Historical Point Blankets
By Andrew Ritchie
Of Martha Stewart's numerous collections, perhaps none is more warm and cozy than her collection of historical point blankets.
Point blankets originated more than two-hundred years ago during the North American fur trade. European settlers produced the blankets using a fine blend of wool and traded them with the Native indians in exchange for fur pelts, such as the much sough-after beaver pelt.
Each blanket was graded according to its weight and size using a point system, hence the name "point blanket." The points were marked along the edge of the blanket by the lines of thread woven into the wool. A full point measured 5.5 inches; a half point measured half that length. Each point represented one good quality fur pelt.
Points ranged from one to six, increasing by halves depending on the size and weight of the blanket. A standard one-point blanket measured 2.8 feet wide by 8 feet long and weighted 3.1 pounds. A blanket like this would have been traded to the Natives for one quality beaver pelt. A blanket with six points (meaning it was larger and heavier) would trade for six pelts.
The Natives used the blankets in the cold winters and sometimes wore them as capotes when they went on long excursions through the wilderness. Most of the blankets were a natural white, which made excellent camouflage for the Natives as they hunted the barren landscape for their food and pelts. Colored point blankets, like indigo and dark green, were produced at the time but were less popular as trade items.
By the mid 1700s, North American companies like the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada, marked their blankets with large colored stripes that served as identifying markers. The Hudson's Bay Company's colors were red, yellow, green and navy and their point blankets were marked with these colored stripes. This was both a method of advertising for the company as well as a way of distinguishing their point blankets from those of another North American trader.
The Hudson's Bay Company (known today as The Bay) is one of North America's oldest businesses and continues to produce their famous point blankets for sale. In fact, Martha has one, and has endorsed its function, quality and beauty on numerous occasions.
What makes the point blanket so attractive is its excellent quality, its durability and its rich historical past. Most point blankets used several varieties of wool from England, Wales, New Zeland and India. The blankets are water-resistant, soft, warm and incredibly durable; many point blankets have survived over 100 years of use.
Because of a special milling process, the blankets will not shrink when they are washed and dried, nor will they harden when exposed to extreme winter conditions.
The point blanket has undergone numerous changes over the centuries to accomodate the changing tastes. In the 1800s, for instance, the point blankets were fashioned into wool coats with the same point system application and the same trademark patterns. While they were popular, they never exceeded the trades or sales of the blankets. In the 1930s the blankets underwent yet another change when they were produced in commercially viable pastel colors to facilitate modern decorating schemes.
It is the traditional blankets that are most prized and sought-after, however. Some of the original blankets that date back to the fur trade can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction, depending on condition.
Companies such as Whitney in the U.S. supply and distribute point blankets, and, as mentioned above, the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada continues to manufacture their own point blankets, which sell for approximately $170, U.S. or $250 Canadian.
Keep warm everyone!
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