Blackfoot Indians dressed in HBC blankets ca. 1925
For over two centuries the Hudson's Bay Company point blanket has been a familiar item in Canada and around the world. It is enjoyed as much today as when it was first introduced into the fur trade in 1780. It is believed that M. Germain Maugenest first suggested to the Company's London Committee that "pointed blankets" become a regular trade item. The "point" system had been invented by French weavers in the mid 18th c. as a means of indicating the finished overall size (area) of a blanket, since then, as now, blankets were shrunk or felted as part of the manufacturing process. The word point derives from the French empointer meaning "to make threaded stitches on cloth". Pointed blankets quickly became very popular with the aboriginal peoples.
In November 1779, M. Maugenest met with the Board at Hudson's Bay House in London to deliver his "Proposals of the Terms" under which he would enter into Hudson's Bay Company's service. He offered several suggestions for improving the growing inland trade from Fort Albany along the west coast of James Bay. The sale of "pointed" blankets was one of his suggestions.
By December 1779, the sample blankets had been received by the Committee and an order was issued for 500 pairs of "pointed" blankets; 100 pairs of each, in 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 point sizes. Although blankets had been a staple of the fur trade to the natives and Hudson's Bay Company men prior to 1780, it was not until the first shipment to Fort Albany in the spring of that year that they were shipped to the posts on a regular basis.
HBC point blankets in Kwakiutl Indian house at Fort Rupert, 1898
By 1860 full standardization of both sizes and colours had been established.
The Point System
Each blanket was graded as to size using a point system. Points were identified by the indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket. A full point measured 4 - 5.5 in.; a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1 point blankets was: 2 ft. 8 in. wide by 8 ft. in length; with a weight of 3 lb. 1 oz. each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket. The number of points represented the overall finished size of the blanket, not its value in terms of beaver pelts as is sometimes believed.
Group of Indians at corner of Notre Dame and Albert Streets, Winnipeg, 1881
The 3 point white blanket, woven with a wide coloured stripe or bar at each end, was originally made for winter use. These blankets were popular with the First Nations people as they provided excellent camouflage in winter. There were also solid-coloured blankets in indigo, scarlet, green and light blue. The well-known white blankets with stripes of green, red and yellow and indigo, sometimes referred to as "chief's blankets", are known as multistripes. They were apparently introduced around 1800. The "Pastel Tones" - light colours with darker tone-on-tone bars - were introduced in 1929 and were supplemented by the "Deep Tones" and Imperial Tones" during the 1930s. These additional colours were designed to better meet the needs of modern interior design schemes.
Quality in Manufacturing
Originally the weavers of Witney, Oxfordshire were the principal suppliers of HBC blankets. By the mid 19th c. demand for blankets had forced the Company to source its blankets in Yorkshire as well. The wool was (and still is) a blend of varieties from Britain and New Zealand, each selected for its special qualities that will make the blanket water resistant, soft, warm and strong.
The wool is dyed before it is spun, then air and sun dried to brighten the colours. The blankets are woven 50% larger than their final finished size, thanks to a milling process which reduces them to prevent further shrinkage. In addition, the milling prevents the blanket from hardening when exposed to severe climatic conditions.
Window display of HBC point blankets, n.d.
Point Blankets as Coats
Point blankets have also been used as coats, either "premade" and sold by the Hudson's Bay Company or recut into garments. The Plains Indians often wore the blankets instead of buffalo robes and used them to make coats. The Métis peoples fashioned the blanket into a wrap coat with hood and fringing called a capote.
In the War of 1812, the original Mackinaw coats were made from point blankets. Captain Charles Roberts, who commanded the British troops and captured Mackinaw, was unable to obtain greatcoats for his men. Using the design of one of his men, he ordered a supply of point blankets and had coats made.
Today, point blankets are available at selected Hudson's Bay Company Stores across Canada.