During the colonization of the North American continent by Europeans, exchange of various goods occurred ever since first contact with the natives. The American Indians offered both tanned and untanned leather and fur of all kinds, but also meat, fish, pemmican, or even moccasins and other hand-made products. In return, Europeans offered rifles, knives, camping pots, needles, punches, thread, alcohol, but especially wool blankets, which the Indians really appreciated as they were more practical than the furs they generally used (blankets provided warmth even when wet).
According to historians, wool blankets played an important role in the Indian trade, representing about 60 percent of the volume of traded European goods. The French started to sell wool blankets to the Indians first (from about 1534), later also the Dutch and English. English blankets were considered the highest quality, surpassing those of the French. England at that time was the world hegemon in terms of wool and wool fabric production, both in volume and quality.
Blankets were manufactured in European factories in a wide range of sizes and weights, which brought a certain disorder to the trade. During the 17th century, French merchants tried to solve this situation by unifying and classifying individual dimensions and weights with the introduction of so-called “points”.
Points were narrow lines of woolen fiber dyed indigo (dark blue) or black, about 10-14 cm long, woven into the edge of the blanket. The number of lines determined the size and weight of the blanket. In addition to whole points, there were also half-length lines. The big advantage of the lines was that it was possible to know the size of a blanket even when it was folded (assuming the lines were visible).
The idea of the French was only partially put into practice. It was the English who finally perfected it – especially the English-owned Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC).
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)
The HBC was founded in 1670 as an English joint-stock company engaged in the fur trade. The company played a major role in the colonization of Canada and the United States of America. In particular, it was involved in building trading stations as well as in trading with Indians, buying fur from them and selling it on to the European market as a raw material.
In return, it sold necessary European goods such as rifles, camping pots, needles, threads, arrowheads, knives and blankets to the American Indians. The company did not produce these goods itself but ordered their production from manufacturers in England. Over time, HBC became the dominant power in the fur and Indian trade. It still exists today and owns a network of department stores in Canada.
The origin of Hudson’s Bay blankets
The company was supplying blankets to the Indians since its foundation in 1670, but its blankets were indistinguishable from those of competing suppliers. In 1779, the company decided to consolidate the wool blanket market. It took over the “points” system from the French and so could determine the exact size and weight of a blanket. The main novelty, however, was the introduction of a distinctive design, wide stripes of alternating color, mostly one on each edge. This is how the iconic Hudson’s Bay point blankets came into existence.
The oldest color variants included white blankets with a black, blue or scarlet strip at each edge, followed by indigo blue, green and red blankets with a black strip at each edge. White blankets were definitely the most widespread throughout the 19th century, probably because they were the least demanding to produce (there is no need to dye the white wool).
However, the most famous HB blankets are the white ones with four colored lines on each side – red, black, green and yellow. They first appeared in 1798, but at that time there was no standard for the width or color sequence of the lines, this decision was left up to the manufacturer. Only later in the 2nd half of the 19th century was the width standardized, as well as the spacing and color sequence of the individual color strips.
Besides individual points, there were also half-lines. During the 19th century there were blankets with 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3.5 and 4 points. In the 20th century, 6 and 8 point blankets appeared. The standard of the individual line could vary over time, but they were roughly equivalent to the dimensions and weights of these measurements:
The company always took care to ensure the high quality of blankets; the wool came from English or New Zealand sheep and was dyed after the fibers were spun and before the weaving itself.
Some of the main suppliers of the HBC were English producers from Whitney in Oxfordshire, the most famous of which was the Thomas Empton Manufactory (founded in 1669), which supplied the company with blankets until 2004, when it ceased production. Around 1850, the demand for blankets increased so much that the company was forced to look for other suppliers, especially in Yorkshire.
The company is still selling HB blankets today. They are still made in England. The price of a 4-point blanket varies between 300-350 USD.
HB blanket products
HB blankets were not used only as blankets, various other products were also made from them. Blanket coats, called a “capote” were very popular. They were probably invented by the French during the 17th century. The Indians also wore coats made from HB blankets, which differed from the European ones only by design – the Indian coats were primitive and angular, while the European capote was tailor-made and sophisticated.
Other HB blanket products included leggings, shirts or breechclouts.