Occasionally I have guest bloggers writing on subjects related to art or architecture. I was approached by Jessica Kane of Indian Traders to talk about the increasing popularity of Indian Trade blankets which I find very interesting. Jessica Kane is a native Californian who has always had an interest in arts & crafts, DIY projects, and other handmade products. Her favorite stores are Joann and Michael’s. When she’s not creating items, she writes professionally. She currently writes for Indian Traders, a leading vendor of Pendleton blankets and jewelry located in Glibert, Arizona. Their Pendleton blankets are wool blankets that are a combination of beauty, quality, and durability. The jewellery is designed by Native American artists from the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other pueblos of the Rio Grande.
The Pendleton Trade Blanket as Cultural Art
Trade blankets have been a part of the culture of Native Americans since the first European traders brought brightly colored wool blankets over on ships. Those blankets were made specially for the trade with the natives. The ‘trade blanket’, as they were often called, would feature bright and interesting color combinations not possible with traditional robes made of animal hide or local materials. The blankets woven by hand were not as intricately woven as those made by a machine. Soon the European machine-made blanket would replace the traditional robes.
Traditional hide or plant fiber robes were not just worn for warmth. Robes were decorated with symbols signifying many things of importance. So-called wearing blankets of the western Native Americans were often made of highly prized buffalo hide. Some groups such as the Navajo used hand-woven textile made of local plant fibers or even wool. They were dyed with natural pigments. The end results were beautiful. But the muted natural shades and coarser hand woven fabric did not have the same visual impact as the new trade blankets. Over a period of time, even the stately buffalo hide robes were replaced with vibrant and highly detailed Pendleton trade blankets.
Eventually the trade blanket would become known as a robe. Historically, the term robe had only been used to describe a buffalo hide garment. While the trade blanket was sometimes used as bedding, it was most often worn as an outer garment. While it was first called a robe while being sold to European-American buyers, the label is more accurate.
The earliest Indian trade blankets made by Pendleton were very different from other trade blankets. A talented weaver by the name of Joe Rawnsley went to the tribes in northwest Oregon. He asked them what they would like to see in a blanket. Using their suggestions for colors and design, he helped to create a uniquely native blanket. These newly designed blankets sold extremely well. Joe Rawnsley went next to the tribes of the Southwest to create new designs for them. The hundreds of ideas that he returned with formed the basis of the new trade blanket design.
The trade in Pendleton blankets started with the Nez Perce nation. It soon spread to all the southwest tribes such as the Navajo, the Zuni and the Hopi nations. The people wore them with pride. Soon the blankets were valuable as both everyday and ceremonial garb. The Pendleton blankets were just sold to the natives by the company, at first. Some patterns and color combinations were more valued than others by those using them. The American Indian tribes traded and gifted their favorites among themselves.
Advanced Loom Technology
The Pendleton trade blankets were woven on Jacquard looms. These extremely advanced looms used a series of punched cards to control the thousands of strands that would make up a single blanket. The Jacquard loom was key in creating the many complex designs that were otherwise impossible to weave. The woven designs are reversible, with either felt bound or fringed ends. They often feature a light side and a darker side with bright highlights.
American Indian cultures of the west have long used the gifting of ornately woven colorful wool blankets as a way to mark the passage of important events and life celebrations. Many are worn at powwow gatherings to mark belonging to a tribe. Women wear smaller shawls while the men don a blanket while dancing and celebrating.
A Prized Gift
An important cultural item, a gift of a blanket holds high meaning. During powwows the important members at the gathering will often give gifts of Pendleton blankets. These gifts are given in thanks to those who selected such people as the powwow chairmen, the directors or the head singers and dancers. While there are many types of gifts given, the Pendleton trade blanket is the most highly prized.
While the heavy wool or cotton blankets are quite warm, they have much more meaning than just utilitarian use. When given as a gift the Pendleton blanket symbolizes respect, friendship and gratitude. It is a symbol of belonging to a people with a long and proud tradition outside mainstream American life. The emotions felt by those wearing them and symbolism shown to others are part of the “language of the blanket”. It’s what makes the Pendleton trade blanket such a part of American Indian cultural past and present.
The trade blankets have always been woven on machine looms, often by non-Indian people. But these blankets are a part of American Indian culture as the powwow itself. Because of the care taken to work with the tribes from the beginning, these blankets are unique in the cultural consciousness. They serve as a visual statement of belonging to a native people. This is true both within the native cultures and in the greater American cultural consciousness. While the old trade blankets started out in traditional European plaids and block-woven colors, the increasing use of native designs made the blanket uniquely American Indian.
Today finds the Pendleton trade blanket as prized as ever. As the last remaining Indian blanket maker, Pendleton is proud to work with native groups to create new designs. Such traditional designs as the Chief Joseph line feature colors and patterns from the very earliest Pendleton blankets. These are the designs most often given as gifts.
Pendleton Woolen Mills continues to create new Native American designs. Some newer patterns are based on natural phenomena such as early morning in the mountains or the swirl of colors in the arctic sky. The newer Indian designs celebrate the wheel of life and many other traditional motifs. Just as the older patterns were designed for various tribes to enjoy, the newer ones are also made to celebrate different traditions and peoples. Today the motifs are often created by the very people who they celebrate.
There is no parallel in any culture to the uniquely American art that is the Pendleton trade blanket. The designs and colors have been on the radar of the high fashion industry off and on over the decades. Most recently, the Pendleton fabrics were featured in everything from coats to work boots. Today the blankets themselves are valued by many outside of the Native American community for their design, durability and high quality.
I thank Jessica for her educational and thought provoking blog entry. For further information please contact indiantraders com