Ahead of artist Kaffe Fassett’s new quilting exhibition opening on 16 March at the American Museum and Gardens, gardener Jane Moore asks the American-born artist about his own garden and his inspiration for the colourful plants and flowers that continue to feature in his design work

Born in San Francisco in 1937, Kaffe Fassett started as a fine artist, winning a scholarship to study at The Boston Museum of of Fine Arts School when he was 19. He left after three months to move to London to paint.

After settling in England in 1964, Kaffe ventured into the world of colourful yarn on a visit to a Scottish wool mill. Inspired by the colours in the landscape, Kaffe was thrilled to find the same colours in yarns. His passion for colour led him to knitting and designing knitwear for Missoni and Bill Gibb, and his hand-knitted garments are in museum collections all over the world. He later took up needlepoint and patchwork, creating both his own works and designs for others to make.

Painted Daisy by Kaffe Fassett and Philip Jacobs

In 1988, Kaffe became the first living textile artist to have a one-man show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. He has produced more than 30 publications from ‘how to’ books to colour in design, and also tours internationally giving workshops, lectures and museum exhibitions.
We caught up with the artist ahead of his next exhibition at the American Museum and Gardens in Bath.

Where does your interest in plants and flowers originate?

My mother had her favourite flowering plants when I was growing up, but I’d say my first real interest in the floral world happened when I came to England in 1964. The passion everyone here had for gardening was infectious, especially among the folks I met with big garden areas. Also, being a passionate lover of colour, the Chelsea Flower Show was an assault on my senses.

Are there plants and flowers you return to time after time?

At the moment I’m designing a fabric with all-round blooms clustered together – that is a theme is often return to, along with flowers with distinct ‘faces’, like pansies.

What plants inspire you?

I suppose it is colour that moves me most in plants – subtle shades up to the brilliance of high colour that flower petals can reveal to us – but forms of plants are amazing too.

Big Blooms by Kaffe Fassett

What are your favourite plants for design?

Favourites are always big-scale blooms like dahlias, peonies and large roses – colour impact is what I’m always after.

Are there particular colours that you have taken from gardens and nature?

I’m always excited by repetitions in colourful beds of flowers like the wild meadows of my youth in California – seeing a mass of orange poppies growing wild or purple lupins on the hills of California is a thrill etched in my memory.

Burton Agnes Tapestry

Do you have a garden?

I do have a garden, a bit in front and a larger one at the back of my London house. I’m afraid I don’t make time to tend to it but our wonderful gardener, Hannah, does a great job. We have two New Zealand tree ferns and colourful trees that join up aesthetically with the autumn colours of the trees next door as I gaze outside my kitchen window.

What gardens or landscapes inspire you? 

The landscape that inspires me most on this side of the pond is the Scottish Highlands. The rolling hills and meadows covered in bracken, wild flowers and grasses moved me to knit these colours in my first jumper. Rocks with lichens is such a unique world for me, discovered here for the first time. They have an ancient mood with their organic shapes and subtle colours. I’ve used them as inspiration for fabrics and needlepoints.

A detail of Kaffe’s garden

Have you ever visited gardens in Bath?

I lived in Bath when I first came to England and got to know many local gardens. My host, Jeremy Fry, loved gardens and often took me to visit people with gardens, like the Duchess of Westminster who had a magical garden.

Has Bath inspired you in your ideas?

I would say the décor and collections of people I met had a profound effect on my designs – the whole aesthetic really got to me. I loved the used of wallpapers and oriental pots mixing with gorgeous textiles. That lushness certainly inspired me – best of all discovering the quilts at the American Museum alerted me to the treasure trove of the folk craft America has developed so stunningly. I’m looking forward to showing my quilts based on their collection in March.

You have been a regular visit to Bath over the years. What do you love about the city?

Bath is the first city in England I got to know well. I’d spend many a day wondering about drawing and doing watercolours and chalk works of the buildings. I loved the way terraces were built on hills – I was born in San Francisco, a very hilly city, so it reminded me of home. I also liked the amazing people I met and how they always declared that ‘Nobody lives in Bath!’. That has definitely changed with the vibrant social life now being played out in the city’s good restaurants and cultural events.

Kaffe Fassett’s Quilts in America exhibition is at the American Museum and Gardens from 16 March – 3 November. It will showcase 20 new quilts alongside 18 from the museum’s collection; americanmuseum.org

Jane Moore is an award-winning gardening columnist and head gardener at The Bath Priory Hotel. Twitter: @janethegardener