Exploring Mary Walker Phillips

Reading a book on creative knitting is one thing, but exploring it by knitting is something else altogether. In my previous post I spoke about Creative Knitting by Mary Walker Phillips. Since then, I have been itching to get my hands on some linen and try it out for myself.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Wall Hanging

A linen swatch, exploring Mary Walker Phillips’s book Creative Knitting

I had not worked seriously with linen before, so this swatch is also about exploring a new material. Linen has cropped up quite a lot recently as various friends have been working with it. It’s very different from working with wool, it has no stretch at all and is very strong, which makes it ideal for wall hangings and other art pieces. But it also has its challenges, as any irregularities in your knitting will stand out.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Closeup 3

Fancy crossed throws combined with stocking stitch, and some lace stitches shown on top

First and foremost I was intrigued by Phillips’s use of a stitch called ‘fancy crossed throw.’ At first sight they appear to be made by throwing the yarn twice around the needle, and then dropping the second yarn-over on the return row. However, if you study them closely you can see that these stitches are twisted around themselves. They are made with a complex throw around both needle tips and are laborious to execute.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Closeup 2

Texture is added by wrapping stitches and bobbles; lace stitches create spaces

The linen emphasises stitch texture and its crips lines make lace stitches with their open spaces shine, creating beautiful contrasts. Phillips manages to play with this to great effect, and I admire her wall hangings. You can see one of them in an accompagnying picture in her obituary in the New York Times, from which I want to share this great quote with you: ‘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.’

By knitting this swatch – and more will follow – I know I’m simply reproducing Phillips’s ‘score,’ but that’s not the point of making them. She says in Creative Knitting: “Personal expression in knitting, as in any other creative medium, is not achieved by copying exactly what someone else has done. Rather, the aim is to translate with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration.” They challenge me in different ways, making me approach techniques in a new light, and continue my journey of a more free-flowing form of knitting.

Mary Walker Phillips Exploration Swatch Closeup 1

Bell pattern and ladder stitch

The bell pattern and ladder stitch shown above is a good example of what Phillips means by translating with yarn the atmosphere of the inspiration. She was inspired by that Master Knitter, whose indispensible books should be mandatory reading for any knitter, Mary Thomas: “It was with the purchase of Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns, discovered while rummaging through a secondhand book store, that I really became involved in creative knitting.” Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns contains quite a few variations on the bell pattern, and I can imagine how trying out some of Thomas’s stitches and patterns in swatches eventually transformed into the knitted art that Phillips is known for.

I’d like to finish my first steps on my new journey with Rachael Matthews’s comment on my Creative Knitting blog post: “It’s like the journey is to find the place, and you know where you are going but of course you never know what it looks like until you get there.”

15 Replies to “Exploring Mary Walker Phillips”

  1. Yes, linen takes you to a ‘hole’ nother level of……..w h a t did I just do? 🙂 spinning it takes you to a whole nother lever and then you weave with it…
    Good luck. Looking foreward to more samples. thanks.

  2. Mary Walker Phillips and Mary Thomas were my first knitting books. Then there were the Barbara G. Walker treasuries. I tried all the stitches and in all kinds of fibers. Because my mother was a weaver, I usually used the finer threads and fell in love with linen early on. It was wonderful to see your article of appreciation for this lovely fiber and great lady.

  3. Tom send me your address and i will send you a hank of my plant dyed linen. Anna has used it to design the linen stitch cowl for me x

  4. I’ve just been trying the Eastern and Western techniques illustrated in the book and I have to agree that the Combined uncrossed method also appeals to me. I have yet to go on and try some of Mary Walker Phillips’ other stitches featured in her book.
    I like knitting with linen but so far, I haven’t tried it for a hanging: am currently knitting one in Jamieson and Smith’s yarn.

  5. I had that inspiration conversation with MWP in an elevator at the first STITCHES, in New Jersey!

    1. I’m glad the inspiration provided by Mary Thomas is finding its way through Mary Walker Phillips to me. I always rated Thomas’s books, but seeing Ms Phillips’s work casts it in a completely different light.

  6. Those are really interesting samples, and I do so agree – I’ve just been knitting up a swatch from the Mary Thomas book, and it connects you so much more thoroughly with the source. Knitting needs to be done

  7. Hi Tom, just found your lovely site when I was looking for references to Mary Walker Phillips. I purchased her book a few weeks ago and have been working through some of the patterns.

    I wish I had discovered this talented artist sooner and have been scouring the library and the Internet for more information about her. Sadly, there isn’t much. Ms. Phillips was quite talented and I’m a bit disappointed that more has not written about the woman and her art.

    Thanks for sharing her beautiful work.

  8. Hello! I am a great fan of Mary Walker Phillips, but I have a hard time with the diagrams. Do you happen to know if anyone out there has posted video tutorials of these amazing stitches? Thank you for a great post!

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