Discovering Kaffe Fassett’s Quilt Collection

Kaffe Fassett is a prolific name in the quilting world and renowned for his distinctive use of bold colour and this year The Festival of Quilts, Birmingham NEC, 11-14th August, featured a collection of some of the pieces that he has collected throughout the years that have inspired his own work and practice.

For all the intensively worked and intricate qualities of the many works on display at this year’s quilt show, Fassett’s Antique Quilt Collection has to be a highlight for me. Not only were these beautifully worked, but there was a simplicity and elegance to their display that encapsulated the vibrant nature and history of these pieces. Upon entering the stand there were a number of quilts, loosely hung to demonstrate the natural movement of the fabric, with small title cards neatly placed next to them that gave a brief description of the quilt and its origin.

My immediate favourite was ‘Texas Star’ made using men’s suiting fabrics. I was drawn to this particular quilt, probably due to the muted colour palette and the subtle pattern designs. But it also embodies the nature of quilt making – it is an art form borne out of recycling and upcycling old craps of fabric. While many of the larger pieces of these fabrics may have held much loftier positions as items of clothing for well-to-do Texan businessmen, these scraps and off-cuts were assembled and crafted into something else. I am sure art scholars with a particular focus on gender issues could make quite a few comments here about the contrast of masculine material for a traditionally feminine object/practice, as well as the notion of the clash of the work/home environments with the source of the fabric and the intended use of the quilt – feel free to thrash that topic out in the comments section, if you are so inclined.

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Similar ideas can also be seen in this next quilt, titled ‘Old Maid’s Puzzle’, after the patchwork arrangement used. There is a uniformity of tone created with the choice of colours, but on closer inspection the various different fabrics come into focus and minute details, such as where there has not been enough of one fabric to continue the pattern so a facsimile has been used, offer intriguing surprises.

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The most impressive quilt in this collection, however, has to be ‘Postage Stamp’. Fassett’s comment on this piece was simple: ‘This is a study in patience, sewing all those fingernail size squares – impressive!’ I just did the maths out of curiosity, and there is approximately 15,000 tiny squares carefully hand stitched together to create this piece of work. Impressive, indeed.

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This was a great exhibition of quilting history at this year’s Festival of Quilts and I hope that they present many more in this fashion. Apart from the beautiful items Fassett had selected, there was a quality to the way in which they had been hung that, in contrast to the rigidly stretched quilts on display elsewhere, celebrated the qualities of the fabric and revelled in how movement and texture can be created through hand stitch and patchwork pieces.

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