Nearly 100% (but not quite)Posted: November 6, 2011
Today’s wovember-inspired wool comes from the UK, Scotland, probably, if memory serves me right. But it was acquired in Lesotho. Bought when I was last there in about 1994 it’s getting on for 20 years old. It’s a Basotho blanket.
All Basotho blankets have a high pure wool content, sometimes up to 90 percent, which keeps the body at an even temperature and is useful even in the heat of summer. During rain the wearer stays comparatively dry, as wool does not readily absorb water. It also does not become heavy or cumbersome from water retention, as do many artificial fibres. It is also fire-resistant, which is useful since open fires are still used on a wide scale by the Basotho. The woollen blanket is able to resist a lot of effects like fire, rain and wear, and keeps its colour well.
This particular example (although I didn’t know it at the time, I just liked the design) features maize cobs, aka mealies:
The Poone (mealie) design, appearing on the Seanamarena and Sefate ranges of blanket implies fertility for both men and women… The solid lines at both edges of all Basotho blankets are referred to by the trade as “wearing stripes” and are usually worn vertically by the Basotho. It is believed that wearing these horizontally can stunt growth, development and wealth.
The stripes were originally the result of a mistake at the factory but became so popular they had to be incorporated into every design of every blanket. I always try to make sure they run from head to foot when the blanket’s on the bed, for aesthetic reasons only of course.
It’s doing incredibly well after constant use by me, visitors, children and pets on beds, sofas and in the late lamented van. A small amount of pilling, and that’s about it. I shove it outside in the snow for a quick surface scour whenever there’s the opportunity but otherwise it’s untended. (Snow cleaning is fantastic for all and any woollens – cleans surface dirt, kills bugs if left out in below freezing temperatures. Although dust mites don’t like wool so long exposure isn’t really necessary.)
Originally exotic imports, wool blankets soon became a recognizable part of Basotho visual repertoire as the wearing of the kaross gradually became phased out during the last three decades of the 19th century. Through a visual transformation, the older leather kaross essentially became the imported woolen blanket in both use and significance. This is largely due to the trade market that developed during the Diamond Rush of the 1870’s, and which further extended due to white expansion throughout the country, as well as to numerous livestock epidemics and wildlife scarcity in the reduced Sotho territory.
It’s always stuck in my craw, the fact that a universal garment for an entire nation was made so far away and freighted over. Particularly because… guess what…
[Lesotho’s] national livestock inventory includes… 1,620, 000 sheep… Wool sheep are very important to the country producing about 3500 tons of raw wool annually for export… On the whole, small stock is the only important cash commodity in Lesotho.
But nobody’s made it possible for this wool to be turned into blankets in Lesotho. And this has remained the same. Back in the nineteenth century deliberately restricted supply was used increase demand and prices:
From the beginning the trade purposefully manufactured only a certain number per year, which increased people’s desire to possess such a blanket. It is reported that in the very early days stampeding, close to rioting, occurred at trading stores like Leribe to obtain this blanket. There is ample evidence that the wealthy, and even the not so wealthy at times, regardless of descent who desire more status, buy this blanket.
Although production has moved from Europe to Africa it seems the same practices still apply. See this politely-worded but rather heartbreaking section of an award-winning document produced by secondary school children in South Africa (pdf):
At present it is estimated that 140 000 blankets or more are still produced annually, with a market that can still not be fully supplied.
Aranda is the only manufacturer of the Basotho blankets. They allocate each year a certain amount of blankets for certain shops to sell.
It would mean a lot of opportunities for the people of Lesotho if they can have their own factory or have shares in the manufacturing and selling of their blankets.
Aranda is Italian owned and based in Randfontein to the west of the South African city of Johannesburg (200 miles from Lesotho as the crow flies, but closer then Scotland) and lists Basotho blankets under its “tribal blankets” heading. As far as I can gather the current wholesale price for a Sefate blanket such as mine is R370 (approx £30 or $48 at today’s exchange rate). The average per capita income in Lesotho in 2010 was estimated to be $1400.
And if you live in America you can spend up to $598 on an ottoman covered with a Basotho blanket and feel all warm and ethnic.
The politics of textiles are endlessly fascinating and deeply, deeply depressing.