Vogue called him the “King of Knitting”, but Kaffe Fassett is also a quilting guru. MAXINE GORDON talks to him about his new exhibition in York.

KAFFE Fassett was raised in California and, despite living in Britain for 50 years, the sunshine colours of the Golden State have stayed with him.

For the next few months, his vibrant touch will ignite York's Quilt Museum, where 15 of his sumptuous new works of art are on display in a new exhibition, Ancestral Gifts.

In an international scoop for the city attraction, Kaffe (pronounced like 'safe') agreed to produce a set of quilts inspired by 15 of his favourite pieces in the Quilters' Guild Collection, an archive of 800 items dating back to the 18th century that is kept in York.

When we meet on the eve of the exhibition opening, Kaffe is dressed in a patterned blue shirt, his mop of silver hair flopping over a handsomely chiselled face. He's 77 but shares that timeless allure normally reserved for veteran film or rock stars.

How did he go about selecting the 15 historic quilts which now hang next to his modern interpretations in the vaulted hall of the museum on Peasholme Green?

"Very easy," says Kaffe, in his honeyed Hollywood tone. "I love scrappy quilts that are full of incidental fabrics and lots of different fabrics. I like ones with about 55 different fabrics – I use about 20 in my quilts. It was easy to find the most lively."

Kaffe admits he was more interested in the "aesthetics" of the patchworks rather than their history, although visitors to the exhibition can learn more of their provenance from a glossy guide and wall plaques.

"I'm more interested in the life in it, in the wonderful use of geometry; it's the aesthetics of it that fascinate me."

Curators have hung the quilts side by side, allowing visitors to compare and contrast the old with the new.

Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which: a few of the historic pieces are surprisingly modern. For most of the quilts, however, the giveaway is in the use of colour: the museum items are more muted than Kaffe's updates in which the shades of the rainbow are turned up to full volume. Pale pinks, greys and greens give way to lurid greens, fuchsia pinks and oranges the hue of a highlighter pen.

"I can't imagine a time when I wasn't tickled by colour," says Kaffe, who was born in San Francisco. "My young impressions were pretty powerful: China Town really fed my imagination."

Didn't he feel as if the lights had gone out when he moved to dreary Britain in the Sixties? He says not. Instead he realised the Brits had a different experience of colour.

"I was interested in how things could be so restrained. The furnishings in homes were of a much less saturated palette. Their whole world of colour was much more subtle."

But it wasn't the whole story.

"I realised the English love colour when I saw their gardens – that's where their panache comes to the surface."

Kaffe's artistic career has spanned several disciplines, from knitting and fabric design to needlepoint, painting and mosaic. Vogue dubbed him the "King of Knitting" on the back of his flamboyant patterns, but lately his nickname is the "King of Colour".

The author of more than 30 books, he has earned his place among the world's leading textile designers. Indeed, he is the first living textile designer to have a one-person show at the V&A. He has hosted several craft-related TV and radio shows, including his own programme, Glorious Colour.

He has also branched out to ceramics, with his designs printed on China, and brought out a fragrance and a range of hand creams and hand washes – in packaging displaying his trademark love of colour and florals. Many items, including his books and fabrics and fragrance products, are on sale in the Quilt Museum shop.

Kaffe said the Ancestral Gifts project was one his most enjoyable. "Every step of the way I had the inspiration from these old gals who had done such a wonderful job."

He stresses that his modern pieces are not perfect matches. "I've done a very loose interpretation. It's not supposed to be a historical copy. I've tried to get the spirit of the original."

As an example he highlights one particular quilt, the Elderton Log Cabin Coverlet, which dates from around 1890.

The design, explains Kaffe, is a traditional log cabin one, where the quilter begins with a small square, then adds small rectangular blocks around the sides, as if building a log cabin. But, Kaffe continues, when these squares are stitched together in a set of four to make a bigger square, a new pattern, emerges: that of a cross at the intersection of the four squares.

This is the idea that Kaffe carried through to his "remake", naming his interpretation Autumn Crosses, in which the cross is relayed in a riot of tropical colours and is one of the show-stoppers in the exhibition.

The resurgence in hobby crafts is pleasing to Kaffe, who says Britain is catching up with America, where knitting, embroidery, patchwork and quilting have been enjoying a revival for several years.

"I foresee a time when it is going to get really hot," says Kaffe. "In Australia lots of boys knit their own beanie hats and it's nice to see that."

And anything that captures the joys of quilting is great too, he adds. "That is why an exhibition like this is so important; it has a sense of theatre about it."

Ancestral Gifts, An exhibition by Kaffe Fassett with the Quilters' Guild Collection, at the Quilt Museum and Gallery, St Anthony's Hall, Peasholme Green, York, until September 5. Admission charges: adult £6/concession £5/children free when accompanied by an adult/Quilters' Guild members £3. For more information, telephone 01904 613242. Book tickets online through the events page at quiltersguild.org.uk. This will be the penultimate exhibition at the museum which is due to close in the autumn.

Kaffe will also lead two design-based workshops exploring design and colour in quilts on July 30 and 31 at the National Railway Museum, York, from 10am to 4pm and cost £100 for QGBI members and £135 for non members. The cost includes parking, refreshments, lunch and tuition.

To book a telephone 01904 613242 or book online at quiltersguild.org.uk/events

A commemorative book, Kaffe Fassett’s Heritage Quilts, will be launched in summer 2015 (Rowan, £18.50). As well as stunning photographs of both the new and heritage quilts, patterns, templates and instructions for each of Kaffe’s quilts will be included.