We discovered the 67 Blankets project when our attention was caught by a news story about Jeppe High School for Girls knitting to support the initiative. A little investigating revealed that the initiative had been launched by Carolyn Steyn, an ardent knitter and former student of the school.
“In December 2013, shortly after the passing of our beloved Nelson Mandela, I was challenged by Mandela's former assistant Zelda to make 67 blankets for Mandela Day 2015,” says Carolyn.
Mandela Day takes place each year on 18 July – Nelson Mandela's birthday – and is a global initiative recognised by the United Nations. “People around the world are encouraged to spend 67 minutes of their day doing something to help someone less fortunate. The number 67 is significant as Mandela spent 67 years of his life fighting for freedom and being of service to our country, South Africa,” Carolyn says.
Nelson Mandela and Carolyn’s husband, Douw Steyn, shared a very special relationship. “In fact Mandela, lovingly referred to as ‘Madiba’, lived with my husband for about a year after he was released from prison.” The home is now run as an award-winning boutique hotel, and is where the world’s power players – including Bill Clinton, Oprah, the Netherlands’ royal family and Robert De Niro – stay when visiting South Africa.
“I was fortunate to have had many one-on-one moments with Madiba for many years because of the wonderful friendship he had with Douw,” Carolyn says. “He also came to our homes in England, and my husband built a beautiful home for Mandela on our game farm SHAMBALA in the Waterberg, where Madiba used to go when he needed quiet and seclusion. This is the home where he invited many world dignitaries to spend time with him.”
Through Mandela Carolyn got to know Zelda, his assistant, who became a close friend. “We invited Zelda to my husband's birthday lunch on 19 December, 2013 which was shortly after the passing of our beloved former President, Nelson Mandela, who died on 5 December.”
Taking up the challenge
Carolyn was keen to take up Zelda’s challenge of knitting 67 blankets, but soon realised she couldn’t possibly make them all on her own. “Not having 67 friends who could help, I turned to Facebook and asked complete strangers to assist,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by the response and created the Facebook group 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day (SA). We now have 67 Blankets chapters all over South Africa and around the world.”
Before long, Carolyn had a flash of inspiration that she knew pupils at her former school could help with. “In 2015, I had the idea of covering the grounds of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, in a sea of blankets – made with love – and possibly go for a Guinness World Record,” she says. “I approached my alma mater Jeppe High School for Girls and asked for their support. This landed up becoming a schools’ competition and Jeppe Girls way exceeded the target of 670 single bed-sized blankets.”
The effort took place on 21 April 2015, and marked 21 years of democracy in South Africa. In addition to the pupils of Jeppe High School, knitters and crocheters from across the world took part, making blankets and sending them to Carolyn from the UK, the USA, Canada, India, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Cyprus and the Netherlands. The full quota of blankets measured 3,377 m² (36,349.58 ft²). The aim to bring people together and fight xenophobia and racism through yarn was well and truly achieved! The blankets were later distributed to people in need to spread a little warmth and love.
Carolyn’s former school has made the blankets an annual challenge, which the pupils have smashed for three years in a row.
“We have succeeded in teaching thousands of young girls and boys in schools all around South Africa the arts of knitting and crochet, and helping them to see that these crafts can be trendy,” Carolyn exclaims. “It’s like the new yoga! The wool shops love 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day and many support our ‘KnitWits for Mandela’ by giving discounted prices as well as donations of wool.”
The school’s target for 2017 was 670 blankets, which they accomplished with ease.
Spreading the love
Participants in the 67 Blankets project have included prison inmates. “We enlisted the support of the Department of Correctional Services to come on board.” says Carolyn. “We even formed part of the Minister's Budget Vote Speech for two years in a row. The theme of his speech was ‘Knitting Broken Lives and our Nation Together’. Thousands of prisoners all around South Africa have been making blankets for people on the outside who have been affected by crime, violence and poverty. This has proven to be an excellent tool in the rehabilitation process and offers the inmates (including men who are serving life sentences) a sense of industry, purpose and a new skill.”
The mammoth venture remains mostly Facebook driven, with help from some surprising areas of popular culture. “‘Generations’ is the longest-running, most popular soap opera in Africa with a viewership of nine million a night,” says Carolyn, “This is the fourth year that they have included 67 Blankets into their storyline ‘as a matter of national importance’ according to the producer of the show, Mfundi Vundla. The media has been enormously supportive of our initiative too by giving us massive amounts of ‘Blanket Coverage.’ We've even been on Sky News!”
It’s no wonder they’re capturing imaginations, as they continue to build connections and break down barriers simply with needles, hooks and yarn. “Our motto is ‘Stitch by stitch we pledge to keep thousands upon thousands of people less fortunate warmer over ALL the winters to come, in the name of our beloved Nelson Mandela,’" says Carolyn. “The reaction has been overwhelming to say the least. At a time of life where I thought I could relax and read my book at the pool, my life has never been busier or fuller. I have a renewed sense of purpose.”
Carolyn’s efforts are being recognised in a particularly relevant home too. “Mrs. Machel, Nelson Mandela's widow, feels that 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day has become my ‘calling’, and I agree with her,” she comments. “I now find myself in many schools, squatter camps, rural villages and prisons across South Africa sharing the skills to enable people to knit.”
The diversity of the groups she reaches out to is all part of the goal. “The most exciting part for me is to experience and witness people from all walks of life, all religions, races, socio-economic groups coming together through bright colourful thread all united in a single purpose,” she says.
The Guinness World Record attempts are the most challenging part of the initiative. “There’s so much to consider,” says Carolyn. “Just transporting thousands of blankets from all over South Africa to display at the Union Buildings (2015), Drakenstein Prison in the Western Cape – where Mandela was finally set free (2016) and Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg – has been a logistical nightmare. But as Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘It always seems impossible until it is done.’ And we have done it with three Guinness World Records.”
It’s been worth it too. “As a result of these ‘Wool Cups’ we have succeeded in distributing approximately 30,000 blankets to people across our country who need them the most. We are so very grateful to Stuttaford Van Lines for assisting us in the transportation of blankets to and fro across our land free of charge. The value of the work they have done for us amounts to millions of rands.”
Carolyn has been impressed by the talents demonstrated by people participating in the 67 Blankets challenge. “Some create the most extraordinary beautiful works of art!” she exclaims. “Inmates at Zonderwater Correctional Centre have excelled in the art of making Portrait Blankets depicting the face of Mandela. They even created a special blanket depicting my face.”
To pay tribute to Nelson Mandela in his 100th year, Carolyn is masterminding the 67 Blankets #MMM (Massive Mandela Masterpiece). “On 24 April 2018 we will have created the Largest Portrait Blanket in the World, depicting the face of our beloved Nelson Mandela,” she says. “The completed blanket will comprise thousands of blankets made in specific colours, each measuring precisely 160cm by 160cm to add up to 4,500 square metres. It will be displayed at Zonderwater Maximum Correctional Centre.”
Hundreds of inmates will help to sew together the blankets, with each one serving as pixels to make up the full image. “It will take approximately three days and nights to put together,” says Carolyn. “The finished blanket will be so large that you will only be able to view the face of Mandela from the sky and from outer space!”
Written by Judy Darley
Find full details at www.67blankets.com.