By Steven Sack
From the 1860s until the present time, the blankets worn by the people of Lesotho have been designed through a collaboration between local communities and the proprietors of the general trading stores in the region. These stores were established by British traders who migrated south (often on the grounds of their health, seeking drier warmer climates): families such as the Robertsons, the Frasers, the Kritzingers, who engaged with the Sotho Royal family and various communities in the design of numerous commemorative and everyday blankets. The King’s birthday, the birth of a royal child, the anniversary of Lesotho’s independence, the visit of the Pope: all of these occasions would elicit a design and manufacture of a new colour combination and a new design.
The traders often advised the manufacturers what to make. The most loved Seanamarena blanket is reported to have been designed on the advice of Mrs Robertson, the store owner’s wife. For the first hundred years or so, the manufacturers and designers were based in West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, and would execute the commission. Since the 1960s, this is done by designers and factories in South Africa.
The wool industry and demand for wool was greatly influenced by the fashion industry, which could suddenly cause wool prices to spike. How much wool to use would always be a question based on economic viability. Wool was combined with cotton; but over time the use of synthetics increased, as these were invented and manufactured; but, even now, most are at least 50% wool.
In recent times, the Aranda Blanket Factory in Randfontein, have supported development programmes to find new young designers. Later this month they will launch a new range of ten blankets, the Young Basotho Designers Collection from Lesotho.
The designs, illustrated here, whilst refreshingly new, create visual connections, in terms of pattern, colour and symbols, to historic design precedents. The use of the ‘pin stripe’ the Basotho mokorotlo or hat, playing cards, is accompanied by new symbols and new ways of using the capabilities of the same Jacquard looms that are used at Aranda.
The artist Simon Stone, below photographed wearing the hat that appears in the Lithota blanket on the left. Its known as the Tshetshe or perhaps the Matoelo. This one was bought at the Morija Museum and Archive.