print or textile, each room a mishmash of past and present. In the sitting room, traditional armchairs are upholstered with his vibrant needlepoints and sit alongside patterned wallpaper in lemons and greens based on his watercolours.

The landings are covered in knitted vegetable wall hangings (“People were horrified, but I love vegetables – they have such form”) and window seats are filled with handmade needlepoint cushions. Every wooden floor is layered up with rugs. The standout piece is one he bought from the back of a Chechen rug dealer’s truck in Aleppo in the 1990s which shows a young girl in high-heeled shoes carrying flowers. He named the girl Villanelle and recently turned her into a needlepoint for a cushion. It sits in his studio on the top floor.

Even the garden terrace and front-door porch are decorated with fragments of cast-off tiles and teapots laid, crazy-paving style, in cement hidden by anemones but just about visible from the road. “It’s easy to do – you just need a hammer, some pots and two days,” he says.

Fassett’s textile studio, on the top floor, is the beating heart of the house. He used to knit on his bed but has since moved his studio upstairs, where it’s quiet and light. He starts each day with a cup of hot water, working on a low beige chair with a tangle of wool at his feet. “I love that knitting is visceral – that you take a pile of crappy strings and put them together into something imperfect,” he says. His seat is surrounded by pots of needles, his beloved digital radio and a floor-to-ceiling shelving unit of neatly folded fabrics in riotous colour. “So much of knitting is beige, and I’ve always hated that,” he says. “We have this great history as humans with plaids and paisleys and checks and medieval renditions, and we have so much colour.”

Fassett is known for being a knitter but he still loves to paint. His still-life studio sits across the landing from his textile studio, with shelves jampacked with colour-coordinated china collected from flea markets and charity shops which he assembles into still-lifes on a large corner table and paints in watercolours and acrylics. “When I was starting out, I was trying to be a serious artist, and I was warned to not dabble in the crafts if I wanted to make it,” he says. His New York contemporaries were Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline “though I didn’t like what they were doing,” he says. “I was interested in humble domestic settings and how easy it is to bring colour into your home.” He persisted, but painting never stuck. “I had too much self-doubt,” he says. “With knitting, hours can pass. It’s just so therapeutic. I think I bought this house because I knew I needed a proper place to do it.”

Of the many celebrities who have called in on him, it’s Barbra Streisand’s visit in 1983 which sticks in his memory. “I open the door and in walks this little woman with stringy hair, and she sort of whispers: ‘Hi I’m Barbraaaa,’” he says. “I say: ‘I know who you are. I just didn’t expect …’” he trails off, indicating her height with his hand. Streisand had become interested in knitwear while making Yentl and someone suggested she meet Fassett. Rifling through his clothes, she landed on a dress – “black with coloured bands, I think” – and asked Fassett to remake it for her in something colourful, much to his delight. “She wanted colour. Colour! What a woman for wanting something not-black.”

He’s “uninterested” in fashion, “though once in a while it seems to veer in my direction.” In 2019, he collaborated with the fashion brand Coach, and before that Fassett was both muse to, and collaborator with, Ottavio Missoni, the Italian knitwear designer who fused his colour with a whir of zigzags and stripes. “Suddenly you see that patchwork is powerful,” says Fassett, “or people are reusing old bits of fabric to make new things – and my name comes up.”

Grooming: Carol Sullivan at Arlington Artists

Kaffe Fassett: The Power of Pattern runs until 12 March 2023 at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum

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