On the opening page of 150 Plus I talked about what I call the “second generation” of Canadian clothing. Here is one.
The Plains Indians traded their buffalo robes for the Hudson’s Bay Companies blankets, and having seen the cut and sewn garments of the traders, sculpted the blankets into what is known as the capote*.
*Capote, a hooded greatcoat rather like a parka, usually worn with a sash around the waist, popular with habitants of New France and French Canadian traders and trappers. The word is derived from the French word for “cape.
Over time, the Hudson’s Bay Company borrowed the capote and produced it commercially. Today, the Hudson’s Bay’s name, their blanket and the coat are iconic!
The following, in it’s entirety, with thanks, from HBC website.
“Although HBC did not introduce its first commercial Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Coat until 1922, fur traders, voyageurs, and Indigenous peoples had already been styling Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets into coats for nearly 200 years. Like the iconic Point Blankets themselves, Point Blanket Coats share a similarly long and interesting history.
A capote is a handmade wrap-style coat often made from a Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket. Capotes date back to the mid-17th century and are arguably the earliest iterations of the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Coat. Capotes were worn by First Nations, Métis, French settlers, traders, trappers, and later British settlers
throughout the fur trade era. While most people would fashion capotes from blankets themselves, HBC also sold pre-made capotes as a trade item. The
Company employed a tailor in 1706 to construct the capotes and by the late 1700s, tailors were employed at all of HBC’s major posts. The capotes were extremely popular due to their wrap style, which made them easy to move and hunt in, and the fact that their design and function were easily customized.Despite variations in construction, it was the Métis style which became best known: hooded, embellished with fringing at the shoulders and neck, and closed with a bright Assomption sash. Although capotes were made from wool in a variety of colours, blue was preferred by Catholic Métis and white by Protestant Métis, whereas the traditional Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket grey colourway was purchased by both.
In 1811, British Captain Charles Roberts, commanding a fort on St. Joseph Island in the St. Mary’s River near Sault Ste. Marie, was unable to procure new winter outerwear for his troops from his Quebec headquarters. Taking matters into his own hands, Roberts requisitioned a supply of 3.5 point Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets and commissioned a group of local Indigenous women to make coats for his 40 men. The following summer, Roberts’ men occupied American Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan (pronounced “Michilimackinaw”) as the War of 1812 began. When Roberts ordered a further blanket supply for the coming winter and began to fill orders for the coats, the shorter double-breasted style became known as a Mackinaw. When Point Blanket Coats began to be sold commercially more than 100 years later, the Mackinaw remained one of the more popular styles of coats available for purchase from HBC.
Commercial Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Coats
The first commercial HBC blanket coats were introduced in 1922. These combined the warmth and wear of the traditional capote with the style and fit of a tailored garment. Double-breasted, mid-thigh length with full skirt, patch pockets, and buttons, the coats were ideal for winter activities. They came in solid colours only: grey, dark green, khaki, navy blue, red, or white, and featured the blanket points under the left armpit as well as the Seal of Quality blanket label.By 1929, the blanket coat’s success led HBC to launch a full line of blanket outerwear for men, women, and children. Fabric was woven in England and shipped to Canada by the bolt. A succession of manufacturers based in Winnipeg made blanket coats right up until the year 2000. Styles proliferated over time, peaking in the mid-1970s with a wide product range that included coats made of lighter weight wool duffle, as well as two-part coats featuring a wool liner topped by a removable, weatherproof outer shell. Single- and double-breasted styles in varying lengths predominated, supplemented by parkas and bomber jackets.
Despite a multitude of available colours, the traditional multistripe remained the most popular, becoming universally identified as the “Hudson’s Bay” coat. By extension, the HBC coats became internationally recognized as a symbol of Canada — a fact that explains their selection as official parade wear for the Canadian National Winter Olympic Games teams throughout the 1960s.
Designer Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Coats
Today, Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Coats remain popular: you can spot them on streets right across the country. Consequently, they enjoy a robust resale market at second-hand shops, vintage clothing stores, and online sites such as eBay. Colourful, warm, and practical, Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Coats have stood the
test of time and deserve their reputation as Canadian winter classics. But given these characteristics — and its affiliation with Canada — it was perhaps inevitable that such an iconic product would attract the attention of world-class fashion designers.French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac took inspiration from the HBC blanket back in the late 1970s, creating a coat that garnered a lot of attention. In 1981, HBC commissioned five Canadian designers to create coats from the Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket: Alfred Sung, Pat McDonagh, Leo Chevalier, John Warden, and Jean-Claude Poitras. The designs were sufficiently popular that it was decided to put them into limited production that fall. Only 19 of each design were manufactured and sold at $600–$800 per coat. The Royal Ontario Museum requested one for its designer clothing collection; Alfred Sung’s straight, collarless wrap coat with curved shoulders, and seams and edges outlined in gold leather, was donated to the ROM.
De Castelbajac continued to experiment with the HBC blanket, this time in jacket form, as did American Geoffrey Beene, whose stunning scarlet evening coat trimmed in silver was a knockout in 1984.
In December 2009, Hudson’s Bay Company introduced its new Hudson’s Bay Company Collection — an aspirational Canadian lifestyle brand featuring fashion apparel, accessories, home décor, and specialty seasonal items. To celebrate the launch of the collection, ten Canadian fashion designers were invited to create one-of-a-kind coats from a Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket. Blanket Statement: 10 Point Blankets x 10 Canadian Designers was exhibited at Hudson’s Bay Company Queen Street in Toronto in December 2009, and then at the downtown Vancouver store during the 2010 Winter Olympics.The participating designers were Comrags, Erdem Moralioglu, Harricana par Mariouche, Jeremy Laing, Klaxon Howl, Krane, Lida Baday, Pink Tartan, Smythe, and Todd Lynn. Each was given a Point Blanket in the colour of their choice to create a contemporary coat. There were no limitations placed on the imagination and creativity the designers brought to the table. The resulting gallery-worthy showcase pieces included a vast range of styles, including a bomber jacket, three-quarter length men’s and women’s car coats, a capelet, a hooded swing coat, and a full-length fur-trimmed coat — including one silhouette with a bustle! A special order of 100 units of the Smythe design was made for sale at the 2010 Winter Olympics Superstore in Vancouver and continues to be offered in small quantities at Hudson’s Bay Company stores and online each winter season.
Whether modern or vintage, the HBC blanket coat remains a winter classic.
Throughout the 18th century, wool blankets were among the most popular trade items in the Canadian fur trade, accounting for more than 60% of all goods exchanged by 1700. Although blankets had been a trade good offered for some time, it was not until 1779 that the item that would become the iconic Hudson’s
Bay Point Blanket was born.
“The world’s most famous blankets” advertisement, autumn 1955. HBC Corporate Collection.
In November 1779, independent fur trader Germain Maugenest met with HBC’s Board at Hudson’s Bay House in London to deliver his “Proposals of the Terms” under which he would enter into Hudson’s Bay Company’s service. He offered several suggestions for improving the growing inland trade from Fort Albany along the west coast of James Bay. Among his terms was a suggestion that the Company should regularly stock and trade “pointed” blankets.By December 1779, sample blankets were received by the London Committee and an order was issued for 500 pairs of “pointed” blankets; 100 pairs each in 1-, 1.5-, 2-, 2.5-, and 3-point sizes. Although blankets were a longstanding staple of the fur trade, it was not until the first shipment to Fort Albany in the spring of 1779 that they were shipped to the posts on a regular basis.
The Point System
The “point” system was invented by French weavers in the mid-18th century as a means of indicating the finished overall size (area) of a blanket. The word point derives from the French empointer, meaning “to make threaded stitches on cloth.”Each blanket was graded using a point system. Points were identified by the indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket. A full point measured 4–5.5 inches (10–14 centimetres); a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1-point blankets was: 2 feet, 8 inches (81 centimetres) wide by 8 feet (2.4 metres) in length; with a weight of 3 pounds, 1 ounce (1.4 kilograms) each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.
The number of points on a blanket represents the overall finished size of the blanket, not its value in terms of beaver pelts as is sometimes believed.
Quality in Manufacturing
Originally the weavers of Witney, Oxfordshire were the principal suppliers of Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets. By the mid-19th century, demand for blankets had forced the Company to source its blankets in Yorkshire as well. The wool was, and remains, a blend of varieties from Britain and New Zealand, each selected for its special qualities that make the blanket water resistant, soft, warm, and strong.The wool is first dyed before it is spun. The wool is then air and sun dried to brighten the colours. The blankets are woven 50% larger than their final finished size, before they are put through a milling process which reduces them to prevent further shrinkage. In addition, the milling prevents the blanket from hardening when exposed to severe climatic conditions.
Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket Colours
When Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets became a regular trade good in 1780, the standard colourways available were: plain white, scarlet (red), green, and blue, with single headings in black (or more often indigo) at each end. Throughout the fur trade, white was by far the most common colour, with bars in indigo, red, or blue.
The iconic multistripe Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket pattern was introduced at the end of the 18th century. In fact, the earliest reference to the multistripe pattern is from a 1798 order from HBC’s London Headquarters to Thomas Empson of Witney for “30 pairs of 3 points to be striped with four colours (red, blue, green,
yellow) according to your judgment.” The modern “order” of the stripes — green, red, yellow, and indigo — was not standardized until the mid- to late 19th century.
Although some sources suggest there is some meaning to the stripe colours or order, the truth is that nothing intentional is, or was, meant by the design. The four traditional colours — green, red, yellow, and indigo — were simply colours that were popular and easily produced using good colourfast dyes at the time that the multistripe blanket was introduced around 1800. These four colours are sometimes referred to as Queen Anne’s colours, since they first became popular during her reign (1702–1714).
Throughout the 20th century, HBC continued to produce and sell Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets in a variety of colourways. In 1929, the “Pastel Tones” — light colours with darker tone-on-tone bars — were introduced. This series included sky blue, violet, reseda (green), gold, and rose. Two additional colourway series, the “Deep Tones” and “Imperial Tones,” were introduced during the 1930s. The “Deep Tones” included Coraline (vermilion red), Pine Green, Cranberry, and Caramel, and Coronation Blue, Harvest Gold, and Highland Heather
made up the “Imperial Tones.” These additional colours were designed with the intention of better meeting the needs of modern interior design schemes. However, most of these colours were out of production by the 1960s.
Today, Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets continue to be produced and sold in Multistripe, Millennium (four stripes in shades of brown introduced in 2000), White with black bar, Scarlet with black bar, Green with black bar and Grey with black bar. A number of limited edition blankets have also been created to celebrate significant Canadian anniversaries and events, such as a special edition blanket to celebrate HBC’s 200th Anniversary, a special edition Sea-to-Sky Point Blanket for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and a Think Pink! Point Blanket created in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation in 2006.