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Margaret Atwood on knitting a Great Auk in the Arctic

The Handmaid's Tale author is just one of 112 illustrious contributors to an exhibition about extinct birds

Matilda Battersby
Friday 21 October 2011 13:18 BST

When filmmaker-turned-curator Ceri Levy decided to put a spotlight on the 190 species of bird on the verge of extinction, he found no better way than to get the creatives of the day to make art representing birds which no longer exist.

The Ghost of Gone Birds exhibition was born. When it opens at the Rochelle School in London’s Shoreditch next week, 112 images of Dodos, White Gallinule, Cormorants, and other extinct species, by the likes of Sir Peter Blake, Billy Childish, Ralph Steadman and Margaret Atwood will be there for public viewing.

The Handmaid’s Tale author Atwood is a long-term campaigner for the conservation of birds and is co-honorary President of BirdLife, an international organisation composed of 120 national partners which globally monitors birds. The exhibition is in support of BirdLife's Preventing Extinction Programme.

Most of the artists and writers involved contributed paintings, drawings and prints. But Atwood, who is a prolific knitter, wanted to make her piece out of wool. Here she speaks to The Independent Online about the task and the exhibition:

I said I’d knit a Great Auk for the Ghosts of Gone Birds show. Having said that I thought “Oh god, how am I going to do this?” I thought at first that I was going to make a three-dimensional stuffed Auk. I didn’t really know how to do that. So I used a programme on the web called KnitPro which makes a pattern for you if you upload a design. It didn’t take that long to knit once I’d figured out what I was doing.

I knitted my Great Auk in the Arctic, which was where I happened to be. I was there with a group called Adventure Canada with whom I travel quite a bit. They happened to have a knitting group because there was a woman onboard who was an expert in drop spindle yarn making. So, she was helping people to make wool into yarn while I was knitting my Great Auk and other people were knitting other things. Do you know what a Stitch and Bitch group is? It was basically one of those. The eye of Great Auk came from somebody’s bead collection.

It is the first and only Great Auk that I have knitted. Having knitted it, I could certainly teach other people to knit one, but I don’t think I’ll be making any more myself. I got some consultation from people in knitting shops to get the right colour wool. They did look at me in a somewhat askance way when I told them what I was doing.

Bird watching isn’t a science. It is a passion. But it is a very widespread one. There are more people involved in bird watching in North America than are involved in tennis and golf combined. In the UK there are over a million members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is a member of Bird Life.

We hope to bring The Ghosts of Gone Birds to America and to encourage the participation of American artists, especially for the 2014 International Convention Congress of Bird Life, which happens every four years, the next of which will be in Ottawa.

Ghost of Gone Birds, Rochelle School, London E2 from 2-26 November,

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