Jazz Hands: Mary Walker Phillips and the Art of Knitting

By Carol J. Sulcoski
October 9, 2020

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31 Comments
  • 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!

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

    • 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.

  • 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.