How to Spread it – Carolyn Steyn: Stitching the fabric of our nation

2015-02-01 15:00

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Carolyn Steyn, who founded 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day in December 2013, has seen what started as a cheeky challenge turn into a global movement. KnitWits for Madiba, as she calls them, now operates throughout the world.

Your project started a year ago when you lightheartedly boasted about your knitting talents to Zelda la Grange, Madiba’s former PA. She challenged you to knit 67 blankets in time for Mandela Day on July 18 last year. What happened next?

I started crocheting on Christmas Day 2013 but soon realised it would be an impossible task on my own.

I turned to Facebook in desperation and was astounded when, within weeks, we had groups all around the world and thousands of people joining the cause. By April, when the cold struck, we had about 6?000 blankets to distribute.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation commended us for being the first Mandela Day initiative to respond to the “immediate needs” of people.

Were you surprised by the project’s success?

It took me by complete surprise. It shows the power of social media and what Nelson Mandela means to so many. I believe most people want to make a difference, but some just don’t know how. Stitch by stitch, we have pledged to keep people warm for years to come.

The project is about social cohesion and weaving the fabric of our nation together with brightly colourful thread.

You personally taught the prisoners at Zonderwater Prison near Pretoria how to knit in November last year?

This was my idea at the campaign’s start, but it was dismissed when some suggested crochet hooks could be used as weapons. But we persisted and, a couple of months ago, I walked down the corridors of Zonderwater in Pretoria. Soon I found myself around a table with about 10 men in orange uniforms. They were articulate, businesslike, friendly and open to the idea of introducing crocheting into the curriculum as a way of rehabilitating themselves and other prisoners. Now hundreds of male prisoners are knitting because they want to make a difference. Being part of the 67 Blankets community will, I believe, give them a sense of purpose and a means of giving back as well as paying it forward.

I’m hoping to introduce 67 Blankets for Nelson Mandela Day into all the prisons in South Africa. I hope, through the Nelson Mandela Foundation, to meet the minister of correctional services to facilitate this on a national level.

Why is April big for you?

We want to break a world record. To celebrate 21 years of our democracy, we are putting out a call to action to create 21?000 blankets to place at the feet of Madiba’s statue at the Union Buildings – we’re calling it 21?4?21.

What other goals do you have for this year?

We plan to introduce ourselves to the United Nations. We’ll auction our most gorgeous 67 blankets at an event with top auctioneer Joff van Reenen and an international music act. We plan to start an Adopt a Knitter campaign in which people will be encouraged to pay it forward by supplying wool and needles to those unable to afford them, but who are willing to knit for the cause.

Wool, which is being specially spun for us, will be made available to all wool stores this month.

You are a busy person, patron of Joburg Ballet, executive producer of the film Mandela’s Gun and an ambassador for Peace Starts, an independent organisation that promotes the International Day of Peace (September 21). You have a show on Radio Today and your own TV show, Tongue in Cheek, on SABC3. Why do you do so much community work?

I believe if each and every one of us does something, however small, to improve the life of someone less fortunate than ourselves, the world will be a happier place.

Do you still knit and what sort of future does 67 Blankets have?

I crochet a lot and take my “goodwool” everywhere I go. The project will live on. It has a life of its own because people love being part of a community.

Some might ask why you don’t flit around the world having fun since you’re married to Douw Steyn, one of this country’s richest people ...

I’ve done that and, after a while, it loses all meaning. What drives me is lifting others, enriching lives and mentoring young talent.

.?This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network. To support a cause, visit

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