The South Atlantic Knitting Co-operative

Oct 22, 2017 - National Geographic Orion

There are many reasons to panic when you are out at sea: Whistling storms slamming the ship head-on, gigantic rogue waves or unseen icebergs, or, when you make it halfway across the ocean and realize that you are running out of yarn. 

In the beginning, we felt at ease. Some had brought yarn from home, hefty balls of thread to feed the kind of long-term projects that require endless hours of knit, purl, knit purl. I had four skeins of variegated acrylic for a soft little baby blanket that has kept me busy on all my recent flights. Anticipating the generous time at sea, the Global Gallery also stocked an array of wools, knitting needles, and patterns. It helps that Helga, who manages the Global Gallery, also knits.

Soon enough, each of us came to realize that we were not alone: at least a quarter of our ship is comprised of confirmed knitters, which almost qualifies as a movement. Political parties have been founded on lesser numbers. And then, like flowers poking through the cold soil in spring, our knitting projects began to emerge in public spaces—in the lounge during recap, by the bar during a morning lecture. More and more, we all knit, with gusto and determination. Larger projects took shape—Bobbie turned out an amazing shawl with intricate detail, Lynn is pulling out a beautiful red-and-black striped cowl, and Nancy is knitting a fanciful Gansy sweater. Her itty-bitty size 2 needles make me feel rather inadequate and clumsy, as if my own size 6 needles are in fact, a pair of telephone poles, strung with yarn.

As our knitting collective grew in size, the on-board yarn supply dwindled. After a week or so, I may have sparked a run on wool when I bought up the last good ball of charcoal-hued alpaca and whipped out a hat. The next day I returned to the Global Gallery and the yarn chest was severely depleted. And then today, Jean swooped up the last lonely ball traffic-cone orange yarn that nobody really wanted (“Perfect for a warm hat during hunting season in Maine,” she claims.) Bobbe Lubow is knitting scarves—scarves upon scarves—she already has four, and is working on a fifth. Cynthia still has some lovely yellow-green homespun for her ongoing project, Lummy is knitting with a beautiful sage-and-cream blend, and lucky for me, Renie ditched her coral-hued wool scarf and went back to her elaborate needlepoint. I inherited the chunky pink yarn and now treat it like a rare prize—even more so after I stumbled into the gallery and found there was no more yarn left at all . . . gasp. Thus, without yarn, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, ill-prepared for the days ahead.

Since this critical turning point, I have assumed the part of delinquent street urchin, who instead of bumming crushed cigarette butts off strangers, gathers up all the leftover bits of discarded yarn from my fellow knitters and stashes it away in his cabin for future use. Yes, I am openly admitting to hoarding yarn aboard the National Geographic Orion.

Given that more than a week of open water remains before us, our situation on board is likely to turn desperate. In the coming days, we may start unraveling our store-bought sweaters from home, just for the chance to re-knit them into socks and scarves and little baby booties. Or we may switch to knitting our spaghetti at dinner. Whatever may be, we cannot stop knitting. The craze has taken over the ship—there is no quarantine for knitters. We are legion.

I like to think that if we all unraveled all of our knitting projects from this trip, tying the yarn end to end, all that knitted yarn would stretch from the aft deck all the way back to Lisbon. Obviously, this is an exaggeration, something I have been heavily discouraging in our creative writing workshops—and so I must take a minute and tally up the truth. My latest calculations show that during this trans-oceanic expedition, we have knitted 5,127 yards of yarn—almost one full mile of knitting. No doubt, we will knit another mile before we reach Tierra del Fuego and the South American promise of new yarn.  No doubt that until that time, the street value for new yarn will skyrocket and for the first time ever, I might have to start locking my cabin.

The upside of this relentless knitting is the university of craft knowledge that is shared among us. Nancy has taught me the cable cast-on (good for stretchy projects), and I taught John the long-tail cast-on (an oldie but goodie). There are moments in the lounge when it seems like every second person is clicking away on their needless, pushing out projects like some carny pulling taffy at the fair—the scarves are getting longer, the patterns more decorative.

Truly, all this craft time at sea is a luxury, and aside from the terrific community of yarn fiends, I am comforted by the knowledge that if the engine were ever to fail, the knitters on board could power the ship back to land simply by knitting a large sail, blowing us eastward to Patagonia, after which, at least a quarter of us would start chasing the sheep, eager to grab an ounce of their wool. 

So now we know—next time, bring more wool—say, a ball of yarn per day? Perhaps two? Still, that does not solve the challenge of the day—to have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn without yarn. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so I write this note to the world, after which I shall hit up the bartender for an empty bottle of wine and a solid Portuguese cork. I shall place our message inside and seal it up before tossing it into the ocean, in hopes that it float away to some friendly shore and be opened by a fellow knitter who will stand thoughtfully on the beach and unfurl my letter, reading aloud: SOS. PLEASE SEND YARN.

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About the Author

Andrew Evans

Global Perspectives Guest Speaker

Andrew Evans is an author, travel writer, and TV host. Embracing all media, he shares his stories from around the globe on pixel and paper. 

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