Crocheting a Reef

For the past few weeks, I have been working on a crocheted project. The yarn was originally knit into a sweater, with blocks of different colors and shapes, and if memory serves, it was mostly acrylic. I’d begun to unravel, or “frog” it awhile back, but hadn’t determined a project for the multicolored yarn, which seemed a bit obnoxious as it was.

Then I attended a workshop, learning how to crochet hyperbolic shapes, to be assembled into a huge fiber arts crocheted coral reef! I’d read about the traveling exhibit in crochet magazines and online, but when I’d first heard about it, I was living in southern Indiana, and the exhibits were very far away. What good fortune that the Smithsonian is going to be hosting the exhibit, beginning October 16, 2010, and that one of my friends told me about the workshop, so I was able to attend, and my pieces will be part of that enormous community exhibit! People from all over the country, and some from other countries, have been stitching away, creating colorful, imaginative pieces, sharing their experiences, and sending their finished products into the Museum of Natural History, where they will be sorted and arranged into pleasing displays. It’s not a juried competition – every piece submitted by the due date (September 12) will become a part of the exhibit. I finished my first piece the day of the workshop, and it became the first of several to go on display at the yarn store, promoting the exhibit, until it’s time to be relocated to the museum.

When I got home, I looked through my yarn stash (a formidable endeavor on a good day), and determined that the partially-frogged sweater  was a perfect match for my next piece of coral – that multi-colored monstrosity, once a sweater, perhaps well-loved but maybe never truly appreciated, as it did end up hanging in a thrift store, where I discovered it, would enjoy a new life as a piece of coral, helping to raise awareness of the precarious ecosystem that is a coral reef.

It started as a few stitches, joined into a ring, and worked into a spiral. Each stitch would have two stitches worked into it, so that each row would have double the number of stitches. What began as a ring, and then a disc, soon started to wave and buckle, as the stitches became too tightly packed to exist together on the same plane.

As the piece continued to grow, row upon multi-colored row, the waves became ripples and curled upon themselves, beginning to resemble a leaf of kale, or the convoluted paths of the brain, for which the brain coral is named. The piece increased in diameter, from fist-sized now almost the size of a small watermelon.

I’ve been taking the piece with me in my oversized purse, and I work on it during free times – while watching tv programs online, or in a waiting room… I’ve shown the piece to friends and strangers, posting photos of my progress, and I’ve browsed Flickr & Ravelry, enjoying the posts other stitchers are sharing of their own pieces.

I’ve always had a very strong tie to animals and conservation. I lived for a few years in Florida, learning about the plight of manatees that are injured by careless people using motorboats, because the manatees swim too slowly to avoid the quickly-rotating blades of the motors. Of sea turtles, who are hatched on the same beach their mothers and grandmothers were hatched on, but because some condominium communities preferred to shine bright lights in their parking lots, the baby turtles became confused, thinking those lights were the moonlight, and would turn away from the ocean, their ultimate goal, and be crushed by cars, eaten by raccoons and sea gulls, or simply die from starvation and heat exhaustion as the summer sun rose again and cooked them on the asphalt. One of my best memories with my grandmother was participating in a ranger-led sea turtle hike on the beach, and helping to turn the baby turtles toward the water, watching them get picked up by the waves, taken out to the depths, where they would live and grow for several years, until it was time for the females to return to that same beach and lay their eggs. And Florida panthers, once plentiful, but now severely endangered, as are many of the larger cats in our world. It was in 7th and 8th grade, living in southern Florida, when I began volunteering at a veterinary clinic, taking what had always been a nebulous “someday” goal, and learning some of the hands-on lessons that are still with me today. At that point I was old enough to be given some responsibility, and to be taken seriously by adults, when I had questions about animal care.

There’s long been an internal struggle, between the science/”responsible” side of me, fascinated by the minute and the vast systems in our world, and the creative/”free” side, wanting to create and share, and make an impact.

For me, this project resonates so strongly, because the construction of these pieces, while each are unique, can be mathematically described using hyperbolic formulas, and are beautiful pieces when looked at individually or as a group, but when taken together, they become a bridge, helping people to understand the conservation efforts being taken to preserve the unique and fragile ecosystems that are the coral reefs.

This project came about because Daina Taimina, adjunct professor at Cornell University, was trying to create a visual model of a hyperbolic plane, so her students could truly understand what they were describing using formulas and calculations. A colleague had made a fragile version, using paper and tape, but she expanded on the idea, and began with knitting. She soon discovered, however, that because of the nature of knitting, which requires holding all of the stitches of a row/round on the needles simultaneously, it was very difficult to stitch beyond a certain size. She switched to crochet, which only requires one stitch on the hook at a time (unless you’re doing Tunisian crochet, which resembles knitting). The pieces were not restricted to a specific size, and she finally had models to show her students that could withstand being passed around the room. Prior to her work, it was thought that hyperbolic forms could not be made by humans, though they exist in many forms in nature (kale, as mentioned before, is but one example of crenulated forms).

Two sisters, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, co-founded the Institute for Figuring, and have expanded on the concept of hyperbolic crochet, using the techniques to create replicas of coral, and teaching others to do so. This community-created project has traveled the world, showcased in art galleries and museums: The Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh),  Chicago Cultural Center, NYU Broadway Windows (New York City), The Hayward (London), Right Window at ATA (San Francisco), SHOW Gallery (Staten Island), Track 16 (Los Angeles), Scottsdale Civic Center (Scottsdale, AZ), The Science Gallery (Dublin, Ireland), and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (New York).

If you are going to be in the Washington, D.C. area between October 16, 2010 and April 24, 2011, I invite you to visit the National Community Reef. I’d love to hear what you think of the project!

Recommended Links:

Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, Institute for Figuring

The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, Smithsonian

Geek Out!: Crochet sculptures teach higher math

Kale, crochet and the hyperbolic coral reef project

A Coral Reef Constructed From Yarn

Update: I just finished it! It’s bigger than my head.


About Bevin

I grew up reading stories of all kinds, but the fantasy genre has long been a favorite. Whether it's knights and sorcerors, Jedis or Browncoats, I love them all. I wanted to find my own secret passage to Narnia, study with the Heralds of Valdemar, or become a member of the elven wolfrider pack. I'm sure it was no surprise to my parents that when I discovered there was a club at my college dedicated to medieval life, I'd join. They likely didn't expect that 15 years later, I am still an active member. I acquired the nickname "Bevin the SnarlingBadger" from a friend in the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international not-for-profit educational organization which focuses on studying aspects of medieval life through first-person, hands-on research and practice. Yes, for some that means strapping on armor & practicing combat. For others it means studying a particular culture and time period, developing a "slice of life" persona. For me it means exploring arts & sciences, dressing up in pretty gowns, hanging out with other people who enjoy doing things the "hard way." Outside of the SCA, I'm passionate about animal rights & pet nutrition (and I'm trying to convince myself to eat healthier too), I love movies, audiobooks, tv (Netflix and Hulu are frequent accompaniment for craft-time), crochet, handspinning... I've also been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, since I was invited to participate in beta testing. I love the immersive quality of the game, and play primarily to watch the stories develop. So, this is a bit of me. There's more. Thanks for stopping by!
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