The Crochet Reef: A Phenomenal Stitch in Time


My eccentric Aunt Lorraine could crochet better than most, her intricate hooded baby sweaters ideal for keeping my little ones bundled in warmth. Isn’t that the heartfelt purpose of most woolen handiwork? Yet the magical forms you see here, resulting from thousands of hours of labor, are a commentary on too much warmth – the kind devastating the coral reefs of our marine world.

In 2005, twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim put their heads and needles together to crochet these spectacular models of coral heads, anemone gardens and urchins. Margaret, a science journalist and author of physics books, and Christine, a painter and professor at CAL Arts, ended up with a sophisticated woolly masterpiece described as the “AIDS Memorial Quilt of global warming”.


The sisters, born and raised in Australia, learned early on about the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland. Considered the world’s largest single structure produced by living organisms, the Reef covers some 133,000 square miles and is a huge tourist draw to the northern region. But climate change causes mass coral bleaching which threatens the habitat for sea life.


The sisters have spread the message through their Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, which has traveled to two continents and been exhibited throughout the U.S., most recently at Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles.

“The project has brought awareness to hundreds of thousands of people in the six exhibits we have had, but the world continues to warm and we’re still using oil at an alarming rate,” Margaret tells me, adding that this summer will be the worst coral bleaching ever. “One single project cannot change the world’s attitude about using oil. We haven’t turned the tide on global warming but we are doing our bit.”


That bit was aptly introduced in an exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum in a show on art’s response to global warming. Since then, the reef madness caught on.

Women have responded in droves to an invitation to participate in the show’s collaborative crochet effort, many of them taught to crochet at a workshop.

As a result, the City Reefs installed vary greatly in refinement. Some emerge more “crafty” and whimsical than the museum-quality Bleached Reef in shades of white, Branched Anemone Garden, and Beaded Reef, executed by the sisters and 30 fiber artists who found them on the web.

“The level of skill might be lower in the City Reefs but they have a beauty and vitality of their own,” Margaret points out.

The Wertheims, who grew up learning to knit and crochet, are now focused on a Toxic Reef made entirely of plastic trash (below), hoping to draw attention to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive dump of plastic debris in the North Pacific.

The shameful mass is roughly the size of Texas and contains 3.5 million tons of discarded litter (shoes, toys, bags, bottles, containers). It floats midway between Hawaii and San Francisco.

“My sister and I changed our use of domestic plastic over the past two years, keeping what we amassed for the exhibit,” says Margaret. “We thought we were pretty ecologically aware but were appalled to to see how much we generated.”

They were so shocked they committed to never buying pre-packed fruit and veggies from stores like Trader Joe’s. Water bottles had long been off their list.

“Everything is sold in pre-contained units because it is easy to ship and cuts down on labor,” Margaret says. “But the consequence is it goes in the landfills or the bottom of the ocean and will be embedded in the geological record of our planet. This will be one of our legacies to the future, having created a plastic layer engulfing our planet.”


In their global effort to rescue our oceans through their exhibit, workshops and lectures, the sisters have done their math. In fact, math drives most of what they do.

Their Reef is overseen by their L.A.-based Institute for Figuring, an educational physics lab dedicated to enhancing the public understanding of figures and figuring techniques.

From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring.

Margaret, like many mathematicians, sought to model hyperbolic space, surfaces that appear in coral reefs, lettuce leaves, and other natural organisms. In 1997, Daina Taimina of Cornell University, had a pearl of wisdom, discovering this could be done with crochet by increasing the number of stitches in each row (her model is below). Basically, the sisters began crocheting models with friends when they made the discovery.

“A bunch of us were sitting around the coffee table and thought ‘my gosh’ they look like coral reefs,” remembers Margaret. “The reason is that the reefs embody this geometry. It wasn’t just a coincidence.”


The next stop is the Scottsdale Public Library in Arizona through July 11 – and in the near future, the reef will be the first art exhibit ever on display at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

While Margaret is “honored” the response has been so huge, she admits “this thing has taken over my life.” Even with fiber artists like Jemima Wyman and others hired to unbox and assemble the reefs, the curating process can take up to two weeks as it all is painstakingly executed by hand.


The biggest wonder, apart from the reef itself, is that the sisters have managed to do it all on a shoestring budget, working from their home-based IFF headquarters. They continue to seek serious funding so that Margaret might get a salary for the exhaustive work, and her reef, like the natural wonder it models, can live on.

Note: images courtesy Institute for Figuring

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.