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Dear everybody, 

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
Designed by Mary Walker Phillips (American, 1923–2007)
Knitted linen and handspun silk
H x W: 106.7 x 41.9 cm (42 x 16 1/2 in.)
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Gift of Mary Walker Phillips, 1998-38-3

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).

[ii] Mary Walker Phillips, Creative Knitting (Dover 1971).

[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.

[vi] Phillips, Creative Knitting.


MDK receives a commission for books purchased through affiliate links in this article.

About The Author

Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitter by night. She’s been part of the knitting industry for over fourteen years, beginning as a blogger in the glory days of the early 2000s. Since then, she’s also been a hand dyer, author, teacher, and designer.


  • Welcome Carol and thank you for this lovely tribute to Mary Walker Phillips. I have an early signed copy of Creative Knitting, which is cherished. I was also lucky enough to meet her. She is a true inspiration. Let us all continue to experiment with our sticks and string!

  • What a wonderful read! Thank you for introducing me to Miss Phillips.

    • I think I would have loved to sit and knit with Mary the stories she could reveal about her needles & fiber!!!

  • Thank you for reminding us of the great knitters who have come before. And I’m sure you saw that Cat Bordhi had an obit in today’s NYT – good, but not as good, as yours.

    • Thanks for letting us know about the NYT obit, I learned things about her I didn’t know, but I agree it’s always better to read about people from people who knew them.

  • Thank you for sharing this! I didn’t know about Mary Walker Phillips. Your article helps me to see that she is an inspiration not just to knitters but to all makers.

  • Thank you so much for this. The whole way through I had goosebumps! To have been such a free-thinker and innovator in an area of the arts so often underrepresented and under esteemed. Miss Phillips deserves greater recognition and for this you are to be commended!

  • I was fortunate to take a class taught by Mary Walker Phillips, through the New School in NYC, in the mid-80s.

    Over the course of several weekly classes, she shared many tips and tricks, taught us double knitting and started us on counterpanes, while sharing many tales of her life with textiles; including the one about the male friend who challenged her to create a wall hanging knit of wire which ended up in MOMA.

    For our last class, she invited the class for lunch at her apartment, where she served a delicious meal and shared a portion of her vast collection of woven and knitted textiles. Like most of the others in the class, I didn’t realize what a knitting icon/force of nature she was until sometime later. Wish I still had the hand outs from that class!

    Thanks so much for this lovely tribute!

    • I also took a class from MWP in the early 1990’s. I had thought it would be about counterpanes – I had made several of the squares from her book and was fascinated by how many layers of texture she could get in each one – but it turned out to be a free-form and free-wheeling talk about knitting and her life. Even young as I was, I knew she was offering something more valuable than a regular knitting class, but also knew I wasn’t ready to actually absorb as much of her wisdom as was on offer. She remains in memory as an impulsive, somewhat imperious, but generous and open-minded teacher.

    • Wow, Jan, what a memory! Gotta love the New School for knowing what’s (and who’s) interesting.

  • Footnotes!
    Made my tiny academic, collection curating heart sing. Thank you.

  • I’ve known her name, but not much about her beyond her work with counterpanes.
    I really appreciate the history and it is inspiring. Thank you!
    Oh, wish I had known about that New School class!!!

  • Thank you so much for this. Who else want to nominate Carol for being the obit writer for everyone in fiber. Can we all tell the NY Times!! WELCOME to MDK. What a great addition to the team!!

  • YES! Mary Walker Phillips a true Icon, Influencer, and Artist.Thank you for bringing her legacy to the forefront for another generation. She was, and always will be, a hero of mine.

  • Carol, welcome! What a great addition to this fabulous group of contributors.
    How have I never heard of Miss Phillips? Thanks for a fascinating new rabbit hole to dive in to.

  • Just one tiny correction regarding the title of the book, which is Knitting Counterpanes, and there are actually a few copies available at Amazon, although the “look inside” feature is not enabled for this title. Just the covers of the two different editions are enough to scare me away, although very impressive to look at!

    I remember a writing teacher who said that it was important to actually understand all the rules and traditions and have a mastery of them before starting to break the rules deliberately to create something new. I feel that Miss Phillips’ art school training must have given her a strong foundation from which to leap into the wild later on. I could be wrong, but it’s an interesting topic.

  • Such a beautiful posts. Thank you! I feel incredibly inspired by Mary Walker Phillips and her beautifully free spirited art.

  • Hi Carol. I’ve never heard of Mary Walker Phillips but I will be looking her up now and sharing this article with my daughter who’s just started studying fashion. I love your article, it’s so well written. I’m also in love with the NYT quote you posted, it’s so clever. Thank you.

  • Fascinating and inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • I’m so glad to see you here Carol!!!!! And what an interesting profile! I have (or had? I’d have to search…) her book but had no idea of her backstory!

  • Hi Carol!! Thanks for the wonderful reminder of a inspiring artist. I will go dig out my books!

  • Thank you dear Carol Sulkoski, for bringing attention to one of the jewels in knitting’s crown. We carried and promoted each of Mary Walker Phillips’ books as they appeared (and re-appeared). In Sept 1980, her book Creative Knitting was reprinted, and Elizabeth Zimmermann wrote: “…Mary Walker Phillips’ masterpiece is here after being lamentably o.o.p. for some years. Knitting as an art form, with full directions for making her wonderfully intricate and idiosyncratic stitch-patterns in various materials. A chapter on historic knitted pieces with illustrations, one on knitting basics, one on blocking and finishing, and then off and away into MWP’s inimitable, but thanks to this book – imitable, designs.” (quoted from Wool Gathering number 23)

  • Carol, thank you for making Miss Phillips known to so many other knitters through this piece! MWP grew up in Fresno, CA, and her parents and my maternal grandparents were good friends. My mother knew Miss Phillips as the older sister who was already clearly an artist (including having a totally different temperament from her parents and siblings) by her teen years.

    She had moved away permanently before I was born, so I was not lucky enough to know her personally.

    • I was living in Manhattan and was lucky enough to take a several week class with Ms. Phillips at her apartment. It was a wonderful experience.

  • I took a class from MWP I think it was in the 1980’s. I remember her maybe being a very strongly opinionated woman, and some of the class members were uncomfortable with that. But the things she taught us, in those pre-internet days!

    Many people were horrified when she walked around and pulled the needles out of everyone’s knitting, to help us learn to not be afraid of making mistakes or ripping out and starting over. How else can you design in the moment if you are afraid of knitting something you won’t know how to redo if you want to!?

    It was also especially useful to learn about right and left-leaning increases and decreases, which is really helpful in many patterns, but especially in making lace patterns read clear and strong.

    She really was a master at her craft and her lessons and adventurous spirit are still with me today…

  • Mary was an innovative knitter as well as charming. She was a no-nonsense
    teacher and so creative. She originally was a weaver. I knew her personally as she lived in NYC as do I. There will never be another like her.

  • I got Phillips’ “Creative Knitting” in 1972, and it opened a world to me. Lost the book somewhere in many moves, and looked for it again when I retired. Found the New and Expanded version on Amazon last year; it was like welcoming an old friend into my home.

  • In addition to the two books mentioned, Mary Walker Phillips also wrote a knitting book for the California pubic schools. I am fortunate to have a copy of it, which she gave to me.

    Mary was a friend of Gracie Larsen, the founder of the Lacy Knitters Guild. I believe was a member of the Guild. Mary Walker Phillips was a character. We spent a weekend together in Gracie’s home.

    Some knitters may remember Mary from a Stitches West event she attended.

    Shortly before Mary’s death, the Fresno Art Gallery had a wonderful display of Mary’s work. After Mary’s death her brother was looking for a home for her extensive library. I have not heard where her library found a home.

    Elizabeth Zimmermann, Barbara G. Walker, and Mary Walker Phillips were referred to as The “Big Three” in the knitter world – and they certainly deserve the title. I believe Anne MacDonald’s book on the social history of knitting in America contains a picture of the three of them together.

    Thanks, Carol, for a wonderfully written, very informative article.

  • Loved reading this. Thank you.

  • Send me a colour card from U

  • Thank you! I’m an advanced beginner to knitting and I love being inspired by such a trailblazer as Mary Walker Phillips.

  • Thank you for the lovely hooray to Miss Mary **** she has become a most elegant favorite in “awesome knitters”. Valentina Devine is another one *** Best, Marilyn

  • Thank you for this piece. I’m her nephew John Phillips.

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