The fairy penguins, now more commonly referred to as little penguins, have had it rough the last century. In the last 80 years they have lost close to 75% of their breeding grounds to encroachment of human settlements. Currently, their numbers are strongest on Phillip Island in Australia, just south of Melbourne. In January 2000, the area was hit by an oil spill off the coast. Most of the penguins would have died, had it not been for the clever local biologists, whose creative thinking incited a worldwide effort and united knitters from many nations.
Little penguins, as their name indicates, are small, averaging half the height of their famous cousins, the Antarctic Emperor penguins. They share many similar characteristics with the bigger birds including the natural oils that coat their feathers. This layer of oils makes their bodies waterproof and keeps them warm even in near freezing waters. The penguins are also somewhat vain, preening their feathers regularly to keep them clean and shiny. These two facts about our penguin friends can be lethal in combination with an oil spill.
The natural, protective oils break down when they come in contact with crude oil from a spill. Furthermore, when a penguin is rescued and cleaned, it takes several weeks for these natural oils to be restored. In the meantime, you are left with a clean, but cold penguin. Rescuers at Phillip Island were quick to notice that penguins dressed in wool doll sweaters stayed healthy and recovered quickly.
The word spread that helpless little penguins were in need of sweaters and within a few weeks, the rescue center was flooded with hand knit donations from around the world. Wool is the yarn of choice as its fibers breakdown with contact with salt water and slowly disintegrate before the penguins are released back into the wild. The sweaters serve a twofold purpose: they keep the penguins warm while oils are restored and they also prevent them from preening their feathers, which prevent them from ingesting any crude oil residues.
Staff regularly monitor the penguins to assess their water proofness. When penguins are water proof they are tagged and released.
There is no longer a need for penguin sweaters on Phillip Island, since the center now has a healthy stockpile in case of another emergency. Donations of hand knit sweaters, however, are still being accepted and are sold at the gift center on the island, with proceeds going to research and conservation efforts. Sweaters are also collected by The Tasmanian Conservation Trust as well as other animal rescue groups.
How to knit a penguin sweater
4 ply 100% wool yarn, various bright colours
1 pr no. 5 needles (3.75 mm) (# 9 needles U.K./Canadian)
1 set of 4 no. 3 double pointed needles (3.25 mm) (# 10 U.K./Canadian)
Sweater measures approx. 9 ½ in. (24 cm) long, 4 ½ in. (11.5) across.
- Using no. 5 needles (# 9 Cdn.), cast on 36 stitches. K1, p1 to end of row. Repeat k1, p1 for 7 more rows.
- Change to k2, p2, inc. 1 st. each end of every other row 4 times (44 sts.) (The edges won't be completely in pattern, but that's ok. Just pick up the pattern when you get to the 44 sts.)
- Continue until work measures 6 in. (15 cm)
- Working in pattern, dec. 1 st. each end of every row until 28 sts. Dec. 1 st. in middle of next row (27 sts.).
- **Move to holder. Make second side the same.
- Using no. 3 needles (#10 Cdn.), slip 18 sts. on each of 3 needles.
- k1, p1 for 16 rows for neck. Bind off.
- Stitch up sides to just before start of decrease * opening for flippers * leave opening about 2 in. long (5 cm).
**Note: If you can't manage the double pointed needles for the neck, just use the regular needles and do the k1, p1 pattern on 28 sts. for 16 rows after the decrease, and stitch up the sides of the neck just like for the body.
Pictures of sweater wearing penguins:
Send sweaters to:
17 Howqua Court
Phillip Island Nature Park
PO Box 97