Spinning an icy yarn in Antarctica

Marion spent six hours in relatively balmy conditions (0C and no wind), spinning her blue wool fibre outside the Main Hut at Commonwealth Bay.
Marion spent six hours in relatively balmy conditions (0C and no wind), spinning her blue wool fibre outside the Main Hut at Commonwealth Bay. (Credit Marion Wheatland)
Douglas Mawson in 1931, wearing the balaclava Marion was inspired to replicate.A practice balaclava replicating Mawson's balaclava.Marion practiced spinning in a variety of cold conditions before her trip south, including in this -18C freezer.  Marion Wheatland is inspected by a curious Adelie penguin while spinning wool in front of Mawson's Huts.

Marion Wheatland has spun her way into Antarctic history in an effort to help conserve history. For six hours the adventurous Canadian-Australian spun wool on the doorstep of Mawson’s Huts at Commonwealth Bay in January this year. She used the yarn to knit a replica of the balaclava worn by Sir Douglas Mawson, which was auctioned at the Mawson’s Huts Foundation Centenary Dinner on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the departure of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. The money raised will go to the Mawson’s Huts Foundation to continue the work of protecting and conserving the historic huts.

Visiting Antarctica had always been a dream of Marion’s and when her father left her an unexpected financial gift in his Will, she had the means to pursue her dream.

‘Feeling that I wanted to do something for Australia and its history and with the ice continually calling to me, I was inspired to take my mum’s blue kuletuk (Eskimo parka), and my dad’s encouragement to the extreme South. Add in my brother’s “I DARE YOU to take your spinning wheel”, and I made the booking,’ Marion said.

In preparation for her journey Marion practiced spinning different fibres in a variety of chilly locations – the snow at Mt Hotham, a −18°C portable freezer, and Melbourne’s −10°C Chill On ice bar.

'Spinning at the Chill On ice bar was enough to give a reasonable test of the behaviour of a variety of other fibres – alpaca, llama, wallaby, possum, poodle and nylon,’ she said.

Marion was also able to test which spinning wheel would be up to the job. In the end she decided on a Majacraft double treadle Little Gem, which folds up into a carry bag.

Marion sailed from Dunedin, New Zealand, with Orion Expeditions and arrived at Commonwealth Bay four days later. Her blog picks up the story:

‘When I arrived on shore I gathered all my equipment (backpack, spinning wheel, spinning bag, blue fibre, boots, extra clothes, deck chair and camera) and stepped carefully over the ice, around the penguins, away from the seals, and straight into a sink hole…thankfully not too far down. Picking myself up off the penguin poop I carried everything up to the Hut, where I paused. I was really here. This is it. This is 1911. Breathe in the air Marion. You are here!

‘Drying my tears, I set up my wheel. I chose a great spot, just in line with the whole vista of the Hut … amid the ice, gently falling snow, and under the watchful eyes of several curious Adélie penguins.

‘When I reached the ice at about 2:30 pm, the sun was high in the sky. By the time I had completed the fibre I had set myself to do, the sun had not really moved, but the clock said 9pm! God’s blessing of no wind and zero degrees had given me six hours to spin. My tired legs and stiff fingers still worked well enough by the end to put me in the last Zodiac back to the ship. I had achieved what I set out to do!

‘I had no trouble with the Majacraft Little Gem, and I did not expect there to be. I was still pleasantly surprised by the smooth motion of the treadle-ing and the efficiency of needing no threading hook.’

Marion also had time for a quick look around the Main Hut. She returned from the voyage with skeins of blue yarn to knit her balaclava, and some incredible memories.

‘Breathing in the chill air of Antarctica, you can feel the liquid cold fill your lungs. It is crisp and clear and to be relished at every moment,’ she said.

‘Sharing the same air as the explorers of the last century, you know that you also share their history of unimaginable hardship and triumphant survival. For a while, I became part of that. We are all influenced by the past; with such an influence and inspiration, ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.’

WENDY PYPER

Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division