Durban - One crochet hook and a few balls of wool started a heart-warming revolution that gained traction around the world and has changed people’s lives forever.
This week saw the launch of the coffee table book, 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day: The Knitting and Crochet Revolution.
It details how in 2013, Zelda le Grange, who had been Mandela’s personal assistant for many years, challenged her friend Carolyn Steyn to knit 67 blankets for Mandela day which is celebrated on his birthday – July 18 every year.
That challenge, in December 2013, resulted in the formation of an international non-profit organisation named 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day. It also featured in one of South Africa’s most popular soapies, Generations, and gave rise to the “undercover secret scarf mission” where scarves are tied to poles and trees so that people returning home after a long day’s work can find something to keep them warm.
As the idea of knitting for charity gained traction around the world, it added to the local lexicon with words like “goodwool” rather than goodwill, KnitWits, blanket barometer (to keep track of the number of units produced) and knitathons, while 67 Blanket ambassador William Manake even became known as Wooliam.
“I can say that nine-and-a-half years later, we haven’t distributed 67 blankets. I can comfortably say we have distributed more than 167 000 blankets in South Africa alone,” Steyn, the organisation’s founder, told the Independent on Saturday.
She said for Le Grange it was a serious challenge at the time but she only regarded it as light-hearted banter.
“I was boasting about my domestic abilities of which I have none and she said make 67 blankets for Mandela Day. I don't know where she got that from but when my sister arrived on Christmas Day with a bag of wool and a crochet hook reminding me of my pledge, I started crocheting to try to make 67 Blankets by Mandela Day, July 18, the following year,” said Steyn.
Realising she wouldn’t be able to do it on her own, and not having 67 friends, Steyn took to Facebook at 3am appealing for help to make her pledge a reality.
When she woke up a few hours later she was astonished to see how many people were willing to do something in the name of Mandela.
The book threads together the tale of how the blanket revolution started almost a decade ago and is interspersed with the history of Mandela’s life and the contribution of KnitWits, those who use knitting needles, crochet hooks and wool to craft a story of hope.
It explains how 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day signed a memorandum of understanding with Correctional Services so that every prison would introduce the project as part of their curriculum.
Steyn said initially there were concerns that the prisoners would use the crochet hooks as weapons and so they enlisted the services of a plastic company to make special hooks.
At the time, they also received a R14 million donation of wool and half of that was distributed to about 80 correctional centres.
“The majority of those people (in jail) were men, men in orange, and not one incident ever occurred over the years. At the very start of the first six months, I got an email from one of the officials at the Leeuwkop prison to say never in the history of her career had she ever seen a project that had changed the inmates and their mindset since the introduction of 67 Blankets into the prison,” said Steyn.
The book tells how one inmate in the Drakenstein correctional programme made 13 blankets and how life term prisoners came up with the idea of creating portrait blankets. One Madiba portrait blanket sold for R67 000.
As the blanket revolution took off, people knitted in jail, they knitted under trees, a right handed person taught left handers to crochet by letting them watch her do it in a bathroom mirror. And one person even crocheted a baby blanket while hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro.
In 2019, when tropical cyclone Idai caused massive devastation in Mozambique and was followed by the deadly cyclone Kenneth which struck Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, the Graça Machel Trust, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Foundation for Community Development joined forces to contribute to the emergency relief effort.
Machel, Mandela’s widow, asked Steyn to help the people of Mozambique. Apart from blankets, 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day also collected other items like non-perishable goods and clothing and with the assistance of their long-time partner Stuttaford Van Lines, the goods were transported to Mozambique. The non-profit also works closely with South African humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers as well as Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
In the book, Steyn writes that she is proud to note that by 2022, 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day had distributed more than 67 000 blankets to those in need and set several Guinness world records in the process. One of those records was established on July 29, 2018, they beat Australia in the “Wool Cup” by knitting the longest scarf in the world.
Steyn says by becoming a “blanket lady” she has found her calling in life. And she was constantly touched by people like a prisoner who said: “We are knitting together broken trust with 67 Blankets, we are finding our humanity again.”
The book is available at Exclusive Books and online at Takealot.
“I really hope that people do buy the book and it becomes a best seller because it has a history that needs to be told. It’s a proudly South African story. It’s not a book just about blankets. It’s about people. And it’s about exceptional people, beautiful ordinary people coming together through bright, warm, colourful thread.”
The Independent on Saturday