Jazz Hands: Mary Walker Phillips and the Art of Knitting
Today we welcome knitter, knitting historian, and author Carol Sulcoski to our pages. Carol’s inaugural topic is one of our knitting heroes, Mary Walker Phillips, whose wide-open approach to knitting rocked our world when we first encountered it.
—Ann and Kay
As of September 2020, a knitter could find nearly half a million patterns to download on Ravelry. This fact would make Mary Walker Phillips cry.
Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with Mary Walker Phillips. Although she’s regarded as one of the most influential knitters of the twentieth century, Miss Phillips (as she preferred to be called throughout her life) is not a household name like Barbara Walker or Elizabeth Zimmermann. Phillips’s contributions to the knitting world, however, place her firmly in the Fiber Artists Hall of Fame.
Phillips didn’t set out to be a world-famous knitter—instead she began her artistic career as a weaver. And oh boy, could Miss Phillips weave! After graduating from art school, she was quickly asked to join the weaving studio of a prominent California fiber artist. One day, Miss Phillips received a telegram:
kindly bring cotton material for weaving thirty five yards drapes natural deep rose lavender and dark brown. also gold metallics.
It was signed “Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright.” Miss Phillips packed up her loom and spent several weeks at Taliesin West with the Wrights, weaving tablecloths, drapes and other custom items.
Despite her success at weaving, Phillips decided in her late 30s to return to art school to study experimental textiles. It was an unusual move for a single woman in the 1960s, but as Phillips told a reporter, “My timing was impeccable. The art world was ready to look at things in a different way.”[i] After earning her degree, Phillips founded her own studio in New York City. One day, an art school friend suggested that Phillips consider the artistic possibilities of knitting, urging her, “Forsake the loom!”
The rest, as the saying goes, is history—knitting history. Phillips took up her needles and began to experiment. She was fascinated by the different effects achieved by using different fibers—linen, wool, and mohair were among her favorites. But that wasn’t enough for our Miss Phillips. She was willing to try knitting with just about anything resembling string: paper tape, wire, leather, hair, fiberglass, insulation, even asbestos! She also liked to incorporate seed pods, pebbles, and other 3-D items within her knitting.
When it came to stitch patterns, Phillips again had a taste for experimentation. Although she relied on familiar patterns like dropped stitches, eyelets, and crossed stitches, she loved to create her own stitch patterns and urged others to do the same. “There can be great joy in inventing your own stitch,” she wrote. “It may be based on a well-known one, but to the person who has developed it, it is a discovery nonetheless.”[ii] Phillips frequently mixed different stitch patterns within the same project. She tended to knit on larger needles, blocking her creations to emphasize negative space. The end results were “pieces that looked like delicate tapestries or vast expanses of lace, with transparent latticework, open areas and whorled textural patterns. Hung away from the wall and lighted well, her work threw off a dramatic counterpoint of shadows,”[iii] The New York Times noted.
At the time, society viewed knitting as a utilitarian task necessary to produce clothing. Mary Walker Phillips’s knitted creations opened the public’s eyes to the artistic potential of knitting. As The New York Times so aptly put it:
What Miss Phillips did, starting in the early 1960s, was to liberate knitting from the yoke of the sweater. Where traditional knitters were classical artists, faithfully reproducing a score, Miss Phillips knit jazz. In her hands, knitting became a free-form, improvisational art, with no rules, no patterns and no utilitarian end in sight.[iv]
Thanks to Phillips’s work, knitted art began to appear on the walls of galleries and museums. Today, top-tier museums like MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt include Phillips’s knitted art in their collections.
But Mary Walker Phillips’s contribution to the knitting world went beyond changing preconceived views of what constitutes Art-with-a-capital-A. A dedicated teacher, Phillips urged everyday knitters to stop blindly following patterns and instead use unstructured knitting as way to creatively express themselves. Phillips suggested plotting out one’s own designs on graph paper or simply letting the yarn do the talking, encouraging knitters to “translate with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration.”[v]
Phillips found her inspiration in the works of other artists; she admired Peruvian gauze weaving, Hopi knitted designs, folk costumes, and the vertical and horizontal elements of paintings by Kandinsky and Mondrian, to name a few. At the same time, she was keenly aware of the beauty in our everyday world:
Everywhere we look we find inspiration: forged iron grillwork, lacelike in design; cross sections of stem structures; spider webs; elevated train trestles and their shadow patterns—we are surrounded by a fertile field of ideas.[vi]
Phillips continued to experiment for the rest of her life and in the 1970s became fascinated by counterpanes, a type of lace bedcover. Phillips spent nearly two decades studying counterpanes, recognizing that these historic patterns were worth preserving and could be used for things beyond edgings and bedspreads. In 1989, at age 66, her book Knitting Counterpanes was published and became an instant classic.
So let’s raise a glass to Mary Walker Phillips, counterpane-preserver, ace weaver, passionate teacher, and a true knitting artist. Of course Miss Phillips wouldn’t be appalled at the number of knitting patterns published today, but her life’s work is a good reminder that there is a whole world of fun to be had by simply letting our own creativity tell us what to do.
Hanging, More Variations, 1967
Photo: Matt Flynn (Smithsonian Institution)
With permission of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
[i] Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Los Angeles Times obituary, “Mary Walker Phillips: artistic knitter, 83” (Nov. 25, 2007).
[iii] Margalit Fox, New York Times obituary, “Mary Walker Phillips, 83, Knitter of Art, Is Dead” (Nov. 20, 2007).
[iv] Fox, New York Times.
[v] Stewart, Los Angeles Times.
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