Mary Walker Phillips took knitting out of the dresser drawers of America -- “the socks-and-sweater doldrums,” one renowned textile designer called it -- and placed it in fine art galleries.
The same “soft-clicking needles” that produced winter garments for generations of Americans created works of art when placed in Phillips’ hands. Her wall hangings have been exhibited in more than 200 museums and galleries in the U.S. and abroad.
For Phillips, knitting was “a fresh experience in creative expression.” The goal was not the utilitarian end of making socks or passing time, but to “translate with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration.”
Phillips, an author, teacher and artist, died Nov. 3 of Alzheimer’s disease at her home in Fresno, said her brother W. David Phillips of Fresno. She was 83.
In her commitment to knitting as an artistic expression, Phillips became the bridge between old-fashioned pattern-book knitting and a new, expansive view of knitting. Even with a bridge, the transition was not easy.
Because her work was so unconventional, the traditional knitting world -- a female-dominated landscape -- didn’t know what to do with her, she said. Men tended to ask the most intelligent questions at her lectures on knitting, because they could see knitting in a new way, she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1987.
“They don’t carry the cultural baggage about knitting that women carry,” she said.
Unlike knitters who strictly followed patterns, Phillips approached the craft as an exercise in improvisation. Baby booties and shawls were not on her mind.
For her wall hangings, she found inspiration in the drawings of Paul Klee, the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, she wrote in her 1971 book, “Creative Knitting, A New Art Form.”
“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.”
Often she varied patterns or created her own. She explained to readers that “you can draw your inspiration mostly from the yarn itself so that the ideas grow out of the material.” Beyond the typical material of yarn, she saw a vast world.
“She was the first to incorporate unconventional and ordinary items -- bells, rocks, seeds, mica --into knitted works of art made of linen, silk, cotton, wool and even wire,” wrote Patricia Abrahamian, a longtime friend who curated an exhibit of Phillips’ work at the Fresno Art Museum in 2005 and 2006. “Miss Phillips was an artist. She used needles instead of brushes, yarns instead of paints, stitches instead of strokes. With her tools and imagination, she created works of incomparable beauty.”
In 1969, her wall hangings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Over the years, she wrote books, taught workshops, was honored by the American Craft Council and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The purpose of her seminal work, “Creative Knitting,” was to “evoke an awareness of knitting as an independent art style, newly emerged,” she wrote.
“Most of all, it is to ask the knitter to rethink the long accepted convention of developing someone else’s designs and by taking a new view, to see knitting as a fresh experience in creative expression.”
Phillips was born Nov. 23, 1923, in Fresno, the third of four children. Her father was a fruit shipper and packer; her mother was a homemaker. As a child, Phillips was often ill and forced to stay indoors, so she spent her time knitting and crocheting in the traditional fashion.
Weaving was her first avocation; partly because of the influence of her mother’s close friend, Dorothy Wright Liebes, a noted weaving designer. Phillips attended what was then Fresno State College and Rudolph Schaefer School of Design in San Francisco. She received a bachelor’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1947.
After working for a textile company in Switzerland in the early 1950s, then returning to Fresno where she opened her own studio, Phillips decided to return to school. She was in her late 30s and single. It was a bold move by the standards of her time -- and a fortuitous one.
“My timing was impeccable,” Phillips said in the Star Tribune article. “The art world was ready to look at things in a different way.”
She received her master of fine arts degree in experimental textiles and design from the art academy, and moved to New York to work as a freelance weaver. There, she reconnected with a friend, the renowned textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen. He encouraged her to “forsake the loom” and pick up the needles. Larsen stressed “the importance of doing more experimentation in our work, reaching out for new horizons,” Phillips said in a 1985 issue of Knitter’s Magazine.
Her first book, “Step-by-Step Knitting, A Complete Introduction to the Craft of Knitting,” was published in 1967, followed by “Step-by-Step Macrame” in 1970. Macrame was a popular craft then, and the book was a huge success and was translated into several languages.
“Knitting Counterpanes: Traditional Coverlet Patterns for Contemporary Knitters” (1989) was the result of years of travel and research. Phillips was concerned that an important body of design was being overlooked, and she wanted to resurrect these “superb old patterns” used by early knitters to produce bed coverings.
Like her art, Phillips’ books reflected her dual role in the world of knitting.
“She has elaborated on one of the most traditional of women’s textile arts, while maintaining a reverence for its time-honored tradition,” wrote M. Catherine Daly, who curated a Phillips exhibit in 1987. “She has expanded the techniques of knitting beyond the boundaries of apparel. . . . It is this sense of continuity and change that is the magic of Mary Walker Phillips’ knitting needles.”
Aside from her brother, survivors include three nieces and a nephew.