Here’s a perfect outdoor scene: the campfire pops and crackles as you throw on another log, and a shower of sparks explodes into the night sky. You watch each drifting ember spiral upwards and die out, one by one, and feel the heat on your upturned face as the log catches, flames licking eagerly at the dry, seasoned wood. Beyond that circle of warmth, the air is still, crisp and cold. You shiver as a chill tendril unfurls down your spine, shuffle a few inches closer to the fire, and pull your thick, warm camp blanket tighter around your shoulders.
For us, evenings by the campfire are incomplete without a trusty blanket. After many years’ use, ours is now suffused with the whiff of woodsmoke, its fringe slightly singed in places and its heavy wool marred with the odd burn mark from stray embers. We’ve spotted similar much-loved examples draped around campers’ shoulders or spread out in the backs of campervans in locations across the globe, from campgrounds up in the Pacific Northwest to oceanside lay-bys on New Zealand’s South Island.
Origins of the blanket
But where did the now ubiquitous camping blanket come from? The answer can be traced back through the centuries, stretching beyond two World Wars to the days of the earliest frontier traders in Canada and the American West. And in fact, its earliest beginnings predate even that.
We’ve probably got a 14th century Flemish weaver named Thomas Blanket – originally, Blanquette – to thank for this cosiest of inventions. In 1339, while living and working in Bristol, he was granted permission by a local magistrate to set up a loom on which to make a ‘well raised surface’ fabric, probably a heavily napped woollen weave, for use as a bed covering. Blanket’s intention was simply to make the straw pallets on which most people slept back then a little more comfortable, since feather mattresses and fine furs were far beyond the reach of the common man.
By the time Shakespeare published his tragedy, King Lear, in 1608, the blanket was familiar enough for his character Edgar to proclaim, when deciding to transform himself into Poor Tom, the Bedlam beggar: “My face ile grime with filth / Blanket my loynes, else all my haire with knots / And with presented nakednesse out-face / The Windes, and persecutions of the skie”.
Loins and nakedness aside, by the end of the Elizabethan period, blanket making had become big business, as an increasingly important offshoot of the vast British wool industry. Yorkshire was the epicentre of production, though blankets were widely made in many towns across the country, including Witney in Oxfordshire, which supplied blankets made from locally produced Cotswold wool to the Hudson’s Bay Company for export to North America.
Trade blankets: America and beyond
Across the Atlantic, these blankets soon became highly prized by traders and Native American tribes, since the heavy wool cloth was both warm and water-repellent – ideal for the frigid winters of the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Trappers exchanged them for beaver pelts, which were just as sought after back in Europe for the fine hat trade. French-Canadian voyageurs even made the blankets into ‘capotes’, long hooded cloaks, which they wore when paddling their canoes on long expeditions into the wilderness. Lewis and Clark are also recorded as taking blankets with them on their epic voyage of discovery.
The most coveted blanket in the North American fur trade was the famous point blanket. By the mid-1800s, these were commonly white or cream in colour with characteristic green, red, yellow and indigo blue stripes at each end. The design remains familiar today as the iconic Glacier National Park Blanket. The ‘points’ were lines of threaded black stitching woven into the edge of the blanket, just above the stripes. The number of points indicated the overall size of the blanket, so it could be ascertained even when folded. Blankets of 2.5, 3, 3.5 and 4 points were most common during the fur trade era, with the latter being sized to suit a double bed. The classic Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket is still in production today and they remain heirloom pieces in many American and Canadian families, handed down through successive generations.
The equally renowned Pendleton blanket emerged from the trade blanket industry. But unlike those of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Pendleton Blankets were produced in America, not in England, and they were manufactured in patterns and colours specifically designed to appeal to the tribes of the Columbia River and, later, the American Southwest. Pendleton designer Joe Rawnsley even visited the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes to learn their customs and colour preferences, to be sure the firm’s blankets would appeal to this new market. This early form of customer research paid dividends. The blankets became desired instruments of commerce and were even employed for ceremonial use. Today, Pendleton continues to set the standard for American style. With six generations of family ownership, its textiles are infused with authenticity, heritage and craftsmanship – all still proudly designed and woven in the USA.
Army blankets: from wool to the woobie
The wool blanket was also commonly issued to military forces throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Both Napoleon’s and Wellington’s armies were supplied with them, as were Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War. In the 20th century, they subsequently became field issue for troops in the Great War and the Second World War on both Axis and Allied sides too. Blankets also went to sea, and cabin blankets were first made in the early 1700s. In almost all cases, these military blankets were a drab khaki or grey colour. Following the cessation of these conflicts, forces veterans often kept them for their own use, while surplus blankets were frequently co-opted by other outdoorsy types, including numerous Boy Scout troops. In turn, this gave rise to the Scouting tradition of the camp blanket as a wearable reminder of shared adventures and experiences, gradually becoming adorned with embroidered Scout badges.
It was the Vietnam War that gave rise to the next iteration of the camp blanket though – and for pretty much the first time, it wasn’t made of wool. We’re talking about the “liner, wet weather, poncho”, to use its official designation, but it’s a bit of kit that became universally known as the ‘woobie’. Made from two layers of stitch-through nylon with a high-loft polyester fill, it was ostensibly a poncho liner but was effectively the first mass-produced synthetic quilt. US infantry soldiers and marines engaged in combat in the jungles of Vietnam soon embraced them wholeheartedly, not just for their impressive warmth but also for their versatility. Your woobie could be employed as clothing, blanket, pillow, shelter, hammock, camo hide for concealment, seat cushion, even a makeshift mattress – and, of course, it was something soft and reassuring to grab hold of when any situation went from SNAFU to FUBAR. The woobie’s ability to provide warmth when wet, dry quickly and compress down into a small packed size inevitably made it popular with backpackers, and it’s probably no coincidence that modern ultralight quilts, even those stuffed with down rather than synthetic fill, share many similarities with their military ancestor. Today, any number of brands, from NEMO Equipment and Kelty to Therm-a-rest, produce their own versions that are all descended in some way from the woobie. So too are those from lifestyle-orientated brands like Voited and Rumpl, whose vibrant patterned quilts have become must-have accessories for vanlifers.
The late 1970s also saw the emergence of new synthetic fabrics, like acrylic and polyester, which changed both outdoor dress and high street fashion forever (in the first case, for the better; in the latter, we’ll reserve judgment – but it sure made for some funny photos of your parents). One such innovation was polar fleece, developed to provide a warm, soft, lightweight and fast-drying alternative to heavy, itchy wool jumpers and pullovers. In time, fleece was adapted for blankets too, largely due to its super soft handle, making its way into homes across the world. Slowtide blankets are the perfect example. Equally at home indoors or out, they’re generously sized for full coverage, with outdoors-inspired prints. And unlike the original 1970s fabrics, they’re made from 100% recycled polyester, ensuring that they’re kinder to the planet than their forebears too.
Packing for a picnic
In the 20th century, the blanket also came to be associated not just with camping and the great outdoors, but with leisure – particularly, the picnic. Originally however, a picnic, or ‘pique-nique’ was an indoor social event, in which guests would each turn up with a contribution for the collective meal – in some cases a monetary contribution, in others a dish or even an entire course. Pique-Nique also turns up as a character in 17th century French satire – a glutton who gorges himself while revolutionaries starve on the streets. Indeed, it was a group of French emigrés who started London’s Pic Nic Society in 1801. This mixture of dining and amateur dramatics was fuelled by food and alcohol - each member was purportedly required to bring along a dish and no less than six bottles of wine.
Over time, the concept of the picnic drifted outdoors, with a new emphasis on the bucolic charms of the countryside. Victorian cookbook author Mrs Beeton even included a picnic list in her classic Book of Household Management, which included a menu of four roast guinea fowl and two roast duck. Socialites attending the racing at Ascot or the opera at Glyndebourne began to arrive with opulent picnic hampers in tow.
The growth of the railways in Britain, and later, burgeoning leisure time and the explosion of interest in cycling and rambling, brought picnics to the working classes. The chequered, tartan or plaid blanket, replete with an array of cold meats, cheeses, pork pies and ginger beer, came to signify halcyon summer afternoons.
Taking a blanket along with you for a picnic makes perfect sense. After all, nobody likes a wet bum. Modern iterations often incorporate a waterproof underside, with a soft top, keeping you clean and dry but comfortable too. They’re also more packable than ever, making them the perfect bit of kit to stash in a jacket pocket or a daypack. Take Matador’s Pocket Blankets, for example, designed for woodland walks, afternoons in the park, trips to the beach, camping weekends, music festivals and open-air concerts – you name it, they’ve literally got it covered.
And that just about brings the history of the blanket bang up to date, which seems the perfect opportunity to wrap this up.
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