Hadley Westwood's bespoke beanies travel from the Antarctic to the Arctic

Sir David Attenborough's phytoplankton beanie. And the man himself. Photo supplied
Sir David Attenborough's phytoplankton beanie. And the man himself. Photo supplied

Hadley Westwood's bespoke beanies grace the heads of expeditioners in the Antarctic, have travelled to the Arctic Circle, and one has been gifted Sir David Attenborough.

For three years, the fibre artist from Waitui, on the Mid North Coast of NSW, has been designing and creating the beanies for the team at Mawson Research Station in the Antarctic.

The tradition started when her next door neighbour's son, David, was working at Mawson Station and visited home with around 300 photos taken while he was on expedition.

The images sparked inspiration.

With a Diploma of Art in Tapestry obtained "a long, long time ago", Hadley has a huge stash of wools from iconic tapestries made by Australian Tapestry in Victoria, one of which graces the foyer of the Sydney Opera House.

"Because I had these tapestry wools I thought 'what am I going to do with them? I have to do something special with them'," Hadley said.

With the famous image of Mawson in his hand-knitted balaclava in mind, Hadley found her project.

"I thought perhaps I can knit hats for the winterers - because there were only 15 of them at the time - depicting these scenes from Mawson's Station in David's photographs. I don't know what was going through my head actually!" Hadley laughs.

David was one of the 15 winterers and he got a special hat of Hadley's favourite image.

"One of the pictures was of a seal that had popped up from a hole in the ice and he had a starfish stuck on the front of him, like a Tiffany's brooch! It looked amazing."

The beanies take three weeks of full time work, 7am to 10pm each day. Hadley plots the image on graph paper, with each unit representing four stitches (she doesn't own a computer so doesn't use programs that can create knitting graphs for her).

The beanie Hadley created to be auctioned, with the photograph that inspired it, and the graph she created to knit the design. Photo: Dan Broun/Australian Antarctic Division

The beanie Hadley created to be auctioned, with the photograph that inspired it, and the graph she created to knit the design. Photo: Dan Broun/Australian Antarctic Division

It took Hadley 12 months to create the 15 beanies. David then organised for the beanies to go via boat to the winterers mid-season.

Hadley presented the finished beanies to Dr Nick Gale, director of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), in Hobart. Dr Gale retired shortly after and Hadley decided she would knit him a beanie as a retirement present, with the main image depicting a whale's tail, as Dr Gale is apparently a "whale man".

"He sent me a photograph of himself on some kind of whale watching tour with his wife and various other scientists, up in the far reaches of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

"There's this gorgeous photo of him wearing my hat with the whale tail on it, and I did put a couple of icebergs on the back of his hat. And I just adored that. I thought 'I've got hats in the Antarctic, and hats in the Arctic circle!'"

While visiting the AAD to deliver the hats, Hadley was given a tour of the krill breeding and research facility, and she became fascinated with the small crustaceans. To thank the man who gave who the tour, she knitted him a krill hat, and kept knitting krill hats until she had made seven.

Hadley's hats: Mawson expeditioners proudly wearing their beanies. Photo: Dan Broun/Australian Antarctic Division

Hadley's hats: Mawson expeditioners proudly wearing their beanies. Photo: Dan Broun/Australian Antarctic Division

This year's winterers at Mawson Station will soon receive their beanies, this time featuring icebergs. And Hadley is now working on next year's, featuring a new obsession.

Once she had finished the krill beanies, Hadley went further down the food chain to phytoplankton - the microscopic single-cell organisms that krill eat.

"I've got to knit a full year of phytoplankton because the shapes and everything are unbelievable - very inspiring," Hadley says.

She was on phytoplankton beanie number three, when Dr Rob King at the AAD said he'd like to see the phytoplankton hats as they came off the "production line".

"He said 'I wonder what life would feel like with a head enveloped by phytoplankton?"

"And that made me think, who's head would I really want one of these on? If I could pick anyone in the world, who would I pop one of these on? And as soon as I had the thought the only name that came into my head was Sir David Attenborough.

Sir David Attenborough's phytoplankton beanie. Photo supplied

Sir David Attenborough's phytoplankton beanie. Photo supplied

Hadley got to work and sent the finished hat, with a two page letter explaining her project, to Sir David's production company.

She promptly received a handwritten reply from him thanking her for the beanie.

"When I went to the mailbox here was this airmail letter with little red and blue flags all around the edge, from England, and I knew straight away what it was," Hadley says.

"So I opened it with my very special letter opener very, very carefully, and there was this beautiful piece of paper in there. He'd hand addressed the envelope as well - it sort of looked like 95-year-old writing," she laughs.

"I get goosebumps when I think about it."

In addition to the hats for the winterers, Hadley also knits one special one each year.

"One of the ladies on staff at the AAD said 'we have an auction on the ship returning the winterers back, would you see your way through to knitting a hat for that?' I couldn't say no to that."

The first one knitted for the yearly return auction featured Rumdoodle Hut, for which the winner paid $1000.

Hadley is continuing to knit phytoplankton hats for the next crop of lucky winterers.

RELATED

The Manning Valley has another close connection with the Antarctic. Narelle Campbell, who grew up in the Manning, was station leader at the Australian research stations of Mawson, Casey, Macquarie Island and Davis. Read more HERE.

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This story The beanie Sir David Attenborough couldn't refuse first appeared on Manning River Times.