Basotho Blankets

The traditional usage of animal skin coverings by the Basotho was transferred to the blanket. The Basotho wear the blanket in all kinds of weather in Lesotho, this country of climatic extremes. It has been said by a Mosotho that you should always carry a blanket and a pocketknife with you for then “You can sleep and you can eat.

Origin and Historical Route of the Basotho Blanket

The Basotho blanket is such a common sight in Lesotho that one tends to assume that it was a local invention. However, its beginnings can be traced with some accuracy to the contact between the Basotho and the Europeans during the nineteenth century. A sparse European presence existed in Lesotho as early as the 1800s. Afrikaner pastoralists from the south, who were looking for grazing as early as the 1920s penetrated up to the Caledon River valley during the droughts. From 1833 onwards, Christian missionaries and European Traders settled in Lesotho. The missionaries and traders had some noticeable effects on the Basotho community. The moral code of the missionaries emphasised ‘being decently dressed’. As the Basotho’s clothing consisted of a variety of animal skin garments that were scantier than the missionaries were used to, new converts were influenced to dress in a western way.

Moshoeshoe 1 wore western clothing on a Sundays, but during the week he reverted to his kaross and skin garments. The traders exhibited their strange and exotic goods, which were sampled and bought by the Basotho. The traders were soon trusted for advice and help.

The very first blankets used by the Basotho were white, smeared with red ochre. Then small, ‘five and a half feet square’ blankets made of shoddy or reconstituted yarn from old woollen coats and clothing appeared on the market. These blankets had wide stripes of yellow, cream, scarlet, blue and maroon on a grey background. Patterned blankets, manufactured on a box-loom, were next introduced to the Basotho. Experimentation by manufacturers on the dobby loom, producing variegated checks, was yet another development and brighter colours started to replace the drab shades of the earlier products.

“A great cloak of leopard skin, as supple as the finest cloth, was allowed to fall negligently about his waist, its folds covering his knees and feet. That Moshoeshoe was aware of the significance of clothing as a sign of status and prestige is revealed by this description of Casalis, the French missionary. The Friend newspaper in 1860 described how a certain Mr. Howell presented a blanket as a gift to Moshoeshoe. This was “a handsome railway wrapper made of light blue pilot cloth, heavy and hairy”. Moshoeshoe was delighted with this gift and wore it over his shoulders ‘a la poncho’, in a way not far removed from the way traditional animal skin mantles were worn by the Basotho.

British political involvement, endeavoring to protect Lesotho from invasion from the Orange Free State, started in 1867. Also after increased buying power of the Basotho after the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in the 1870’s a change in dress fashions was noticeable.

For Frasers Limited, who traded in Lesotho alongside another trader, Wormald & Walker, manufacturers of blankets in England, produced a patchwork blanket in the late 1880s using two Jacquard looms. The new design made the blanket such a status symbol that the quality of the materials had to be improved too. Another breakthrough took place when the manufacturers felt that a still finer quality rug, known as an ‘Austrian blanket” was necessary. The Basotho took to this blanket so enthusiastically that in 1897 a deluxe model was produced, called the “Victoria” in honour of the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria. This brand name became exclusive to Frasers Limited.

Other blankets were manufactured like the ‘Kings’ blanket, the woman’s colourful shawl, the initiation blanket and the thick mountain rug, called the ‘Sandringham’. The well-thought out names and motifs received their own tribal names or descriptions from the Basotho without the knowledge of the traders at first. By the twentieth century there were approximately seven blankets on the market with motif originating mostly in western paradigm.

There were other factors present that put pressure on the Basotho to look to other sources than animal skins for covering. Several historians and writers refer to natural disasters, such as continual droughts and some exceptionally cold winters, as well as the rinderpest of 1897. These events depleted the wild and domestic animals of Lesotho and the disasters continued well into the twentieth century. The sudden population growth of the Basotho after European contact and protection also added to the pressure to look to alternatives for covering.

Most present day Basotho blankets conceived as ‘traditional’ have stayed unchanged for approximately 50 to 80 years and some even longer. The Basotho displayed a deep-rooted attachment to certain blanket names and designs and to the upholding of symbols of status. Manufacturing of blankets locally in South Africa started only in the 1920s. The creation of the Frame Group in approximately 1954 by Philip Frame to protect and advance the selling of the Basotho blankets is also indicative of a popular and stable market among the Basothos.

Most Basotho remember the blanket as ‘growing up with’ and that it was totally integrated into the life of the Basotho. The blanket is ever present at home, on the road, in country shops and at meetings. It is worn by both parents and grandparents alike. Older members of the family remember skin garments and karosses as still featuring prominently when they were young.

Unbeknown to the average Basotho, there were times of fluctuation and change as far as the acceptance of the blanket was concerned, for the most part measured by European standards of the day. For example, when the Prince of Wales visited Lesotho in 1925 ‘those with blankets’ were not to go near the Prince. The order was “KOBO MORAO!”, meaning ‘blankets at the back!’. About this time missionaries also discouraged the wearing of blankets. Apparently the connotation of the kaross was carried over to the blanket and it did not appear ‘Christian’ enough. People wearing blankets were regarded as ‘heathen’. Even during the British royal visit in 1947 wearers of blankets did not feature prominently on photographs. A change occurred after Lesotho’s independence on 4 October 1966 and its internationalisation of nationhood. The blanket gained popularity although its use declined slightly due to increased urbanisation in the 1970s and 1980s. It was believed at that time that ‘the blanket belonged to the rural people’. The impact of the blanket on the miners was slightly different. It became such an important commodity in the life of a Basotho migrant labourer that he and his blanket would not be easily parted. In the late 1980s the popularity of the blanket took an upward swing; it was never to be ignored again. The impetus given to the blanket cult, especially during the past two decades, came from the Basotho themselves. In 1993 it was estimated that 230 000 blankets or more were still produced yearly, with a demand that outstrips supply.

The role of the blanket in present day public, social and private life

Public usage

When Pope John Paul II visited Lesotho in 1988 (Ketelo ea Morena Papa) a blanket was given to him as a gift, which is now in the Vatican in Rome.

In 1989 the historical event of King Moshoeshoe II installing his heir, Prince Letsie III, emphasised the visibility of the blanket as ‘thousands of Basotho’ wearing their traditional blankets’ gathered to see this memorable event. The King and his procession were all dressed in western clothing with blankets over and around their shoulders. Today the Basotho cannot go without the blanket. At times it is expected of him to appear in a suit, but at other times it is imperative for him to appear in a blanket as well as his western clothing.

The interest of the Queen of Lesotho in the blanket in the late 1980s was displayed when she gave input for designs and ideas to a certain manufacturer, resulting in positive discussions and a blanket designed by her and called Mamohato, meaning queen.

Everyday usage.

The blanket is worn in all circumstances and in the most humble surroundings as well as in the most important places. Most Basotho keep a wardrobe of blankets, worn for utility or functional purposes, or their wearing depends on the nature of the occasion. All informants feel that appearing in a blanket adds gravity, elegance and a certain symbolism to the event. When wearing a blanket a person should also walk slowly and graciously. When hard work is expected, the blanket is either discarded or doubled up and hung over one shoulder by men. Men also fasten the blanket on the right shoulder, leaving the right arm free for movement of action. Women fasten the blanket in the middle of the breast. This enables a woman to feed her baby or do domestic work.

All Basotho blankets have a high pure wool content, sometimes up to 90 percent, which keeps the body at an even temperature and is useful even in the heat of summer. During rain the wearer stays comparatively dry, as wool does not readily absorb water. It also does not become heavy or cumbersome from water retention, as do many artificial fibres. It is also fire-resistant, which is useful since open fires are still used on a wide scale by the Basotho. The woollen blanket is able to resist a lot of effects like fire, rain and wear, and keeps its colour well.

Traditionally women carry their babies on their backs, a useful way of caring for the young. For this task at least two shawls/blankets are used, one to fasten the child to the mother’s body and the other as a covering over the child and the shoulders of the woman. When performing tasks, the woman may drop the top shawl to her hips and tie it. When it is windy or cold, or during the heat of the day, the top shawl can be drawn up over the baby’s head, covering the mother’s shoulders. When a woman is resting next to the road an extra blanket or shawl around her hips can serve as a covering on the ground to sit on.

Ritual usage

The blanket worn by a person reveals a diversity of information to members of the community. The symbolism associated with the ‘warmth’ of the blanket is far-reaching and encompasses different practices. ‘Heat’ is associated with ‘fermentation’ like in beer making or ‘fertilisation’. Young brides constantly wear a shawl wrapped around her hips and ‘must stay warm’ until the first child is conceived. At birth the child is also ritually wrapped in a special blanket. The blanket can later be used to tie the baby to the mother’s back. It is also proper for a woman to cover her shoulders, especially in the presence of her father-in-law or on public occasions such as funerals and church gatherings. A husband usually presents his bride with a wedding blanket. At the birth of their first child he presents her with yet another blanket. A blanket may also form part of bohali, the gifts given to the bride’s parent as part of the agreement of marriage between the two families.

When a boy prepares for initiation school, he is entitled to another blanket as proof that he has reached manhood. Wearing this blanket, apart from its utility purpose, symbolises the emergence from boyhood to manhood.

Other memorable events in a man’s or woman’s life is also mediated by a blanket, for example the coronation of the king or the induction of a chief, herbalist or head woman. Also, when a person goes on a journey, a blanket is a suitable gift. The old custom of wrapping a corpse in a blanket ‘to stay warm’ is still meaningful today. The action of Queen Victoria in the 1860s of giving protection to Lesotho was apparently described by Moshoeshoe as ‘spreading her blanket’ over them.

Meanings not found in the old skin coverings, but ascribed to blankets in later usage.

Blanket names like Sandringham, Victoria England or the Prince of Wales Crest are tangible remembrances to the Basotho of England’s involvement in their national and political life. After World War II, motifs such as aeroplanes and bombs appeared on blankets and became symbols of bravery, power and conquest for the Basotho. After the British royal visit to Lesotho in 1947 the crown appeared on blankets and reflects a certain touch of ‘royalty’ in the wearer. The acceptability of these blankets apparently illustrates a traditional love, admiration and adherence towards England although the specifics of this association are not always clear to the Basotho.

The Poone (mealie) design, appearing on the Seanamarena and Sefate ranges of blanket implies fertility for both men and women. The cabbage leaf depicted on one of the Pitseng blankets is a sign of prosperity. The solid lines at both edges of all Basotho blankets are referred to by the trade as ‘wearing stripes’ and are usually worn vertically by the Basotho. It is believed that wearing these horizontally can stunt growth, development and wealth.

Traditional Basotho Blankets

The solid strip at both edges of Basotho blankets was apparently a mistake of a factory worker in the earlier days, after which the Basotho preferred a blanket with this stripe and the manufacturers had to toe the line.

“Bochaba ba Mosotho ke kobo” means that the blanket if the binding force of the Basotho. Literally it means that ‘The nationality of the Mosotho is the blanket’

Mbalo Mattross

The way that this blanket entered the ranks of the Basotho blanket is unique. It could well be the oldest traditional Basotho blanket used in ritual. There is reason to believe that this type of blanket was part of the ‘slop chest’ from which sailing ships sold to sailors. An experience of an informant when visiting Canada some years ago serves to reinforce this deduction. He noticed a blanket similar to the Mbalo Mattross at Hudson Bay. A number of small stripes, usually in purple, were also visible at the edge of these white woollen blankets, similar to the ‘weight lines’ shown on the Mbalo Mattross. These lines represented the value of the blanket in furs when trading. Sailors off the Natal coast could have traded with the Zulu people, swapping their blankets for other goods. An analysis of the name, as given by this informant and a few other informants, substantiates the fact that this blanket filtered through Zululand to Lesotho, but exactly how is not certain.

Mbalo seems to be a Zulu/Pondo word for ‘the kind/type of’. It could also mean ‘the writing/mark of’ like on stones. Mattross could have been derived from the Afrikaans word matroos, meaning sailor. Thus the literal tranlslation could be ‘the type/mark of the sailor’.

This blanket was widely accepted by the Basotho in the early days of the nineteenth century. The Xhosa and Pondo also used it on a limited scale for initiation purposes; therefore this is the only blanket not exclusively Basotho. The Basotho used it in ceremonial burials to wrap the corpse of a king before putting him into his grave. As this was an expensive, pure woollen blanket it was used for the burials of the more well to do. The size of the blanket could have also played a major role in its utilisation. It is nearly the size of a double bed blanket, 200 x 215 cm and could cover a corpse with ease. The dead are buried in coffins these days, but they are often still wrapped in a blanket before being placed in the coffin. If a coffin is not available, the blanket suffices. This blanket is now off the market. It is still highly regarded and is prized by those who are lucky enough to have obtained one before 1980.

Sandringham

This blanket is named after the Royal palace at Sandringham in England. The first Sandringham was imported from Scotland. It was manufactured with loops, which were only cut afterwards, producing a thick and heavy blanket. The finish of this blanket reminded the Basotho of the inside of the stomach of a slaughtered lamb, and they express it in the words “qibi mohodu konyane”. Because of its warmth, it was worn especially in the snow-covered highlands of Lesotho and therefore became a geographical indicator for fellow Basotho, who called it the ‘mountain rug’. Stripes, similar to those on the very first blankets, were used and are referred to in the trade as the ‘basic Basotho design’. The general name for blankets in the early days was “nomdakana daka” meaning line. The Basotho have a customary love for this design. This blanket is produced in three types with a solid single and multi-coloured stripe. Women wear the multi-coloured striped blankets, men wear the single stripe blankets. This blanket most probably dates back to before the turn of the twentieth century and is a treasured possession of many Basotho. It has been unobtainable since the early 1980s.

Robertson/Victoria England – Seanamarena

This blanket was the idea of the late Lesotho trader, C.H. Robertson, and was to be initially a blanket exclusively for the king and chiefs. It dates back to before the turn of the twentieth century. The word Seanamarena literally means ‘to swear by the king’. The meaning as applied to the blanket seems to be obscure. Some informants give interpretations such as ‘where the chief buys’ (the best). Others say it is an ancient saying of the Basotho and that story telling used to be concluded by it.

The chromatic one of the two designs on the market at present is the ‘traditional’ one. Later on the wives of the king and chiefs also wore this blanket. From the beginning the trade purposefully manufactured only a certain number per year, which increased people’s desire to possess such a blanket. It is reported that in the very early days stampeding, close to rioting, occurred at trading stores like Leribe to obtain this blanket. There is ample evidence that the wealthy, and even the not so wealthy at times, regardless of descent wanted to buy this blanket if they desired more status. This specific blanket name and design belonged to Robertson Limited, but Frasers Limited eventually succeeded in coming to an agreement with them to also trade the Seanamarena. This they did under the Victoria England label name. In addition they brought our a Poone design under the Seanamarena label name. Lately the Seanamarena has been noticed at initiation ceremonies for the sons of the affluent. This blanket has the most status of all the Basotho blankets. All informants become lyrical when hearing of or seeing the Seanamarena blanket. Since its inception manufacturing has never ceased.

Matlama Shawl

The forerunner of this shawl was the hand-woven Italian imported Lake Shawl sold in the early days of Lesotho. It had a similar pattern on all four borders as the Matlama shawl, as well as fringes. The Matlama shawl, manufactured in South Africa after the 1920s, was machine made and therefore had the traditional motifs on only two sides of the borders. It is a colourful and prestigious shawl for women. The fringes appeal to women. The name Matlama, which was given to it at a later stage, means to fasten/tighten very much’. According to Walton (1958) this refers to the way the tassle was tied to the fringe although other meanings are not ruled out.

This is the only traditional blanket/shawl especially for women and it is widespread in its use, expressing different symbolism in several different rituals. For example, the Matlama shawl is sometimes presented as a wedding gift. Both men and women wear all other blankets on the market. Men have been seen wearing the Matlama shawl, some with the fringes trimmed, but they usually only wear the brown or the fawn, not the grey which is the most prestigious.

Pitseng Moholobela

The meaning of the name of this blanket is obscure. According to informants it is an old saying which a person after travelling a long journey on foot or on horseback says: “Moholobela woa di thota” (I am from the desert), implying ‘after this journey I am not sure which direction I am going’. This blanket is very traditional as it was used from its inception for the Lebollo, which is the initiation ceremony for Basotho boys. Apparently there was no special blanket for the initiation of girls, although a blanket was also required. This blanket is very thick. There is a red and a blue blanket on the market, of which the red blanket is the more popular. The Moholobela blanket has the crocodile on its label, but not in its motifs. The crocodile is the totem of the royal kwena tribe, and also a national emblem of Lesotho.

After the 1950s this blanket was manufactured in the Pitso blanket quality that still has an above 80 per cent wool content. In the 1960s, when wool became more expensive, it was manufactured in the Pitseng blanket quality, with a 25 percent wool content, and was more reasonably priced. This blanket has no other social significance or special status. Although temporarily off the market, it will most probably be marketed again, because of the important part it plays in the social life of the people.

Victoria England Skin Pattern (Leopard skin)

This blanket resembles in use and looks the traditional leopard skin kaross, which symbolised royalty, strength, courage (bravery), victory and wisdom. Like the kaross, this blanket was, by and large, reserved for those of royal descent. The Victoria England brand name under which this blanket is manufactured has always been prestigious since the first Victoria blanket entered the market in 1897. The brand name has become a tradition in itself, but also draws a certain emotional reaction from the Basotho. Customers still ask for the ‘Victoria’ with great enthusiasm. On the other hand, the use of the leopard kaross is one of the oldest traditions known to the Basotho. Therefore this blanket has a double portion of tradition and prestige.

Apparently the connotations of the leopard markings have lately both widened and deepened and the blanket appears to have lost some of the exclusiveness traditionally attached to it. It seems that the Basotho perhaps attach more meanings to the leopard markings and design than before, since it is extremely popular with all Basotho. Furthermore, it seems to convey a special meaning of transition at ceremonies, as it is apparently equally popular at, for instance, the initiation of a new herbalist or the inauguration of the successor to the throne, or of people to other important positions. Young Basotho ask for ‘Tiger’ nowadays, which creates the impression that initiation ceremonies may be calling for this design. Basotho warriors were fond of the leopard skin, because of its obvious connotations of courage and victory.

The affinity the Basotho feel with the animal kingdom on the whole, could also have added to the popularity of this design. There is one interesting exception to the popularity of the leopard marking; the people living in the mountains do not wear the leopard markings motif. The reason could be that they fear to be mistaken for an animal by other animals. One of the latest brands on the market is the Sesecha, meaning ‘brand new’.

Pitseng ‘Armband of the chiefs’ (Thapa ea Seeiso)

The original blanket was black with thin white stripes. It was traditionally worn at funerals and was called Thapa ea Seeiso meaning the ‘armband of the chiefs’/ Seeiso is actually the surname of the royal family. This blanket implies customary respect, not only for the bereaved and the dead, but also intertwined with the surname of royalty. This concept may be only understandable to the Basotho themselves. It could have something to do with the fact that deceased royalty are perceived as the spiritual forefathers of the whole nation.

Victoria England Crest

The Crest motif on blankets appeared after the visit of the Prince of Wales to Lesotho in 1925, which made a profound impression on the people. Customers refer to this blanket as lesiba, meaning ‘ feathers’, when buying it.

Any blanket with the label name ‘Victoria England’ is ‘traditional’ because of the obvious association with Queen Victoria of England who ‘spread her blanket over the Basotho during a time of turbulence and danger of was between the Basotho and the Orange Free State. This resulted in the Lesotho becoming a British sovereignty in 1868. The Victoria England was eventually manufactured in seven different designs.

Magician ‘Monkeynut’

This type of blanket originally came out in the names Magician, Triumph and Magnet. Manufactured in England and of a high quality, it had a very soft finish. This did not escape the attention of the Basotho. They refer to this finish as Serope, meaning ‘as soft as a pregnant woman’s thigh. A husband traditionally gives this type of blanket to his wife on the birth of their first child. The name Magnet, changed on the Basotho tongue to the word ‘Monkeynut’.

Setsoto

The word Setsoto means ‘to marvel at’, but is apparently an ancient word as most informants found it difficult to comprehend the meaning. Because of its finish, it was a popular blanket for a husband to give to his wife on the birth of their first child. The design is referred to in the trade as the ‘scorpion’. It is an extraordinary thick, soft and warm blanket. The Basotho, giving their own impressions according to their physical experience of this blanket, make this remark: “Seeia ho butswe,” implying ‘ the door is open’. In actual fact they mean ‘in spite of an open door, you will not feel the cold!’

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