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Hudson Bay Blanket


I found a scarlet 2 point Hudson Bay blanket at the Goodwill yesterday. One black stripe. New and vibrant. Gorgeously thick, and warm for the bizarrely cold Florida weather. Itchy. Some years ago, I'd found a white 1.5 point imperial tone chief's blanket that was stained and motheaten. I thought I was terribly clever to turn it into couch cushions, but the results were so itchy, I couldn't stand to sit on them.

According to the Hudson Bay Company history, the term is derived from the French term for "empointer," to stitch on cloth, but the "point blanket" was a French, 18th century weaving system that indicated the finished overall size of the felted blanket, not its worth in beaver pelts, which I thought was a bit disappointing. They became something of a "must-have" item among first nation tribes.

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Other History from the HBC website:

Blackfoot Indians dressed in Hbc blankets ca. 1925 - HBCA 1987/363-W-114/1

Blackfoot Indians dressed in Hbc blankets ca. 1925
HBCA 1987/363-W-114/1

Hbc point blankets in Kwakiutl Indian house at Fort Rupert, 1898 - HBCA 1987/363-W-114/6

Hbc point blankets in Kwakiutl Indian house at Fort Rupert, 1898
HBCA 1987/363-W-114/6


The Point System
Each blanket was graded as to weight and size using a point system. Points were identified by the indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket. A full point measured 4 - 5.5 in.; a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1 point blankets was: 2 ft. 8 in. wide by 8 ft. in length; with a weight of 3 lb. 1 oz. each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.

Group of Indians at corner of Notre Dame and Albert Streets, Winnipeg, 1881 - HBCA 1987/363-W-114/5

Group of Indians at corner of Notre Dame and Albert Streets, Winnipeg, 1881
HBCA 1987/363-W-114/5

Colours
The 3 point white blanket, woven with a wide coloured stripe or bar at each end, was originally made for winter use. These blankets were popular with the First Nations people as they provided excellent camouflage in winter. There were also solid-coloured blankets in indigo, scarlet, green and light blue. The well-known white blankets with stripes of green, red and yellow, sometimes referred to as "chief's blankets", are known as multistripes. They were apparently introduced around 1800. The "Pastel Tones" - light colours with darker tone-on-tone bars - were introduced in 1929 and were supplemented by the "Deep Tones" and Imperial Tones" during the 1930s. These additional colours were designed to better meet the needs of modern interior design schemes.

Quality in Manufacturing
Originally the weavers of Witney, Oxfordshire were the principal suppliers of Hbc blankets. By the mid 19th c. demand for blankets had forced the Company to source its blankets in Yorkshire as well. The wool was (and still is) a blend of varieties from Britain and New Zealand, each selected for its special qualities that will make the blanket water resistant, soft, warm and strong.

The wool is dyed before it is spun, then air and sun dried to brighten the colours. The blankets are woven 50% larger than their final finished size, thanks to a milling process which reduces them to prevent further shrinkage. In addition, the milling prevents the blanket from hardening when exposed to severe climatic conditions.

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The cashier pawed through the thick folds of the blanket, looking for a price tag. I thought of those blankets full of smallpox sent out to indian reservations during that particularly horrid winter of American shame. "Careful," I said to the girl, as if to myself. "You never know if these blankets are full of smallpox."

She jerked her hands away. "What???"

"You know--those blankets they gave to the indians?"

"What????"

"Never mind. It was a terrible joke. Here's my credit card; I don't need a bag."

I wrapped the blanket over my shoulders to ward off the late afternoon chill; it smelled of clean, new wool. The weight of its history made my shoulders itch.

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