March of the Penguin Sweaters

On knitting a garment I hope will never be worn.


I’ve come to understand one of the primary reasons I’m passionate about knitting: As I knit, I visualize the person the garment is intended for. If it’s the holiday season, I visualize friends, family, and a flock of juvenile-service professionals who will get to choose from a knitted pile of accessories.

This is a relief after a quarter century of writing: nobody wants a draft of a bad poem in their holiday stocking—although the Man I Married might have preferred a slim sheet of paper over the seven-foot-long scarf I knitted him as my first ever knitted project.

In a little over two years of knitting, I’ve completed over 100 projects (the number of unfinished projects I’ve started is another story). I’ve given most of those knitted accessories away, and despite not remembering what I ate for breakfast or my latest Facebook password update, I know to whom each one went.

Knitting is my form of prayer. (I’m tempted to say it’s my form of meditation, but with all of my mistakes and frustrated swearing, that’s not accurate. It’s more an obsessive concentration that blots out worries about my juvenile delinquent.)

Conscious thought of the recipient is the idea behind Prayer Shawls. When I assisted a woman at the local craft store buying her first set of circular needles because her Prayer Shawl was too big for straight needles, I asked her what a Prayer Shawl was. Was it a specific pattern? Her vague answer was that she didn’t really know, either; it was something she was doing through her church for an ill congregant.

A Prayer Shawl in its modern incarnation, I learned, is about visualizing the recipient, often undergoing a health crisis, while being knit by compassionate friends.

So it’s odd that I got excited about something I hoped would never be worn: a penguin sweater. This is not a human-sized sweater emblazoned with a penguin image.

No, these are sweaters meant for penguins to wear. Not to protect them from the cold, but to protect them from yet another inevitable human fuck-up.

A refuge in Australia stockpiles the sweaters in case of an oil spill. The sweater, or jumper—really a vest—keeps the birds from preening and thus ingesting oil until they can be properly cleaned. One of my local yarn stores—Seattle Yarn in West Seattle—would ship as many penguin sweaters as their customers could knit. Count me in! A perfect marriage of my love of birds and of knitting.

The pattern dictates extreme specificity as far as size. If the vest is a centimeter too big or small, it won’t be used. Is a penguin colony really so uniform in size? Unlike, say, a grouping of human females trying on bathing suits in Target’s dressing room?

The pattern was in metric, so at first I had no idea how small the vests would be. I pictured the large Humboldt penguins I recently saw at our zoo–copulating enthusiastically while mothers rapidly herded their children away to another exhibit. But the sweaters are for the world’s smallest penguins—aptly named the Little Penguin, formerly the Fairy Penguin—and I soon learned that four centimeters is about an inch. The vest would not even be five inches long—smaller than a letter-sized envelope.

I tried to adjust the pattern for a larger yarn and needle size, because I don’t like working with small needles—I like to see rapid progress, and, well, I like to see, not squint, at needles more appropriately sized for squirrel paws.

Despite my calculations (or perhaps because of), my first penguin sweater turned out too big, so I got the brilliant idea to felt it. As everyone who’s accidentally thrown a wool sweater into the wash knows, felting shrinks an adult sweater down to doll size. A felted penguin vest would be extra warm and cozy. No preening bills could work their way through the felted wool. Aren’t I clever?

But in the bizarre twist of my fiber-arts life, my felted vest grew bigger because of some strange calculus involving the stretchy ribbing used for the vest. The Man I Married has long thought the dog was being shortchanged in the natty clothing department; I’m not sure if any other dog can claim to have a penguin hand-me-down.



I bit the bullet and used the smaller yarn and needles called for in the pattern and successfully made a few.

Since finishing my sweaters, I learned that the Snopes fact-checking site suggests that the donated sweaters will probably never be used. Oil spills are rare, and the refuge has received far too many donations. It’s possible that the vests might adorn a stuffed penguin for sale in the gift shop to raise funds.

I’m not disappointed to learn that my vests might never be used. I hope the natural disaster triggering their need never happens.

The sweaters were my Prayer Shawls: I sent out positive energy to those endangered by human recklessness.

The pattern dictated a strong preference for the vests to be made from wool. A natural fiber would be better for the penguin: warm, waterproof, and safer to ingest.

Who could have guessed that wool’s fire-retardant properties might have more relevance?

Wool is slow to ignite–unlike our human desire for meaningful change.


* * *
Photo credits:

Penguin Love: Christina Wilsdon

Burning Australia: Reddit

3 thoughts on “March of the Penguin Sweaters

  1. Jen, I am not a knitter, so you caught me by surprise: prayer shawls, knitting as a form of prayer, the amazing story of the penguin sweaters–who knew?! Thank you for this. Knit on!

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