Sharp as a needle: 95-year-old Gielie Claassen, the granny who still knits six days a week

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Gielie Claassen has been knitting nearly her entire life. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)
Gielie Claassen has been knitting nearly her entire life. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)

She's been knitting every day of her life for the past 89 years. Every day of the week, year in, year out for nearly nine decades her needles have been clacking. 

Gielie Claassen was just six years old when she first took up a pair of knitting needles. It was 1932 and times were hard.

On instinct and without a pattern, she used a pair of old bicycle spokes as needles and unravelled flour sacks as thread, the family’s housekeeper’s refrain in her mind: in, over, through, out . . .

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By the time she was 10, Gielie was knitting each member of her family a jersey for winter.

Knitting was her favourite pastime. In the mornings go to school, then do homework in the afternoon before she and her brother and five sisters would help their dad on their farm near Ventersdorp in the North West.

And each evening Gielie would sit for hours by the glow of a lamp or candlelight and knit and knit and knit. 

The only day she took off was Sunday – because if you were to knit on the day of rest you might just stick the needle in the Lord’s eye, her dad, Gideon, warned.

Now, at the age of 95, Auntie Gielie, as everyone calls her, still knits six days a week.

knitting, granny, South Africa, local
Gielie with her daughter, Marianne. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)

We visit Auntie Gielie in the home she shares with her daughter, Marianne Claassen (60), in Potchefstroom, North West. She’s knitting yet another jersey, she tells us, and still abides by the no-knitting-on-a-Sunday rule.  

“On a Saturday night, when I’m knitting in front of the TV, I watch the clock. When it says quarter to 12, I put my needles down. I don’t take any chances. To this day I’m wary of poking a needle in the Lord’s eye.”

Gielie has the family’s domestic worker, the late Sara Ratok, to thank for her love of knitting and teaching her the tricks of the trade.

Sara helped raise Gielie and her six siblings because their mother, Bettie, had Type 1 diabetes and her sight was failing. 

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Those were hard times, Gielie recalls. There was no money for luxuries such as knitting needles and yarn, so Sara showed her how to remove the yarn from flour bags and use it.

It was only when her dad noticed she really could knit that he bought her yarn and needles.

By the time Gielie was 14, her mom was completely blind. In 1939, Gideon was forced to sell the farm to move to Potchefstroom so the family could be closer to his wife’s doctors.

Soon all the townspeople knew of young Gielie’s knitting talent and approached her to knit items on order – anything from jerseys, blankets and baby clothes to coat-hanger and toilet-roll covers. 

In 1955 Gielie got married but things didn’t work out and she was divorced by 1964 and a single mom to seven-year-old Dolf and three-year-old Marianne.

knitting, granny, South Africa, local
Gielie on her wedding day on 3 December 1955. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)

“I started knitting round the clock so I could help raise the little ones,” Gielie says.

“Welfare is always on the prowl. If they suspected the children were being neglected, they’d come and take them away. I wasn’t going to give them the chance.”

knitting, granny, South Africa, local
Gielie with her son, Dolf, as a baby. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)

Over the years, she knitted items for people “from here to Cape Town”. “The news spread like wildfire,” she recalls. “I’d knit something for someone, then another person would see it and want something similar for themselves.” 

She still prefers knitting without following a pattern. “I can’t even read a pattern. Tell me what you want and what it must look like, and I’ll do it. I knit by heart.

“Back in the day, I knitted because I had to but now I do it because I enjoy it.” 

Apart from two hip replacements, the blood thinners she’s on and a deaf left ear, Gielie is as sharp as the needles in her knitting basket.  

knitting, granny, South Africa, local
Gielie with a picture of her eight great-grandchildren. (PHOTO: Onkgopotse Koloti)

Motorbikes are another of Auntie Gielie’s passions. As a farm girl she’d often ride the neighbour’s bike and last year, Potchefstroom’s Real Steel Motorbike Club took her by bike to a venue where she celebrated her 94th birthday.

“I want to ride a bike again before I’m 100,” she says. But knitting remains her favourite. “It’s much better than going around gossiping,” she says.

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