We spoke to Mike Dickison, curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum in New Zealand,  about The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco of 2011, and whether or not you should knit a sweater for a penguin. (Spoiler: don’t do this.)

Listen to Episode 1: The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco

About our guest

I met Mike on Twitter, and we’ve brunched together, played ukulele together, and knit together. When Mike’s not being a hipster (like me), he’s sorting Moa bones at the Whanganui Regional Museum. Mike is an all-round interesting guy, and we hope to have him back on the show soon.

All the penguin sweater links you need:

The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco – Podcast Transcript


RR: Oil spills are not that uncommon. In 2015 alone approximately 7,000 tonnes of oil were spilled, mostly in two larger spills of over 700 tonnes each, but there were also a number of smaller spills.

AP: A medium oil spill is between 7 and 700 tonnes of oil, that’s enough to have a devastating effect on local wildlife. Today we’re talking about a spill which had a big effect on a little bird.

RR: Hey Amber, did you hear the one about a penguin wearing a sweater.

AP: Rachel, is some kind of a joke?

RR: Kind of, and it’s also our story today. This is Rough Outline. And today we present, the Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco.


AP: “To get some help telling the story today, we’ve turned to an expert. Today we’re talking to Mike Dickison, curator of Natural History at Whanganui Regional Museum in New Zealand. Hello Mike!”

MD: “Hello!”

RR: Our story begins in 2001 near Phillip Island, about one and a half hours drive from Melbourne.

MD: In Australia, not New Zealand,  although most of the journalists covering this story could not distinguish between the two countries, they’re basically the same place.

RR: Phillip Island is famous for its penguins. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see the penguin parade. That’s just what it sounds like, when swarms of the little darlings come ashore at dusk in parade formation.

MD: And the penguins we’re talking about are not the black and white ones you’re familiar with, these are Fairy Penguins or Blue Penguins which are literally blue on top, which actually probably makes them more adorable than the monochrome penguins.Anyway, they’re common little penguins found around even tropical Australia and Northern New Zealand. And they’re not uncommon, they nest under people’s houses and make a racket. There was an oil spill in Australia, and a lot of penguins and other sea birds were oil-soaked and so the bird rescue team of course descends and cleans up the oil and washes down the birds as you’re familiar. But this crew in Australia decided that they would make little knitted… basically like little knitted cylinders or tubes with a couple of slits for the wings to go out for the penguins to wear.

AP: Jumpers.

RR: Pullovers.

AP: Cardigans.

RR: Vests.

AP: They made little penguin sweaters.

MD: And if you knit them right you get a little ribbed neck turtle neck appearance which looks utterly adorable when you stick a penguin in it.

AP: Aww! But it wasn’t  just for show. It was to prevent the birds from preening.

RR: Left to their own devices, the penguins would have cleaned the oil from their feathers and ingested it. That would have done a number on their liver and kidneys.

AP: It would have killed the birds. And there were a lot of birds.

RR: Over 400 penguins were affected. So to buy them some time, the crew at Phillip Island popped a sweater onto the penguins.

MD: Yeah, and so this is incredibly photogenic. They started knitting them and then they thought, oh let’s have a knitting drive, let’s try and get volunteers to give us some sweaters ‘cause they need about a hundred of them. Lots of penguins. And so they did, and is typical with these sorts of volunteer social media drives, it was incredibly over successful. They got hundreds and hundreds  of sweaters and then thousands and they ended up with about 15 thousand sweaters. This was all long after all the penguins had been cleaned and set free.

AP: Wow, what do you do with 15 thousand sweaters for penguins?

MD: Well they didn’t know what to do. So they put them all in boxes and that eventually filled the whole storage room. And then they, at that point they finally realised ‘perhaps we should tell people to stop sending us sweaters. But they didn’t, they’re still coming by the way and there’s a little note, for a while there was a little note on the Philip Island Conservation Trust webpage saying, ‘Please stop sending us sweaters, we don’t actually… that was over ten years ago, we don’t need them, there hasn’t been an oil spill since then, we have plenty stockpiled in case there’s a disastrous oil spill that soaks thousands of penguins so, but we don’t need them. And then they came up with this bright idea, hey! What if we got some little stuffed toy penguins and put the sweaters on them and sold them in the gift shop. That’s the Australian story.

RR: And this is where our story starts to unravel.

MD: What happened out of that is that a pattern was made and released and even printed in a knitting book, a novelty penguin sweater pattern and put online.

AP: We don’t know exactly what affect the penguin sweaters had on the birds’ recovery, but we do know that the Phillip Island team saved 96% of the penguins.

RR: And made a lot of knitters very, very happy.

AP: Let’s skip forwards now to ten years after the penguin sweater saga began…

Newscaster: Kia ora good evening, it’s now looming as the most significant environmental disaster in our history.

Newscaster: Hundred of tonnes of toxic oil is now heading towards beaches near Tauranga. This is a massive increase in the amount of oil spewing out of the stricken cargo ship Rena. The previous estimate of spilled oil was up to 30 tonnes. Today, up to 300 tonnes leaked from one of the vessel’s main tanks.

AP: This was NZ’s worst maritime disaster in recent years. It’s no overstatement to say that the whole country felt badly and wanted to help out.

RR: And that includes knitters.

AP: Back to Mike.

MD: Someone posted this sweater pattern from Australia and she came up with this story, she said that a friend of hers’ daughter was in contact with the bird rescue crew and they needed sweaters. And then someone else jumped in who owned a wool shop, a yarn shop, in Napier, which is a completely different city, on even a different coast from where the oil spill was actually happening. And they said, ‘I’ll help, I’ll receive all these sweaters if you send them to me I’ll send them on to Tauranga where the penguins are.

RR: And of course, what knitter could resist knitting a tiny sweater for an even tinier penguin!

MD: So it all cranked into gear and of course now the coordinator of all this had no contact with the penguins at all and only knew about this because a friend’s daughter was in touch with the veterinarians supposedly. So you notice the structure, it’s very much like those amazing stories you hear forwarded where ‘this actually happened with my brother-in-law’s friend’s hairdresser. So there was no direct contact with anyone involved in saving penguins. They released the pattern, the Australian pattern and put it on their little webpage it went online, then the critical mistake was that the coordinator went on holiday.

AP: So it went viral?

RR: Yes, it went viral. The problem wasn’t that it went viral though, the problem was the format. Everything from the knitting shop’s address, the knitting pattern itself, and the call to action was contained in an email newsletter, which, once released, could not be deleted or updated like a website can be.

MD: Of course, all the knitters forwarded this to all their different forums on ravelry that they belonged to and this meant people all over the world were suddenly seeing this pattern and they started emailing it to other knitters who weren’t on Ravelry – anyone could forward it and everyone did. And so it appeared on all these blogs, and then it was leapt out of the knitting world and conservation mailing  lists and then it was picked up by the bigger sites like Etsy, the big craft site and new sites, news stories, the Huffington Post covered it, and then it got BoingBoinged.

Newscaster: Little penguins, threatened by an oil spill, saved by good-hearted folk who are knitting them sweaters, lovingly handmade by knitters around the world.

MD: millions of people saw it at that point, and then so, by this time the coordinator had come back from holiday. And was able to notice that this was a huge deal and was able to try and control it, but it was too late.

AP: Yeah, the horse had bolted.

RR: The penguin had bolted.

MD: So it was too late. So the sweaters just started flooding in huge numbers of sweaters were being mailed to Napier…  and then the media started calling this little knitting shop in Napier and of course what do the media want? They want footage of live penguins wearing adorable sweaters being cuddled and waddling away. And Napier of course is nowhere near the penguins – they’re just a knitting shop, they don’t have any penguins, so the whole thing became like an international sensation and the thousands of knitters around the world were busy knitting sweaters and sending them all to New Zealand.

AP: With such good intentions right?

Mike: With such good intentions, because they love, because people love penguins. Of course they love penguins! Especially adorable penguins in sweaters, but you know, I felt this was a deeply misguided action for a start because, if you love penguins – if you love something you don’t knit a sweater for it, right? Because of the boyfriend sweater curse.

RR: (gasps) You’re right!

MD: Absolutly, so the penguins would break up with you.

RR: Amber’s looking confused, we better tell Amber and any non-knitters about the boyfriend sweater curse. So the boyfriend sweater curse is the rule that you must never, ever, ever knit a sweater for a man before you’re married to him. If you do, you are definitely going to break up. There’s a wikipedia article and everything, so you know it’s true. There’s several theories about why this might be, so, a sweater takes a long time to knit if you’re sitting there for 40 hours, thinking about your relationship, then you know, you might start wondering if he’s worth all that yarn.

MD: It’s a huge undertaking.

RR: The first time I knit, well I crocheted a scarf for my boyfriend, I nearly dumped him. That scarf was nearly the end of us. I did however crochet a penguin sweater, Mike did you knit any penguin sweaters or were you smarter than me?

The penguin sweater I crocheted for the Rena penguins. It's worn over my hand like a glove. My thumb and little finger extend from the wing holes, the rest of my fingers from the head hole.
The penguin sweater Rachel crocheted for the Rena penguins

MD: I did, I did knit a penguin sweater at the start before it all became clear what was going on. So to get back to the story, so the penguins would truly have dumped everyone. But people didn’t care, they made sweaters for the penguins and then it turned out, someone bothered, someone actually asked the veterinarian, ‘so, how’s the sweaters going with the penguins?’ and the veterinarian said ‘What sweaters?’ Because they didn’t actually ask for sweaters, in fact they weren’t even using sweaters on the penguins because as the vets pointed out, why the heck would you take this poor little stressed bird and then stick an uncomfortable sweater on it you know?

RR: Photo opportunity, that’s why!

AP: The team coordinating the Rena disaster cleanup effort, who by the way had been planning for just such an event for 16 years, were cleaning and treating some 40 birds per day without the need for a single sweater.

MD: And then they were putting the animals under heat lamps and in warm water to recover rather than putting sweaters on them because they consider that much less stressful.

AP: Fun fact: since 1998, great-grandmother Merle Davenport has been knitting penguin sweaters.

RR: As of 2014, she has knitted over a thousand of them.

AP: She has single-handedly created more penguin sweaters than could ever be needed.

RR: Merle is an accomplished knitter, who began her career as a school-girl, knitting socks for soldiers during the second world war.

AP: Back to the story.

MD: Apparently it’s just not practice anymore for bird rescue groups to put sweaters on the birds, that was an Australian thing, they don’t seem to do it anymore. So they weren’t wanting any sweaters and it’s not clear why someone got the impression that someone’s daughter was in touch with them and they needed sweaters. So they were very polite, but they were just a bit puzzled by this huge international knitting effort and there were all these sweaters piled up in this yarn shop in Napier, and thousands piled up – and in fact they’re probably still arriving because the email, the pattern and the address was probably forwarded without a clear close date or a notification that they were no longer needed so these things live forever. And so first the yarn shop said, ‘well, we could send them to Australia, we heard they need sweaters over there’ and Australia probably said ‘no thanks! It’s fine, we’re good! And so the yarn shop is now doing the same thing, they’re getting toy penguins, they’re putting sweaters on them, they’re selling them in the yarn shop and the money is supposedly goes to conservation, unspecified fundraising for conservation.

RR: Mmm, I bought one of those penguins

MD: That sounds reasonable doesn’t it, but you know, you’ve got wonder, what do the knitters think about all of this? Because they weren’t knitting sweaters to go on toy penguins to be sold to raise money for some conservation group after expenses and overhead had been taken out da-da-da, they were knitting sweaters for little penguins. And given the hours and hours of work that goes into doing this, if you think about it, what’s your hourly rate? Is this really the best use of your time? Could you not have volunteered for a few hours instead, to do fundraising, or man phones? But of course, that isn’t what motivates people to spend hours making a sweater.

RR: I feel like this story is like a fairytale. Something out of Disney. There’s the adorable animals in clothes, the misguided but well meaning sidekick in the form of the yarn store. I guess that makes the Penguins the heroes? I mean they have the costumes for it.

AP: Or it could be the veterinarians, scientists, volunteers cleaning up the little beggars are the real heroes.

RR: Yeah, I guess they do have those while capes, so that makes sense. Anyway a story like that needs a moral. What would the moral of the story be here?

AP: Before you start a knitting pattern, always check your sources.


RR: You’ve been listening to Rough Outline, a sustainability and culture podcast, with your hosts Rachel Rayner and Amber Panting.

AP: See our website www.roughoutline.org for extra content, shown notes, videos of adorable sweater-wearing penguins and Rachel’s amigurumi penguin with sweater pattern which you can download and create yourself.

RR: We’ll be talking more about amigurumi in future episodes.

AP: Big thanks to Mike Dickison, curator of Natural History and fellow-knitter for helping us out today. You can follow him on twitter @adzebill or find him on his website www.giantflightlessbirds.com

RR: You can also follow us on twitter @roughoutlinepod.




Looking for more details? Here’s some of the sources we looked at for this episode:

Talk to you soon!

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