Knitting sweaters for penguins, a perfect storm of squee and awww that hits every hipster button: Cute widdle birds, knitting, helping some faraway land during an environmental disaster, and social media. Except the sweaters don’t get put on the birds; they are used for fundraising.

It’s possibly one of the best yarns that the internet has even spun.

In 2001 an oil spill in Phillip Island, Australia left many Blue Penguins oil-covered. Through trial and error a bird rescue team developed a little knitted sweater to help the 453 birds affected by the spill because

oil clogs the feathers of these tiny seagoing birds, and reduces their insulating and waterproofing qualities. Even worse, the penguins attempt to clean themselves by preening, and rapidly become poisoned.

Volunteers from around the world, alerted by email, pulled out their needles and got to clicking. Soon there were plenty of sweaters for the little penguins, too many in fact.

Flash forward a decade:

On October 5, 2011 the cargo ship Rena ran aground near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, a couple of hours drive from Auckland, New Zealand, leaking 350 tons of oil. With social media in full force, penguins being pop culture icons thanks to March of the Penguins, Mr. Popper’ Penguins and Happy Feet, and knitting being the hobby du jour, penguin sweaters suddenly became a huge passion for needle clackers around the world.

Patterns were posted, sweaters were knitted and shipped off to the Philip Island Penguin Foundation, and darling pictures of penguins in sweaters were posted. Ohhhhh squeeeee! Sooooo cuuuuuute. Totes adorbs, oh em gee!

Tasmanian Conservation Trust politely posted that their project was closed after 15,000 sweaters were received. Just weeks after the 2011 Rena knitting project was mentioned on a knitting forum, the forum’s moderator posted:

And by now it turned out that none—not one—of the sweaters was actually used. The rescued penguins were being kept in warm water and recovering under heat lamps, much less stressful for wild birds than dressing them in a cute knitted sweater. Nobody seems to have asked the vets and rescue workers if they in fact needed penguin sweaters, and those interviewed seemed a bit surprised by the international knitting effort…Apparently the sweaters will be sent to a conservation group in Australia, though with crates of penguin jumpers already in storage it’s hard to see when they’ll ever be needed; some might be sold for unspecified fund-raising purposes.

Oh yes, they were being sold for fundraising purposes, not being fitted on sweet little penguins. And they are still being sold for fundraising, and the foundation behind the sweater drive wants everyone to keep knitting and sending the penguin sweaters.

The conservation group, the Penguin Foundation located on Phillip Island, makes a massive push this month for more penguin sweaters. From TIME Magazine, March 6, 2014:

These Cute Rescued Penguins Need You to Knit Little Sweaters For Them
An Australian foundation calls for knitters to send sweaters for oil-damaged birds…And if your masterpiece arrives at a time when the Penguin Foundation is overstocked, the organization will use them in educational programs and sell them in fundraisers.

The Daily Mail, March 6, 2014:

The Penguin Foundation recently staged a competition for the most creative jumper, which received an enthusiastic response.

A Melbourne, Australia radio station posted a plea for knitters for make more penguin sweaters, and even my local morning news show ran a story about the need for penguin sweaters. Guess what?

The Penguin Foundation rescues approximately 20 birds a year.

With money raised from selling penguin sweater-dressed plush toys, the foundation opened a new Phillip Island Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre which can house up to 1500 penguins in the event of a major oil spill. Which is great! The world needs more wildlife conservation centers. But they don’t need to be built on the dreams of grannies and hipsters who believe they are creating woolly jumpers for distressed penguins, when in reality they are creating merchandise to be sold.

Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.