Pendleton Woolen Mills – The Legendary Blankets

by Neil Summers

Over the past 25 years, Pendleton Woolen Mills have developed a series of Legendary blankets all of which are based on the beliefs and traditions of their original and most valued customers, the Native American Indian. Though founded by British weaver Thomas Kay back in 1863 it was only after the purchase of a mill along the Oregon Trail in 1909 that their blankets, robes and shawls became highly prized by the Native American population.

One of the reasons for the popularity of these products is thanks to the care taken by the pattern designers to learn about the native mythologies and design preferences of their customers. In the earliest years, Joe Rawnsley, who was considered a gifted talent on the jacquard loom, took time out with the local natives of northeastern Oregon to develop and understand their preferences of colour and design. Which he would then interpret the ideas gleaned from the native peoples into blanket designs using modern technologies that could express pattern ideas in much greater detail and in more vivid colours that could be expressed by traditional weaving methods.

Local business men during a Pendleton Mill tour in 1910.

Wiith the success of these first designs, Mr. Rawnsley went on to spend a further spent six months in the native Southwest developing ideas for designs that would specifically appeal to the tribes of this region. He returned with hundreds of designs to be interpreted into his weaving processes and also entering Pendleton blankets into the ‘Indian trade’. Meaning that local natives started to take the blankets down from Oregon to the Southwest tribes in order to exchange them for silver jewellery, wool or other items of value. The colourful blankets were also integrated into everyday and ceremonial uses; part of a dowry, weddings, gift giving, pow wows, dance prizes, naming ceremonies, funerals and memorials. With blankets often being placed into coffins to keep loved ones warm on their journey.

Today, Pendleton blankets continue to play a significant role in Indigenous communities across North America with the tradition of wool and textile innovation established by Thomas Kay and his family underlying all Pendleton products. Though the good news now is that you don’t have to belong to a Native American tribe in order to own one as The Sporting Lodge are now proud stockists of this incredible American brand.

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