My first impressions of Lesotho were brown, a lot of brown, sprinkled with little specks of bright colours, like candy coated buttons on a caramel cake.
In retrospect, this perspective was right, as the vast mountainous highlands areas do appear brown at first sight. It is only on closer inspection that you see green brush, goats, sheep and birds and all kinds of wriggly and crawly things. However, the little specks of colour were in fact shepherds wondering through lonely terrain, all swaddled tightly in bright blankets
In terms of traditional dress this must be one of the most practical and significant in the world. The blanket not only protects the Basotho people from harsh cold weather, but is also worn as a status symbol and cultural identification. Usually it is made of pure wool and keeps the body at an even temperature in the cold. However many Basotho people wear blankets at all times of the year, even when the weather is really hot.
In 2017 the Basotho blanket took centre stage in the world of fashion and media. The famous French Fashion House, Louis Vuitton, sent sultry models gyrating down international catwalks, sporting Basotho blanket inspired coats and shawls. Unfortunately a few unusual designs of giraffes sneaked into the range but it catapulted the popularity of the blankets into the closets of fashion obsessed markets.
In hot pursuit behind this fashion launch the ‘Black Panther’ movie hit the big screen. In this Sci-fi performance T’Challa, The Black Panther and his father King T’Chaka huddle together in traditional Lesotho blankets whilst considering the fate of Wakanda. So, the Basotho Blanket once again became the lead star.
Read more on the Black Panther: https://www.aranda.co.za/blanket-blog/basotho-fashion-on-super-heros-in-wakanda/
There are differing legends about the origins of the blanket, the most popular being that the first blanket was given by a trader to King Moshoeshoe I in 1860. The king was impressed and took to wearing it as a kaross. His senior advisors and followers immediately followed suit as per the custom. Moshoeshoe’s adoption of this mode of dress gave it royal approval.
In the late 1800’s Queen Victoria agreed to offer protection to Mosheshoe against encroaching settlers. Her decision was described as ‘spreading her blanket ‘of protection over the Basotho nation. This was followed by 98 years under British rule as one of the British colonies.
Legend has it that on Queen Victoria’s visit to ‘Basutoland’ in 1897 for her diamond jubilee, she presented King Letsie with a blanket. However the Queen never visited Lesotho and refused to get out of her carriage for the jubilee service at St Paul’s in London. These celebrations did however mark the launch of the ‘Victoria England’ brand of blankets, which became worn at all royal ceremonies in Lesotho.
None of the local stores seemed to stock these traditional blankets. However, Gertie De Jager, owner of a quaint store in the arts and crafts village of Clarens, has the answers. Her store was started by her father in 1946 and specialises in authentic Basotho blankets. She says a manufacturing plant just outside of Johannesburg is the only supplier of authentic blankets which have the royal approval.
This textile plant has a fascinating connection to World War 11. Towards the end of the war a textile factory in the Tuscan town of Prato was blown up by Nazi forces as they retreated. The town was liberated by, among others, South African troops under the command of Colonel Arthur Aiken, who persuaded the owners of the textile mill – three brothers – to start again in South Africa. Rodolfo, Giulio and Alberto Magni arrived in 1951 and started Aranda. The mill, still owned by the family, now covers an area equal to 11 football fields and employs more than 700 people. They have an exclusive range of products.
‘Tom Kritzinger’, the sales and marketing director the mill explains:
Aranda owns what is now the most sought-after brand, Seanamarena. It was introduced by Charles Henry Robertson, the owner of a trading store in the Leribe district, in the early 1930s. Kritzinger says the most popular design in the brand is known as the Chromatic, derived from Robertson’s initials CHR.
Kritzinger appreciates the importance of the blankets in Basotho culture: “Blankets are pivotal in their lives. Kobo ke bophelo, the blanket is life. Nothing is more beautiful. The Basotho people are preoccupied with blankets, from birth right through to death every phase is marked by blankets. The baby is received in a blanket, when they go through initiation after puberty there are blankets, when she gets married, the bride is wrapped in blankets and given to the groom.
“Blanket gifts are exchanged between the groom and the bride’s family. When a woman is pregnant she cuddles herself into a blanket, symbolising the life that has formed.
“Blankets are used to cover traditional beer. They are interwoven into the fabric of society, and the Basotho are blanket people to the bone.”
Any new designs introduced have to first have the approval of the Basotho royal family.
On the ‘Four and Five Day Lesotho overland tours with Major Adventures’ you visit Semongkong where you have the option to attend a blanket presentation by ’M’e ’Masetho Elizabeth Letsie. She is a vibrant and entertaining expert on the history and traditions associated with the national dress. For further information contact: http://www.majoradventures.com
Other designs are available
All blanket designs available courtesy of https://www.aranda.co.za/catalogue/basotho-heritage-blankets/