The first time any piece of cloth or bedding was called a “blanket” was in 1340, when Thomas Blanquette, a Flemish weaver living in England, developed a heavily napped woollen weave. In the early days, all blankets were made of wool, which provided warmth and was resistant to fire. Thinner, skin-friendly sheets were made of cotton or linen.
These days, though, the term blanket may be applied to quilts, bedspreads, comforters, and duvets. These blankets are made of all sorts of materials, including cotton, linen, silk, synthetic fibers, goose down, and even old clothes.
Blankets have come to serve all sorts of purposes, too. Decorative throw blankets are designed to keep one warm outside the bed, while security blankets or “blankies” give little children comfort. Native Americans would wear wool blankets as coats or robes, and in Mexico, colorful blankets called zarape, or serape, are often worn by men like shawls.
Blankets are also used to spread on the ground during picnics, at the beach, or to protect furniture during moves. Horse blankets are placed on the animals to prevent them from growing a shaggy winter coat of hair; saddle blankets keep their skin from chafing. Firefighters also use specialized blankets to protect furniture from water damage and themselves from flames.
Among collectors, the most popular blankets are those associated with the North American fur trade between Native Americans and Europeans. These include the Hudson Bay Company’s “pointed blankets” and Pendleton blankets. While these “Indian trade blankets” may feature patterns inspired by Native American designs, they were actually made by Europeans and white Americans to sell to the tribes.
In 1670, French explorers Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, with the blessing the government of England, established the Hudson Bay Company on the north side of the Great Lakes in what became Canada. Native Americans would bring them furs in exchange for manufactured items like knives, kettles, beads, needles, and, eventually, blankets.
European wool blankets were coveted by the Native Americans, who had previously worn hides, stitched fur pelts, and handmade clothes made of wool, down, feathers, shredded cedar ...
It was M. Germain Maugenest who proposed to the Hudson Bay Company’s board in England in 1779 that blankets (non-diseased ones) should be a staple of the North American trade. Blankets had long been exchanged in bartering, but it wasn’t until 1780 that the company received regular shipments of large numbers of wool blankets from Europe.
These “pointed blankets,” first produced in Witney, Oxfordshire, were hugely popular with the Native Americans, thanks to their insulating and water-repellent qualities. Since blankets were felted or shrunk during manufacturing, during the mid-1700s French weavers developed a “point” system to indicate the final size of the blanket, which Hudson Bay Company indicated with indigo lines woven into the side of the blanket. (“Point” is thought to come from the French word “empointer,” meaning to make stitches.)
These were traded in a range of one to four points, in increments of half points. While the number wasn’t intended to indicate how many beaver pelts a blanket was worth, that’s how they were used. A half point, for example, meant half a pelt or an imperfect one.
Hudson Bay’s popular off-white multistripe blankets, which became known as “chief’s blankets,” are characterized by their “headings,” which are bold stripes of bright colors like green, red, and yellow, at either end. The off-white base color made them excellent camouflage in the snow.
Blankets were also offered in solid colors like indigo, scarlet, green, and light blue. The Native Americans would wear them instead of buffalo robes, or sew them into coats. The colors were important to the Native Americans, as variations in shade could telegraph spiritual meaning or the mood of the wearer.
The Navajos had taken up textile weaving in the early 1800s, producing their own stunning, colorful wool blankets with spellbinding patterns in stripes, diamonds, triangles, and diagonal lines that created optical illusions. These blankets were coveted by Victorian tourists, who traveled by train on tours of the Southwest and were in the market for souvenirs.
However, when these tourists got home, they would put the blankets on the floor, using them as rugs instead of bedding or clothing. In response, the Navajo crafted the same patterns in sturdier fibers to be used as rugs in the homes of white Americans. When the Indian Wars ended and the reservation system was established in 1890, the Navajos quit making wearing blankets all together and only sold rugs at federally licensed Indian trading posts.
Pendleton Woollen Mills, which was established in 1909 along the Oregon Trail in Pendleton, Oregon, saw the Native American population as a new market. The company took great care to learn about traditional Native American designs and patterns, the important mythology and spiritual symbols, and the preferred colors of their customers. Company pattern designer Joe Rawnsley, in particular, who was gifted with the jacquard loom, worked with many of the tribes people of northeastern Oregon to get his blankets just right. He also took six months to travel the Southwest and visit with the tribes there and learn about their traditions.
These blankets were embraced and treasured by Native Americans, who used them in rituals and ceremonies, as a part of dowries, in weddings, at pow wows, for gifts and prizes, and even to line coffins of the deceased. As a result, the name Pendleton has become synonymous with “Indian trade blankets,” even though Pendleton was not the only producer of these blankets.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Indian trade blankets grew in popularity with non-Indian interior designers. Hudson Bay Company responded by expanding its blanket manufacturing to Yorkshire and introduced its line of Pastel Tones, Deep Tones, and Imperial Tones to match popular design schemes.