Let’s begin at the beginning – what is an Indian trade blanket? Indian trade blankets are commercially woven wool blankets with striking geometric patterns. Trade blankets have long been an integral part of Native American culture. They’re used for clothing, bedding, warmth, ceremonial dances and gifts for important occasions.
The original Indian trade blankets were the multi-striped point blankets imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company from English woolen mills. From 1780 to 1890 the point blanket was a staple in every fur trader’s inventory and thousands upon thousands found their way into indigenous hands.
However, another weaving tradition began in the 18th century. The Navajo tribe of the American Southwest wove sheep’s wool into classic wearing blankets that became coveted trade items.
When the Indian Wars ended in 1890 the reservation system began. With all the tribes now wards of the United States government, federally licensed Indian trading posts were established. The Indian traders promptly invented a new textile – the Navajo rug. It was a much heavier textile than the traditional Navajo wearing blanket and designed specifically for the floors of non-Indian homes. The designs were based on the Oriental rugs popular in the eastern United States. From that time forward the Navajo ceased making wearing blankets and wove only rugs for sale through the white traders.
With the Navajos now exclusively weaving rugs, commercial woolen mill operators saw an opportunity to sell their machine-made blankets to the Indians and the result was Indians selling rugs to whites and whites selling Indian blankets to Native Americans – a practice that continues to this day. For over a hundred and ten years Indian blankets have been made for Indians, not by them!
Indian trade blankets are often referred to generically as Pendleton blankets. While Pendleton is the only pioneer Indian blanket manufacturer still in existence, there were many companies that made Indian blankets.
If you want to know more about these beautiful blankets Barry Friedman (who wrote the above mentioned text) published 2 great books about these wool blankets called Chasing Rainbows and Still Chasing Rainbows another great book is called Language of the Robe written by Kapoun & Lohrmann.