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Jumpers for Penguins

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

When I knitted my first—and what would become my last—penguin jumper, I used 100 per cent wool.  I had read that synthetic fibres could irritate penguin skin. Weaving miniature avian jumpers sourced for the rehabilitation of oiled penguins was my first introduction to ‘craftivism’.

I had heard about the Rena oil spill off the coast of New Zealand in 2011. A local New Zealand knitting store, Skeinz, had put out a call for jumper donations on their blog. As the reasoning went, handmade jumpers were supposed to help the little blue penguins by providing insulation, and preventing the ingestion of chemicals. The blog post linked to a basic knitting pattern and suddenly my cute-gauge (usually devoted to taking pictures of my cat) imploded. I imagined the penguin that I would save—my penguin—in its new violet jumpsuit, wiggling with its rescued peers. As a knitter, there was no way I could not take part.

Needless to say, when I discovered the truth about penguin jumpers and the viral, global penguin jumper-knitting phenomenon that ensued from this one blog post, I was reluctant to believe the facts. For a number of reasons, including the sheer volume of jumpers donated to the small knitting store and a lack of communication with the wildlife rescue workers, not one of the thousands of jumpers donated ended up being used on living penguins. I folded my freshly cast-off sweater and hid it at the bottom of my knitting basket.

Two years on, penguin jumpers have recently re-emerged on social media, care of another media call-out and a pattern linked by the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation. Less than a month after that posting, however, the Penguin Foundation reported that they had reached capacity for donations. Despite the fact that no oil spill has been reported nearby, the urgency that seems to be associated with saving the penguins makes people knit faster and more. Such is the nature of ‘craftivism’ and its innate ability to activate personal investment in a cause en masse.

Though the likelihood of a penguin ever wearing my tailor-made suit was always small, the time and careful thought that I had invested in my creation allowed me to feel connected to the issue on an emotional level. ‘Craftivism’ may be bittersweet to penguins, but the potential of viral knitwear is very real.