Mary Walker Phillips

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Mary W. Phillips
Born(1923-11-23)November 23, 1923
Died(2007-11-03)November 3, 2007
Alma materCranbrook Academy of Art
Known forRevolutionizing Knitting in the 1960's

Mary Walker Phillips (November 23, 1923 – November 3, 2007) was an American artist, author and teacher. She revolutionized the handkitting market by writing knitting and macramé books. Her handknit tapestries are exhibited in Museums in the US and Europe.


Phillips was born in Fresno, California, on November 23, 1923 and started to work with needlecrafts already as a child. She attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to study contemporary weaving and textiles from 1946-1947 and received her BFA in weaving. In 1947, she moved to San Francisco and worked in the studio of Dorothy Liebes as a weaver. Her talent was quickly recognized by the wife of architect Frank Lloyd Wright who commissioned her to create interior textiles for their house in Scottsdale, Arizona. Later she travelled to Europe and moved back to Fresno and worked there as a freelancer and teacher.[1]

She returned to the Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1960-1963, to continue her studies in experimental textiles and earned her MFA. In 1963, she moved to Greenwich Village, New York City.


Inspired by a friend, textile designer Jack Lenor Larson, she added knitting to her artistic practice. The Fresno Art Museum showed 100 of her works in 1964. The works included woven upholstery, tie-dyed blankets, wall hangings, rugs, knitted sculptures and ceramics. She is well known for her architecturally inspired knitted wall hangings that were very abstract and is regarded as a pioneer in the use of experimental materials. These knitted art pieces incorporated unusual natural and synthetic materials such as linen, silk, paper, tape, leather, hair, asbestos fibers, seeds, fiberglass and metals.[1] Unlike past knitting forms, she strayed away from the usual stitch patterns and instead created works that resembled tapestries and lace.[2] As a fellow of the American Craft Council, she is noted as being the first to acknowledge knitting as a form of artistic expression.[3]

Phillips created woven textile works for architectural spaces, but soon her work transitioned from weaving into knitted works and macramé. This shift in her artistical practice was an important part of the transition of the 20th century fiber arts movement, that implicated the movement from utility to art.

Besides being an important fiber artist, she was also an important teacher and taught at the New School for Social Research.

Phillips is regarded as one of the most important fiber artists of the 20th century, as well as an important personality in the fiber arts movement and the advancement of the American studio craft.


Through writing books about hand knitting for the mass market and workshops, Phillips revolutionized the mass production industry, shifting it from woven fabrics to knits, as well. Previously, knitting was only used to create sweaters. Her works and influence also stemmed a hand crafted, 'DIY' revolution.

Jack Lenor Larsen (a textile designer) wrote in the forward to Phillips' book, Step by Step Knitting, “she is the great knitter of our time. She has taken knitting out of the socks-and-sweater doldrums to prove that knit fabric can be a blanket, a pillow, a piece of art ... she demonstrates that knitting is a creative medium of self-expression.”

Her works are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design (Smithsonian) New York. She has written five books on knitting and macramé including Step-By-Step Macramé (1970) which sold 700,000 copies by 1972.[4]

In 1984, she was awarded a fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for her last book, Knitting Counterpanes: Traditional Coverlet Patterns for Contemporary Knitters.


  • Step by Step Knitting - 1967
  • Step by Step Macramé - 1970
  • Creative Knitting, A New Art Form - 1971, 1986
  • Knitting Counterpanes, Traditional Coverlet Patterns for Contemporary Knitters - 1989

Heritage and Death[edit]

Her nephew John Phillips wrote a book about her family: The Good Intent: The Story and Heritage of a Fresno Family (New York: Magnolia Group Press, 2007).

She died from complications of Alzheimer's disease on November 3, 2007 at the age of 83.[2]


  1. ^ a b "Mary Walker Phillips | Biography | People | Collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum". Retrieved 2018-05-16.
  2. ^ a b Fox, Margalit (2007-11-20). "Mary Walker Phillips, 83, Knitter of Art, Is Dead". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-08.
  3. ^ Lindsay, Jennifer L. "Mary Walker Phillips and the Knit Revolution of the 1960s".
  4. ^ Auther, Elissa (2009). "String, Felt, Thread". University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved 2017-03-05.

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