Dreaming in Color: An Autobiography by Kaffe Fassett

We have few royals in the knitting world. Elizabeth Zimmermann, Barbara Walker, and Mary Walker Phillips are generally considered the trinity. There’s a fourth member of our royalty, though. He is a prolific artist whose work, when translated into yarn, has been commissioned by the likes of Barbara Streisand and artist Helen Frankenthaler.

I’m talking about Kaffe Fassett, the California-born artist who has lived in England for nearly half a century. Over the years he’s worked in many mediums, from ink and paint to mosaic, needlepoint, and woven fabric. But he is a legend in the knitting world for his exquisitely colorful, highly patterned designs.

Crazy for Color

Fassett’s Glorious Knits was one of the very first hardback knitting books I ever bought, and its runaway success helped launch him as a public persona. While the patterns were wildly beyond my knitting skills, I loved getting lost in the pictures. Kaffe’s world is built upon layers of seemingly chaotic yet perfectly harmonious colors and textures. I never knew knitting could look like that. I wanted to live in those garments and in the world of those photographs.

The Journey

After achieving great success in needlepoint and knitting, Kaffe shifted more to fabric, quilting, and mosaics. But every once in a while he’d pop back into the knitting world to say hello, teach a workshop, give a talk, always preaching the gospel of color.

Fassett seems to be always moving, always seeking, never letting himself be pigeonholed into one realm alone. Yet among his varied creative output one theme remains constant: color. Kaffe Fassett is to color what Julia Child was to French cooking.

Behind the Name

While many people recognize his name, few know Fassett’s personal story—which is why this book is so very special. He tells his story in simple, unadorned prose.

We move from his storybook “bohemian” childhood in a log cabin above Big Sur to his arrival in London, his first knitwear designs for Missoni and subsequent ventures into needlepoint, his bestselling book, TV show, and then the pivotal day Princess Michael of Kent drove up in her Bentley to commission a piece from him, which swiftly led to his finally securing a show at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

It goes on, with more stories, more opportunities, more adventures—to Australia, India, Vietnam, South Africa, and beyond. He drops names like breadcrumbs, casually throwing in a picture of his parents drinking with Henry Miller in the 1930s; fellow acting student Dustin Hoffman, who’d said “Kaffe couldn’t act himself out of a wet paper bag;” or his Kilim Jacket in Rowan magazine, being worn by the yet-to-be-discovered supermodel Kate Moss.

The Force of Friends

People are, in fact, the heart of the book. It reads almost like an illustrated map of the people and connections and experiences that have propelled Fassett forward in his career, like a lucky pinball. His is the story of raw talent and charisma being fostered by friends, friends of friends, and chance encounters with people he calls “guiding angels.” His combination of raw talent and charisma seem to have inspired the very best in all those he met.

Near the end of the book, the tone and pace change slightly, as if he hears the band begin to play and realizes he hasn’t thanked nearly enough people in his acceptance speech. As he launches into his thank-you list, you get a sense of just how many people still contribute to his work and to the maintenance of his public persona. “As you can see,” he writes, “my creative work flourishes when I am involved in teamwork.”

Moving On

It seems fitting that Fassett should end his story with the news that his creativity has spread to yet another realm: Longtime friend and collaborator Brandon Mably has just gotten a rose named for Fassett. The Rosa “Kaffe Fassett” should be available and ready for planting in your gardens by 2013.

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