As the textile industry expanded in the 1700s, along with exploration and colonization, wool blankets became a very valuable trade commodity, particularly in the North American and Canadian territories.White explorers and fur trappers who operated year-round needed heavy blankets for sleeping and to be made into the so-called mountain man’s parka—the robe-like capote. A well-made capote crafted from one or more high-quality wool blankets was surprisingly warm with its long calf-length drape, shoulder cape and hood, and highly valued. Native Americans would trade furs, horses and even squaws for a good blanket to get through the winter; most were worn hanging over the shoulders during the day by a simple wraparound-and-tie-off method, and rolled into at night. The wool blanket was durable enough to serve other functions, too. It could be bundled up and tied off as a transport carrier for multiple smaller items on foot or on horse, used as a large bag, attached in a travois for hauling “household” items behind a horse and so on. In more civilized areas, the blanket was worn as either a shawl or a basic cape, with a blanket pin under the throat to hold it closed.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, the oldest commercial operation in North America, actually exerted more power and control over its market area at one point than any government did, and through its network of trading posts in Canada and the northern U.S. sold vast numbers of wool blankets to customers of all types, cultures and national origins. Introducing the famous “point blankets” in 1780, where a given blanket’s size was determined at a glance by its assigned point value (“points” were indigo lines woven into the side of each blanket to show its size and thickness at a glance without having to unfold or stretch it out), the Hudson’s Bay blankets became a recognized standard for comparison with all others.

Wool blankets were traditionally used by most military forces from the 1800s through the 1900s, and even though more modern synthetics began to take over the commercial fabric market in the mid-1960s with lighter-weight clothes and blankets, wool has never been equaled for what it has to offer the camper, hunter, general outdoorsman or even the city dweller looking for a warm and long-lasting blanket to wait out those cold winter nights until spring ambles along. Premium wool blankets are still being produced by well-known names and are still quite popular. 

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HBC’s Green Wool 4 Point

Woolrich dates back to 1830, and from supplying military blankets during the Civil War right on down to the present day, the company’s name has become synonymous with quality.Officially licensed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to import modern point blankets from A.W. Hainsworth, a division of the John Atkinson Company, their English maker, Woolrich’s Hudson’s Bay designs are available in 4-, 6-, and 8-point (full, queen, and king) sizes in several colors and patterns. Each is a blended combination of 100-percent wool from New Zealand and each carries on the tradition of the original English-made Hudson’s Bay blankets that gave them their legendary status.

The 4-Point Green (one of the first blanket colors in the 1700s) is one of my favorites. It weighs 6 pounds, measures 72 inches by 90 inches, features a tight weave with bound edges and follows the traditional HBC practice of incorporating one or more wide, colored stripes on a solid background. The “points” are positioned not far from the blanket’s corner label. The easily visible dark indigo stripes are roughly 6 inches long, 0.25 inches wide and 2 inches apart, and the single large indigo stripe is 5.5 inches wide. When you talk Hudson’s Bay blankets, you’re not shopping at WalMart, and you shouldn’t expect WalMart pricing: the 4-Point Green lists at $370. Take care of it, though, and the lucky inheritor you pass it down to will regard you fondly every time it’s used until he or she passes it on down in turn. To order a Hudson’s Bay blanket from Woolrich, visit woolrich.com or call 877-512-7305. You can also order at thebay.com.

Filson Mackinaw

Better known for their long-running, water-resistant, tin cloth “oilskin” coats and pants for hard-use hunting and other foul-weather outdoor pursuits, along with the classic Mackinaw wool cruiser coats going back to 1897, Filson carries one blanket that’s worth a close look anytime an heirloom-quality, 100-percent-wool bed warmer is under consideration. Constructed of 35-ounce virgin wool, the 6-pound Mackinaw blanket has options limited to exactly one size (72 inches by 90 inches), and three color patterns—grey/multi, grey/black, red/black. All of Filson’s Mackinaw blankets come in the large-checked, classic plaid style probably more common to eastern woods wanderers than other sections of the nation, and all come with serged edges to prevent fraying.

This Mackinaw blanket is made in the U.S. and runs the gamut well from a traditionally patterned cabin blanket to a stadium-seat windbreaker. Filson says it’ll absorb up to 30 percent of its own weight without getting clammy, if you get caught in a sprinkle, and, when stored properly out of the sun, the colors will stay strong. For more, visit filson.com or call 800-624-0201.

Pendleton blanket

As a basic wraparound, a wool blanket like this large Pendleton Yakima Camp Blanket was just as useful around a campfire a century ago as it is on a bed today.

Pendleton Yakima Camp Blanket

Dating back to 1863, Pendleton Woolen Mills is another great name in blankets, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. The company currently offers an extensive range of high-quality wool and wool-blend blankets—all made in America—that exhibit everything from its Native American-inspired and Nat-ional Parks Series to colorful generic patterns. The Yakima Camp Blanket is a descendant of those that were quite popular among the early sheepherders in that part of the country. Available in two sizes, twin and queen, and three different patterns, the Yakima is a best-seller for Pendleton. Also weighing in at 6 pounds, the queen-sized “Mineral Umber” pattern measures 90 by 90 inches, and it’s a blend of 86-percent wool and 14-percent cotton, with a 9.25-inch-wide, six-color stripe and whipstitch edge. 

Besides the large number of patterns to choose from, Pendleton also provides a unique service in monograming and embroidering to create a more personalized blanket for either gift presentations or just personal pride of ownership. An additional $10 upcharge per three-initial monogram over the queen-sized Yakima’s $149 price tag identifies a blanket as unquestionably yours. For a maximum charge of $24, you can include up to three lines of embroidered letters (20 characters/line maximum) to commemorate a birth, a wedding, a retirement or any other occasion. Monogramming is available in 12 colors and nine fonts. For more information, visit pendleton-usa.com or call 877-996-6599.

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Surplus Wool

Given the number of nationalities issuing wool blankets to their militaries for well over 150 years, there are hundreds of thousands of the things floating around out there, somewhere. It was a rare (and poorly stocked) surplus store that didn’t have a stack of them reeking of moth repellent and age someplace in the back among the used uniform items and obsolete gas masks for much of the past 40 years. If you’ve looked for one lately, though, you’ve probably noticed they’re pretty much gone. Between increased demand among those who appreciate them for camp and emergency backup applications and the dwindling supply sources, finding one in decent shape nowadays is very much a hit-or-miss deal, and when some local or internet surplus store does get something in, it sells out in a hurry.

military balnkets

Military surplus wool is an excellent value, if you can find it. There’s a wide variety of weaves and thicknesses, and it’s not as painful if you damage it or get it dirty.

Still, if you do take the time to look, well-broken-in surplus wool blankets are worth chasing down, since they were made to last through the harshest conditions of field service and their prices are much lower. Keep an eye out at yard sales, check your local Army/Navy regularly, visit your friendly neighborhood thrift stores, and eBay. Costs are rising, but bargains can still be found here and there. One thing to watch out for, though, is the “repro” blanket. With demand outstripping supply on genuine surplus wool, at least one company has begun producing brand-new reproduction military blankets of both domestic and foreign patterns. These are sourced in China and not the same quality, so check for a label if you find a new-looking surplus woolie that looks too good to be true at a price that’s way too low for the “real” thing. The repros are typically a lower percentage of wool and not as thick or as durable.

Wool has many advantages, but there are some cautions involved. It should be dry-cleaned to avoid shrinkage. It should not be tossed in a clothes dryer if you wash it at home. Wool shrinks with hot water and heated air. If you have to wash a wool blanket yourself, it is best to launder it by hand and lay it flat to dry. Colors will fade over time with repeated exposure to sunlight, but should stay bright indefinitely if left in shaded areas or stored in a closet during the off season. Watch for moths if left exposed, or store the blanket in a plastic bag or its original container. And if it gets wet, make sure it has plenty of time to dry thoroughly before folding it up and sticking it back in the closet.                                               

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here