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Baby, It’s Cold Outside – The Warmth and Wonder of Wool Blankets

There comes a time in everyone’s life (usually about the time they becomes part of another’s life) when they start to see what they used to think of as merely sheets and pillowcases as much much more. They begin seeing them as…bedding. After all, the sheets and cases need to coordinate with the duvet and shams, and they need to coordinate with the dust ruffle and drapes, and they need to coordinate with the neighborhood and careers of those who buy all this stuff.

(Of course, I may be exaggerating, but only slightly.) I am happily living in that world, and thrilled for it, as there have been times when what was found on my bed wouldn’t have been up to par with that on a Burmese prison bunk.

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But the one thing I did have going for me was a linen closet (OK, now I call it a linen closet–back then it was just a box jammed under my bed) full of vintage wool blankets.

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I’ve always loved wool blankets, not just because they’re super cozy, but whereas bedspreads and such are like suits, blankets are like blazers…more versatile with distinct personalities that I could mix, match and layer when the mercury dipped (or more often, when the radiator in my NYC apartment did more leaking than warming).

In my east coast days, I picked them up whenever I saw examples in good condition, but their collectibility (and my new west coast digs) have seen them more scarce these days. Not to worry–there are still a handful of makers turning out new examples as snazzy as the old…largely because they’re the same handful who’ve been making them since the old ones I have were new. And oh–for the record–when it gets chilly here at night while watching TV on the couch, my girlfriend heads NOT for the fancy schmancy duvet from the bed, but one of my old wool numbers from the linen closet (yes, it’s a legit linen closet these days). A small victory is a victory all the same.

Pendleton

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When you think of the words woolen mill, Pendleton usually comes before them. Named for a town in Oregon, English weaver Thomas Kay pioneered the weaving of high quality wool products due to the area’s ideal conditions for raising sheep. This was back in the late 1800s into the turn of the century when a wool blanket wasn’t so much for snuggling under…unless you were referring to it “snuggling” under a horse’s saddle

The tradition of the wool field blanket took hold because it made good sense. Wool is durable, breathable, and naturally flame-retardant (helpful when sleeping under the stars and right close to a campfire). The military was an early adopter of wool field blankets, and often used them for trading with Native Americans who used them for clothing as well. Kay’s son-in-law and his brothers–the Bishops, now running the show–quickly capitalized on the Native interest in their blankets. From the Pendleton website:

The production of Indian blankets resumed as the Bishops applied intuitive business concepts for quality products and distinctive styling. A study of the color and design preferences of local and Southwest Native Americans resulted in vivid colors and intricate patterns. Trade expanded from the Nez Perce nation near Pendleton to the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni nations. These Pendleton blankets were used as basic wearing apparel and as a standard of value for trading and credit among Native Americans. The blankets also became prized for ceremonial use.

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A century and a half later, you can still get Pendleton wool blankets in traditional designs, as well what I’m calling the “Lapse In Judgement” collection, featuring Marvel and Star Wars characters. Available at the Pendleton site.

Woolrich

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These days, Woolrich may be better known for their jackets and shirts, but they’re also a longtime maker of high quality wool blankets. Founder John Rich–another English weaver—started his first mill in 1830 in Plum Run, PA, and the company has been going strong ever since. Woolrich also honored the tradition of wool field blankets by making them for the Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War.

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They continue to make them today, in the same mill that turned out the originals, with the Gettysburg model being an exceptionally fine example, with selvedge sides. Check them all out at the Woolrich site.

Hudson’s Bay

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Canada’s Hudson’s Bay is another maker with a rich history–so long, that many refer to a classic broad striped blanket, regardless of who made it, as a Hudson Bay. Their multi stripe design was first commissioned in 1800, and is today manufactured in Yorkshire at “the finest woolen mill in England.”

It’s from Hudson’s Bay that we get the “point system”–the number of points on the edge of the blanket reflects its size (and way back when, bigger was better and more valuable in trading). Get one at their site.

Faribault

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Lastly, there’s the Faribault Woolen Mill located in Minnesota, where they know a thing or two about being cold (a land of 10,000 lakes must certainly be a land of 20,000 blankets). From their Web site…

Nestled along the Cannon River in Minnesota, a nearly 150-year-old story is still being woven. The Faribault Woolen Mill endures as one of the last vertical woolen mills in America. Here, fifth generation craftspeople take raw wool and create blankets, throws, scarves and accessories of remarkable comfort and quality. Irreplaceable century-old machinery stands side by side with modern technology in our “new” mill, which was built in 1892.

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My favorites from Faribault are from their Foot Soldier line. While they started making blankets for the U.S. military as early as the 1890s, The Army Medic model was created for the US Army Medical Corps and is therefore a bit more modern. 1917. The US Navy Cream example is newer still, created for the Navy during the Second World War. They scream authenticity because, you know…they are.

As you can imagine, this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are good wool blankets made by a number of companies, some of which likely send you a catalog with golden retrievers on the cover. And collaborations between of-the-moment brands and old time makers are more popular than ever.  In addition to 100% wool, there are myriad blends to make them less scratchy, but I’ve always felt that scratchy is part of their charm.

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If you agree, you may want to go the Army surplus route. This site offers blankets for $20 or $30 bucks, but I can tell you from experience they are not for the faint of heart or, more importantly, the sensitive of skin. These babies can be rough, and let me tell you a wool splinter is no day at the beach (so no frills). My dad had one of these in the back of his car for years, and while neither I nor anyone in my family has memory of ever using it, it was there, reassuringly so, a representing its wool field blanket ancestors with sturdy olive drab pride.