Story & Pictures: Andrea Abbott
Edited by Peter Ucko
Basotho blankets are to Lesotho as kilts are to Scotland: heritage garments, steeped in meaning, tradition, and history. They’re also a lifesaver in harsh winters, such as we’ve had this year. Had it not been for my blankie, I’d have been a hypothermic wretch most days. It’s the genuine thing (fakes exist) – a pure wool, woven wonder I bought some years ago in Underberg, the little town at the foot of the Drakensberg-Maloti Mountains, and just down the road from the famous Sani Pass that connects South Africa with the Kingdom of Lesotho, where Basotho blankets, along with the famous mokorotlo grass hat, are pretty much the national costume.
Arrested by Basotho blankets
It was a miserably cold day and I was hurrying past the Sani Curio & Craft Shop on my way to grab a cup of coffee in the Lemon Tree Café, which, you might know, is the warm and beating heart of the town. But, stacked outside that curio store was a pile of gloriously coloured blankets that stopped me in my tracks, flaunted their promise of protection against the bitter elements, then twisted my arm into buying one. I wasted no time in draping it around me before strolling into the café with a nonchalant air, as if my blanket and I were partners of old.
Emblems and stories
Costing nearly a grand (my husband couldn’t believe I’d spent so much on a mere blanket), it made my bank account shudder, but it’s proved its worth over the years. This winter, I wore my blankie like a poncho, which is how I’ve seen people in Lesotho wear theirs. Integral to that country’s heritage, those striking, uniquely patterned blankets are not just portable body-warmers, but are imbued with cultural symbolism too. Indeed, they tell stories of the Mountain Kingdom.
Some facts and stories you might not know about Basotho blankets
- The origins of the traditional Lesotho blanket date back to 1860, when European traders gifted King Moshoeshoe 1 a woollen blanket. The king was so delighted with it, he ditched the leopard skin kaross he’d worn until then. This set a trend among his subjects that endures to the present day, the blankets being a central part of daily life and wrapped up with important events, ranging from births to marriages and deaths, and coronations.
- Traditionally, authentic Basotho blankets are made of 90% pure wool with a 10% cotton component, but according to Alex Kiguru, owner of Sani Curio & Craft Shop, there is also a more affordable option with a 50% wool content and the balance being dralon (acrylic), and a small degree of polycotton that forms the warp.
- The genuine, high quality wool blankets are waterproof and durable. Alex says a blanket can last up to 70 years. That makes mine good for another 66 winters. And, as I can vouch, the pure wool blanket is perfect for the toughest winter as it provides excellent insulation against the cold and protection from the wind. Alex said they even help to keep wearers cool on hot days. Hmm, I’m not too sure about that. Imagine draping yourself in a thick, pure wool blanket in KZN’s summer heat and humidity!
Stories of Victoria; Badges of the Brave; Heart of the King; Spitfires; and Chiefs.
The people of Basotholand, as the country was then called, collected enough money to pay for 25 Spitfire fighter planes for the Royal Air Force during WW2.
- There are a number of different brand names, each sporting a range of specific, emblematic designs, and using various colour combinations. Some of these are:
- Victoria England, the oldest brand, and arguably the one that carries the highest status. It was so named in honour of Queen Victoria, who gave a blanket to King Lerotholi Letsie in 1897. The designs of this brand include Badges of the Brave and Heart of the King. There’s also Spitfire, which was made to mark the unveiling of the Spitfire Museum during Lesotho’s 50th Independence celebrations in 2016. Especially interesting is that the people of Basutoland, as it was known at the time of World War 2, collected enough money to pay for 25 Spitfire fighter planes for the Royal Air Force. Those aircraft flew as the Basutoland Squadron in the Battle of Britain. Next time you’re stumped for ideas on what birthday present to give a man who has everything, perhaps a Spitfire Basotho blanket will do the trick.
- Seanamarena is another prestigious brand and means ‘Swear by the Chiefs’. The designs include the corncob or mealie (poone) motif, a symbol of wealth and fertility in Lesotho.
- Sefate, which means tree, is an everyday blanket that carries the ace of hearts or poone (corncob) designs. With an azure blue background and bold ace of hearts design, it’s the one that captured my heart.
- The heart-patterned Motlatsi, meaning ‘Successor in Title’, was made to honour the birth of Crown Prince Lerotholi in 2007.
- Morena means Chief, and is an every day blanket that carries card, mielie, and leopard emblems
- Kharetsa is named for the Lesotho endemic Spiral Aloe, Aloe polyphylla, known as ‘kharatsa’ in South Sotho and occurring in the wild only in the Maluti Mountains. This brand also bears a shield. spear, and knobkerrie as well as the mokorotlo hat, the national emblem that appears on the flag.
- Khotso, made of acrylic, means ‘peace.’ This echoes Lesotho’s national motto: “Khotso, Pula, Nala”, which means “Peace, Rain, Prosperity”.
Dress codes for him and her
- Pin stripes characterise genuine Lesotho blankets. These derived from a weaving fault but are now integral to the pattern and govern how the blanket is worn. Correctly, the strip must run vertically, this to symbolise growth.
- The blankets are reversible, with a light side and darker side. Convention is that males wear the darker side outwards, and females the lighter side outwards; the guys drape their blankets such that the opening is to the right side; the ladies have the opening at the front; men secure the blanket with a pin on the right shoulder, and women pin it at the front. I try to keep to the rules when I don my Sefate.
- Contrary to common belief, the genuine blankets are not made in Lesotho but in South Africa by Aranda Textiles.