Monday, 10 March 2014

Knitting for Penguins: A Cautionary Tale

Over the past several months a number of my friends and readers have flipped me links to stories about a call for hand-knitted sweaters for penguins who'd come into contact with a recent oil spill. The story also began cropping up in the Facebook newsfeed for this blog's Facebook page. I meant to look into the story further and then write about the matter, but never got around to it.

It turns out that my procrastination paid off (as procrastination sometimes does), because as it happens wildlife rescue workers don't use sweaters on oil-soaked penguins. Sweaters, even the cutest of them, would press the oil against the bird's skin, impair the evaporation of the aromatics emitted by the oil, and needlessly distress the wild animal. Rescue efforts instead rely on warm baths and heat lamps to clean, dry, and warm the birds. The pictures of the penguins in sweaters you've seen are posed photo ops. Oh, and there hasn't been a recent large oil spill.

The penguin sweaters sent by helpful knitters from around the world are actually being used as outfits for the toy stuffed penguins sold by the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation's gift shop, with the proceeds being used to fund their wildlife aid operations. The whole "penguins in sweaters" knitting drive story actually dates back to 2000 and has been through a few incarnations. Blogger Mike Dickison has the whole story on his site, Great Flightless Birds, and he winds up his article by offering tips on how organizers should manage a call for knitwear donations and make sure it doesn't wind up getting wildly out of hand as the "sweaters for penguins" drive has each of the three times it has arisen.

I am very relieved not to have played a part in disseminating false information about the penguin sweater matter either here or on Facebook. The first I posted about it was last Friday, when I shared Mike Dickison's post and an informative cartoon about the story on this blog's Facebook page. And I hope that if I had written about the penguin sweater story I would have researched it properly and found out the actual facts of the matter. The whole fiasco has led me to think about knitting for charity in general, and I'd like to set out some advice on how knitters can do so effectively.

First of all, I'd encourage any knitter who wishes to knit for charity to give the items he or she makes to local organizations. Unless you live somewhere extremely remote such as, say, Antarctica, there are sure to be a number of charities in your own community that will welcome your knitwear donations. Depending on what causes appeal to you, and what kind of items you want to make, you can knit for:

- Neonatal Intensive Care Units or Special Care Nurseries in your local hospital. Preemies require very tiny items that aren't all that easily found in stores.
- Christmas toy drives.
- Organizations created to help children in need. Toys, clothes, and blankies will all be welcome.
- First responders such as fire fighters, police and EMTs sometimes accept donations of small knitted dolls and toys to give to children to comfort and distract them from the stress and pain they are experiencing.
- Cancer treatment centres often take donations of knitted caps, which are given to patients undergoing chemo who have lost their hair.
- Knitting circles that make prosthetics for breast cancer survivors. Women who have had mastectomies sometimes much prefer a custom-knitted prosthetic rather than a very expensive, heavy, and ugly commercially made prosthetic.
- Homeless shelters. They usually have an endless need for hats, mittens, scarves, sweaters, and socks in winter.
- Women's shelters. They can use a variety of knitwear to help outfit the women and children who seek refuge with them.
- Group efforts to collect knitted squares to be assembled into blankets which are then sent to hospices, shelters, or anywhere there is need.
- Animal shelters and rescue operations are often happy to receive bird nests, blankets, toys, and other items for the animals in their care.

When you find an organization in your area that you wish to knit for, check their website or contact them to find out what their needs actually are. Some organizations may not be willing to take the knitted items at all, some may have more than enough such items coming in at present, and some may have specific requirements for any knitted items they receive, and you want to make sure you have reliable, up-to-date information about their needs and requirements before you donate. Learn from the mistake made by the members of a Women's Institute in Devonshire, who spent a year crafting a knitted village for sick children, only to find out that no children's hospital or hospice would take it because it couldn't be sterilized. The miniature village was eventually sent to a South African orphanage, but still... ooops.

You may wish to join an existing charitable knitting circle in your area that will give you information about what to knit and be responsible for passing the items along to the organization that will use them. Lion Brand actually has a special interface on their site that interested U.S. knitters and crocheters can use to search for an existing knitting charity in their location or even register their own new knitting charity if they wish.

If you wish to donate to an international organization, or even an organization that is farther away than you can conveniently get to, I'd urge you to do due diligence on the organization to make sure it's legitimate — and then to send a cheque. I know there's much more emotional satisfaction and a feeling of connection to be derived from hand knitting items to be given as is to those far away, but if you really want to help others, keep in mind that in most cases aid organizations can do far more good with whatever amount it cost you to ship your knitted item hundreds or thousands of miles than they can with the knitted item itself. Shipping handmade donations internationally isn't a cost-efficient way to help others. If you were a foreign aid worker, what would you rather receive in the mail: a hat and mittens to help keep a child warm, or the monetary equivalent that could be spent on medical supplies which could save three children's lives?

The one exception I can think of to this "knit locally, send money globally" rule is the D.O.V.E. Fund Bandage Brigade, which collects knitted leprosy bandages to take to countries where leprosy is still a problem. In that particular case, there is a specific need for the handmade bandages because they breathe better than commercially made bandages, and can be sterilized for re-use as commercially made bandages cannot be. So yes, in that particular instance, go ahead and knit the bandages and ship them.

If you feel you must answer some far off call for specific knitted items, do exercise some caution. The organization you are knitting for should have a web site of its own where they can manage the donations coming in. There should be contact information on this web site, and details about what items are needed, and where to send them. There should be updates on how many items they've had come in, on how they're using them, and how many items they still need. The Knitting for Nutrition project, that took place in February 2012 in Burkina Faso, Africa, did exactly this, got the 1076 pairs of baby booties they wanted for their project, and then announced that they weren't accepting any more booties for the time being. If an organization hasn't set up a simple, free blog to manage the knitwear donations they are receiving, it probably isn't sufficiently organized to receive the donations, and the whole call for knitwear may be a hoax, a misunderstanding, or outdated. The workers of this organization may in fact be buried under bales of knitted items that have been shipped to them from knitters all over the world, that are way in excess of what they can ever possibly use, and that they perhaps never even asked for.

In general, before you knit for others, do take the time to make sure your work is needed and welcome before you so generously and kindly donate the items you worked so hard on. Hand knitted items are a terrible thing to waste, especially when there is sure to be someone out there who is very much in need of them.


  1. good advice, hope people take it.

  2. Well said! Now, if only people would do the same kind of simple research before reposting desperate pleas for help/action/response on social media.