Is This the Oldest Knitter in the World?
The assignment came in my Inbox: Write a blog post about the oldest knitter in the world.
The idea is intriguing. With all the news about knitting being so mentally and physically healthy, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a connection between knitting and longevity?
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015 there were nearly 500,000 centenarians living worldwide, people who are 100 years of age or older. Not only is that number growing but the proportion is as well. Projections put the number of triple-digit birthdays at 3.7 million by 2050 or about 23.6 per 10,000 adults. That compares to a ratio of about 7.4 to 10,000 in 2015. Unsurprisingly, women make up the vast majority in the century club.
But where to locate these long-lived elders? The odds of me traveling to Blue Zone regions, places like Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy and Icaria, Greece, to scout for senior stitchers, were slim. (Blue Zones are areas that have been found to have the statistically longest-lived populations.)
So, I started googling.
This yielded a treasure trove of material. The oldest person who ever lived! (Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122—she smoked and drank.) The 104-year-old yarn-bombing granny in Scotland! The 109-year-old Australian man, who knits for penguins!
Could the oldest knitter in the world be a dude? (Sadly, no. Further investigation brought the news that Alfred Date, who knit sweaters for little penguins affected by oil spills, died at the age of 110 in 2016.)
An Odyssey of Research
Back to the keyboard. Wikipedia proved helpful (I know, I know) by surfacing names of supercentenarians, people who live to 110 and above. By googling U.S.-based (read, English-speaking) supers I discovered Iris Westman of North Dakota, who at 112, was listed as the U.S.’ ninth oldest citizen. She has been quoted as saying that she helped her mother knit for the war effort during WWI.
When I didn’t receive a call back from Iris’ family, I turned to Helen Turner. Not listed on Wikipedia, she was nonetheless all over the Internet, photos of her smiling, celebrating her 110th birthday in April and talking about knitting. Oldest knitter in the world? Maybe not, but I don’t speak Japanese and it was clear she was still knitting up a storm.
I called the senior community where Helen lives in Linwood, New Jersey and got a return call from her daughter Nancy Mellon, who set up a time for me to interview her mom. At the appointed hour they called, and Helen and I began to talk knitting.
Is Helen Turner the Oldest Knitter in the World?
“I have macular (degeneration) and I can’t see,” Helen explained. “I knit by feel and then I get myself in a trap I can’t get out of.” Because of her eyesight, Helen sticks to basic scarves, 24 stitches across and 42-inches long, which she gives to friends and residents where she lives—plain scarves for men, fringed scarves for women. She estimates that she’s knit more than 130 of them.
During WWII, everybody was knitting, she said, mentioning the three suits she knit at the time, including a maroon skirt and jacket set—with popcorn stitch on the cuffs—she wore to shreds.
Helen learned to knit, crochet and weave baskets from her teachers in the two-room school she attended, skills reinforced by stitching family members. She earned a degree from a teacher’s college and taught elementary school for 37-and-a-half years and raised a family with her husband.
Nancy, 72, remembers her mother as very positive and down to earth. “She’s a hard worker and gardened until she was 100. She drove until she was a hundred,” Nancy said. “She canned food, she painted the house, and made draperies. She was always involved and excited about stuff and enjoyed life.”
Has knitting helped her live longer?
“I don’t know if it’s helped me live longer,” she said, “but it helps me settle down and keeps me on an even keel. Otherwise, I would be itching to do something.”
When she feels well, Helen knits, plays bingo and Rummikub, chats with Kelly at the desk, and attends weekly happy hours where she dances. Plus, she’s a self-described hugger, dispensing hugs to select people, including some favorite men.
“When you’re over a hundred,” she said, “there are no holds barred.”
Do you know any centenarian or supercentenarian knitters? Let us know in the comments!
Leslie Petrovski is a writer in northern Colorado. See more of her work at lesliepetrovski.com.
Just Keep Knitting!