Earning its Stripes: The Hudson’s Bay Blanket

“Who watches the Olympics?!” Laurie muses in response to my comment that I suddenly find myself feeling emotionally attached to athletes I hadnʼt known existed mere days prior. It is mid-February and—though my friend suggested most New Yorkers remained oblivious—in my home country, Canadians are acutely aware that it is the middle of the XXI Olympic Winter Games. Perhaps as a Quebecer (a province that is, at best, dubious about patriotism) my experience is more particular than typical, but to my mind, Canada is a country whose national pride is most evident on the backpacks of travelers. When abroad, we are happy to proclaim ourselves a part of Canada: when home, however, we are more likely to proclaim ourselves apart from Canada. Being a vast country with few people, not so many things unify our experience of our homeland: this is precisely why I watch the Olympics. This February—if only briefly—Canadians seem eager to celebrate their commonalities and to delight in their shared experience. People across the country tune in. “We didnʼt just survive the elements: together, we thrived in them. We are made for this.” proclaims a television ad, as images of adventurers—some with Hudsonʼs Bay blankets strapped to their packs, others wearing the blanket coat—charge through a snowy wilderness. The ad is predictable in its use of Canadian tropes, and yet somehow, no matter how often I see it, it never fails to stir my national pride. It reminds me that, as a true Canadian, I should not only sew a flag to my backpack; I should own a Hudsonʼs Bay blanket.

For well over two centuries, the Hudsonʼs Bay point blanket has been a Canadian icon associated with legends of exploration and the development of the nation. Its primary purveyor, the Hudsonʼs Bay Company, has a similarly illustrious history as the oldest commercial corporation in North America. Founded on May 6, 1670 ʻthe Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudsonʼs Bayʼ—as it was originally called— was established to capitalize on the bounty of Canadaʼs fur; resources that had all but been exhausted in Europe. The beaver was particularly sought-after as its undercoat was one of the best furs from which to make the glossy, waterproof felt used for fashioning many of the hats of the day. Similarly, tanned and dressed pelts were used for coats while castoreum from the beaverʼs scent glands yielded a natural form of aspirin useful for treating aches and pains. The Hudson Bay Company thus set up a network of trading posts from coast to coast—becoming, for a time, the largest landowner in the world—where Native tribes would bring their furs in exchange for trade axes, knives, copperware, firearms and, most importantly, point blankets. Though the Hudsonʼs Bay Company was not the first to introduce point blankets to the fur trade (the French had an established trade in point blanket by the late 17th century), it quickly became such a staple of their trade that by the 1830s the term ʻHudson’s Bay Blanketʼ was synonymous with the point blanket.

Point blankets are so named for the ʻpointsʼ, or small lines of wool woven or threaded into one corner of the blanketʼs field. First appearing on blankets manufactured in France, it is believed that the term originally derived from the French verb empointer, meaning to thread stitches on cloth. The points are used to denote the size, and thus the value, of the finished blanket. Point blankets are made entirely of wool and, though they come in a variety of colors, are characterized by one or more stripes (also termed ʻheadingsʼ, ʻbarsʼ or ʻbandsʼ) near each end. Native Americans prized the blankets for their suppleness, durability, bright colors and high insulating properties in relation to their comparative lightweight. For most tribes, the blanket was a form of clothing, reflecting the style choices of the wearer. Different colors were thus popular amongst the various tribes, with the now iconic multi-stripe pattern not coming into prominence until the early 20th century.

One of the most surprisingly incongruous facts in the Hudson Bay blanket story is that this most Canadian of icons has never, in fact, come from Canada. The Hudson Bay Company—ever a purveyor but never a manufacturer—has, throughout its history, always obtained its point blankets from England. For generations, the weavers of the village of Witney, Oxfordshire, produced particularly high quality woolen blankets and served as the principal suppliers for the company. Although mechanization was introduced gradually throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the underlying methods of manufacture today remain fundamentally the same as those used in handweaving. Wool is obtained locally, sorted, graded and blended into the desired ratio. The wool is then dyed before it is spun, affording the most even application of color throughout the finished blanket. Once woven, the blankets are soaked to remove excess dye and pounded to shrink the cloth to its desired width. This shrinkage causes the material to ʻfeltʼ slightly, giving the blanket its dense, high-insulating characteristic. Today’s well-known pattern of the multi-stripe—a white blanket with bars of indigo, yellow, red, and green—did not always follow this color order: indeed the pattern was not standardized by the company until the nineteenth century. As many of the Native North Americans chose their blanket colors based on spiritual significance, there has been much speculation as to the meaning of the chosen multi-stripe colors. It is, however, most likely that the color choice was influenced more by early availability of strong primary-colored dyes than by meaning.

By the late 19th century the fur trade began to wane as the European taste for top hats made of beaver felt shifted towards hats made of silk. Europeans now became more interested in the North American land than in its fruits. As the territory increasingly opened up to non-Native settlement, many of these new Northerners wisely adopted the survival strategies of the Native peoples. By theearly 20th century, the major purchaser of the point blanket was no longer the Native North American. The Hudsonʼs Bay Company (Hbc) shifted from a chain of trading posts to a chain of department stores. As Canada rapidly urbanized, new markets for the point blanket emerged. While the new settlers may not have shared the Native attitude toward the social and spiritual significance of the point blanket, they did find it to be an indispensable and highly adaptable tool. Endorsed by adventurers and explorers, the point blanket became the bedding of choice before the advent of lightweight goose down. With such ready access to vast tracts of land, practically every Canadian was capable of owning acreage for a small cottage and practically every such cottage had at least one point blanket. By the 1920s the multistripe had been established as the pronounced favorite. The following decade, Hbc used this pattern in its introduction of a broad line of sportswear from the point blanket cloth.

While I have fond childhood memories of cottage nights spent snuggled under the prerequisite blankets, my memories of trips to our local Hudsonʼs Bay Company are neither warm nor fuzzy. ʻThe Bayʼ, as it rebranded itself in the 1960s, has long seemed a tarnished Canadian icon. With 94 stores nationwide, the last of Canadaʼs old school department stores has been stuck in an era when shopping was about one-stop function—a warehouse with harsh lighting, insipid muzak and salespeople who often look like they feel the companyʼs age. As retail becomes increasingly specialized, the Bay-style department store— hawking everything from griddles to girdles— is arguably defunct. But, as the Olympic television ad that sparked my foray into the past would suggest, there is a new glimmer in the companyʼs future. Richard Baker (principal at the US firm NRDC Equity Partners, which owns Lord & Taylor) has a reputation for revivifying faded brands. With Bakerʼs 2008 purchase of the Hudsonʼs Bay Company, the outlook is brighter, aided by the presence of a bold new addition to the Hudson’s Bay Company team: Bonnie Brooks.

Like Baker, Brooks— Hudsonʼs Bay Company new president and CEO—has done her share of retail magic. Part of the original team that revived Canadaʼs upscale department store, Holt Renfrew, in the late ʼ80s, she is fresh off a decade-long stint in Hong Kong, where she was president of the Lane Crawford Joyce Groupʼs quintet of companies. There, Brooks helmed 500 stores in nine Asian countries, experience that will undoubtedly arm her with a few tricks as she seeks to pull a white rabbit from a bedraggled beaver hat. “The Bay has incredible glamour,” she says with conviction. Illusions are evidently also a part of the Bonnie Brooks magic act.

Fittingly, Brooks has begun with the Hudson Bay blanket. Last year, the blanket emerged as the rightful star of the newly launched Hudsonʼs Bay Heritage collection: 120 items—mostly ribboned with the multi-stripe— including coats, scarves, hand-knit sweaters, pillows, ottomans and made-to-order canoes. Capitalizing on the Olympic enthusiasm for all things Canadian, this past winter the company also unveiled its Blanket Statement collection: ten one-of-a-kind coats, each created by a Canadian fashion designer charged with reinterpreting the Hudsonʼs Bay point blanket. Brooksʼ alchemy seems to be working: a smattering of recent positive press reveals that people are taking notice. “This is our Burberry,” remarks stylist George Antonopoulos; “[This collection] needs someone to take the helm, to come and lead as head designer of… well, the House of Hudson Bay.” Many believe that if anyone can do it, Brooks can. A new moment for the Hudsonʼs Bay Company and its point blanket: something around which Canadians can rally? Hereʼs hoping Bonnie Brooks was made for this.

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