Mary Walker Phillips

Susan Brown

Mary Walker Phillips, the artist credited with bringing knitting into the realm of fine art, began her professional career in the San Francisco studio of Dorothy Liebes. Phillips was the daughter of a close friend and former classmate of Liebes’s, and after completing her BFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1947, she returned to California to work alongside her longtime mentor and family friend.  

Liebes’s fondness for the younger woman was clear in a telegram she sent to Frank Lloyd Wright on March 31, 1948: “Mary Phillips of my studio eager come Taliesin right away for balance of time in Arizona. She is young, cultured, very musical and a wonderful weaver.”  After the arrangements had been finalized, Liebes followed with a letter, dated April 5, 1948: “Your telegram brought a great ray of excitement to our studio and everyone looked longingly at Mary Phillips because they all wanted to go right along with her to visit Taliesin . . . I believe she is a very talented girl who will be a real addition to the Foundation . . . she has had a rather well-balanced exposure to good training, particularly at Cranbrook and here in my studio. In addition to her craft work she is an excellent musician, particularly expressed as a pianist.” [1] Arriving with this warm introduction, Phillips clearly did make a good impression on Wright and his wife Olgivanna, who subsequently commissioned her to weave draperies, upholsteries, and tablecloths for the house.  

Afterward, she returned to her hometown of Fresno to teach and open her own custom weaving studio (Fig. 1). Examples of her woven work in Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s collection show the clear influence of her time in the Liebes studio, with their extensive use of Lurex yarns and experimental materials (Fig. 2).  

In 1960, Phillips returned to Cranbrook to complete her MFA, focusing on experimental textiles. At the urging of her close friend, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, she began to focus on knitting as a contemporary art form (Fig. 3). Her work was included in prestigious exhibitions and she became a fellow of the American Craft Council. She also continued to teach and was a prolific author; her publications included Step by Step Knitting, Step by Step Macramé, and Creative Knitting: A New Art Form 


[1] Frank Lloyd Wright Archival Materials, Avery Library, Columbia University.


Black-and-white photograph of a woman sitting at a loom. Behind her are bookshelves with spools and skeins of yarn

Fig. 1 Mary Walker Phillips sitting at her loom weaving in her studio, Fresno, California, 1955; Courtesy Friends of Fiber Art International Artist Files, American Craft Council

Fig. 2 Textile, 1960–63; Designed and woven by Mary Walker Phillips (American, 1923–2007); Lurex®, natural fiber, insulating glass, linen; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Gift of Mary Walker Phillips,1971-43-7-b

Long vertical rectangular hanging with horizontal rows of different openwork textures in shades of tan

Fig. 3 Hanging, More Variations, 1967; Designed and knitted by Mary Walker Phillips (American, 1923–2007); Lurex, linen, handspun silk; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Gift of Mary Walker Phillips, 1998-38-3

Susan Brown

Susan Brown is Associate Curator and Acting Head of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, where she has curated over a dozen exhibitions including Fashioning Felt (2009), Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay (2011), Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse (2016), Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer: The Prints that Made the Fashion Brand (2021) and A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (2023).