COLLECTING TRADE BLANKETS
I started collecting Pendleton blankets in the late 1960s. I tend to refer to all trade blankets as Pendletons, even though there were dozens of manufacturers of these beautiful blankets. Some companies were large and others very small—and some existed for only a few years and others for an extended period—but only Pendleton, the most prolific and successful of the trade blanket manufacturers, still exists. Of course, there are new makers that come and go. The blankets are called trade blankets because they were originally made especially for the Indian market. The Indians would go to trading posts near or on the reservations and trade their own woven blankets, baskets, furs, and other goods for the machine-made blankets provided by the non-Indian manufacturers.
The Indians were willing to trade their extraordinary handwoven blankets for the trade blankets because they found these commercially produced pieces to be more colorful and warmer than their own blankets. They also valued the beauty of the trade blankets. From an economic point of view, one of the Indian handwoven blankets was worth several machine-made Pendletons.
We know very little about the early designs of the trade blankets. My collection now contains seven hundred different designs, and there must be at least that many more that I don’t yet have. Some designs may have been lost forever—probably hundreds. What’s truly fascinating to me and other collectors is how incredibly beautiful, aesthetically successful, and varied the designs and colors of these blankets are. There’s considerably more variety in the trade blankets than in the Indian-made blankets, and that’s another reason Indians wanted to wear and collect them. To this day, more trade blankets are sold to Indians than to non-Indians, and the Pendleton Company seems to give priority to the Indian outlets. The real mystery for me concerns the designers of these blankets. I believe the most extraordinary designs were done in the early years, between 1875 and 1915, and most of the designs since that time are in large part derived from the early pieces. The early designers were so creative that they seemed to exhaust most of the motifs and possible color combinations. It became more and more difficult to come up with truly original designs that reflected Indian themes. The early trade blanket designers probably didn’t truly understand what many Indian designs meant or symbolized, or how the blankets functioned.
The Indian blankets were made to be worn in a variety of ways. When the blankets were worn, how the designs and patterns met and overlapped, had great significance. Not understanding all of this gave non-Indian designers much more opportunity for design variation and design freedom. For example, the amazing variety of yarn colors available to the factory designers (far more than the Indians used) was very important. It’s wonderful to see turn-of-the-century designs using hot pink and chartreuse juxtaposed. The Indians would never have used this color combination, but they were very attracted to these bright and truly original color combinations that they had never seen before (and in some cases had never before been put together by any other culture).
A very important design feature that made the trade blanket totally different from the handwoven Indian blanket was the double weave that reversed the design of the blanket from one side to the other. If you had a blanket that had green crosses on a red field, when you turned it over it would have the opposite coloration—red crosses on a green field. There were actually two layers of design, and these two layers of yarn made the trade blankets extremely warm. This double weave was possible because of the sophisticated Jacquard looms that the manufacturers used. The loom had been invented by J. M. Jacquard in France around 1800. Without this invention and its introduction to America, the trade blankets would not exist.
The Jacquard loom was way ahead of its time. It operates somewhat like a player piano, another very advanced design for its time. The designer could create almost any design imaginable, and it would then be translated into a series of punch cards with holes in them, which the yarn would be threaded through. The designs could be (and at times were) extremely complicated, but once the cards were programmed and placed in the proper order of threading, the entire weaving of the blanket was totally automated with very little labor involved. Hundreds of blankets a day could be made on each Jacquard loom. All you needed was yarn and a Jacquard loom to open for business, and many did.
My main purpose in creating this book has been to illustrate the beauty and variety of the trade blankets. Most people interested in Native American art and/or textiles are familiar with the great Navajo Indian blankets, some of the most sought-after and beautiful weavings in the world. But far fewer people are aware of the trade blankets—textiles directly influenced by the Navajo blankets but not direct copies of them. Those of us who know and collect trade blankets feel that many of them are as beautiful as some of the great Navajo pieces. I hope the quality and attention paid to detail in this book will help to increase awareness of the splendid variety of the trade blankets. I hope you enjoy the book as much as we’ve enjoyed producing it.
Published in Chihuly's Pendletons, Portland Press, 2000
Also from Chihuly's Pendletons: Colorful Exchange: American Indian Trade Blankets, Charles J. Lohrmann The Indian Influences Upon My Work, Dale Chihuly