The Americans had their Ralph Lauren blazers, Team Canada was a forest of maple leaves, and the Hungarians looked like red and white bar codes. But even among the many colorful offerings of the Olympics opening ceremony last month, one team’s uniforms had a particularly unique flourish.
Team Lesotho had come to the world’s greatest sporting event dressed in … blankets. And as the eight members of its Olympic squad looped Rio’s Maracanã stadium, they wore them draped over their track suits like oversized blue and gray capes.
But if the look was distinctive in Brazil, for those familiar with Lesotho – the mountainous country of about 2 million nestled inside of South Africa – it wasn’t surprising at all.
Here, blankets exist not just to be spread over beds or slung across couches, but to be worn – out to herd sheep (of which Lesotho has many) or on your wedding day, to celebrate independence day or just fend off a bracing winter snow in the highlands.
“In Lesotho, the blanket business is a very much a fashion business,” says Tom Kritzinger, head of sales and marketing for Aranda Textile Mills outside of Johannesburg, which today owns the exclusive right to produce Basotho blankets – so called for the name of the people who inhabit Lesotho.
But if blankets have long been the most popular item of clothing in Lesotho, in recent years they have also become the tiny country’s most visible cultural export, appearing not only in the Olympics but also in the fashion shows of Louis Vuitton and on the shelves of American clothing chain Anthropologie, where they were marketed for their “traditional tribal” patterns.
Designers from both in and outside the region have transformed the blankets – with their bright color schemes and recognizable patterns – into bomber jackets, ponchos, and throw pillows.
“We’re reclaiming something very traditional and using it to make a statement,” says Bokang Ramoreboli, a New York-based designer from Lesotho, whose label, All Flo Couture, puts out jackets and ponchos stitched from the blankets. It’s a way, she says, to “sell” Lesotho beyond the typical narrative of a poor African country in need of charity.
“There’s something to me that’s unattractive about sadness, and I wanted to give people a way to stop thinking only about the poverty here and start considering our rich histories, cultures, and traditions instead,” she says.
The story the country’s blankets tell about its history, however, is a gnarled one.
Consider this, for instance: Lesotho’s blankets, the country’s great cultural icon, were invented by foreigners, and they have never actually been made in Lesotho.
A British invasion
Blankets were introduced to the country in the mid-19th century by British traders eyeing a new market for their wares among local people, who frequently wrapped themselves in animal skins.
Sales took off, and soon British blanket makers were designing specifically for local tastes, creating patterns that were an eclectic mix of the culturally specific – a blanket featuring images of corn, a Basotho symbol of fertility and wealth – and the global – one popular style developed in the mid-20th century called “Badges of the Brave” features emblems of the various global regiments that fought on the side of the British in World War II .
For most of the blankets’ history, they were made in England, and today they are spun, woven, and sewn at Aranda’s rambling factory complex in an industrial suburb of Johannesburg. Marco Magni, whose Italian immigrant grandfather started the company just after World War II, says he is frequently asked why he doesn’t move the operation to Lesotho. The country, after all, has a thriving textile industry and tens of thousands of people actively looking for work.
But it’s not that simple, he says. Blanket making is an operation of scale, and Basotho blankets account for only a sliver – less than 10 percent – of the 1.8 million blankets his company produces annually.
“It is a hard one, we do get quite a bit of pressure,” he says. “But it just not viable to open a blanket factory just to produce those.”
Instead, he says, the company works with local designers to bring out new styles of blanket every few years. And despite the glaringly colonial imagery of some of the blankets – the British crown is a popular motif, for example – over the past century they’ve all developed distinctive local meanings. That blanket covered in commonwealth military emblems, for instance, features one from New Zealand with the initials NZ emblazoned across it. In Lesotho today, however, the letters are largely taken to stand for Nazareth – as in, the home town of Jesus.
“Perception is reality,” Mr. Kritzinger says.
Back in Maseru, Sebolelo Rathebe staffs the register at The Blanket Parlour, a mall boutique where Aranda’s blankets are stacked floor to ceiling in a woolen rainbow. There are a wide variety of styles on display, from one featuring the geometric spiral of the kharetsa, an aloe found in Lesotho’s highlands, to a pattern designed by her boss, Me Libuseng Titi, which features a portrait of King Moshoeshoe 1. The 19th-century king established the Basotho nation and led them in fighting off incursions from Dutch and Zulu invaders. (“I am glad that my people have been allowed to rest and live in the large folds of the blanket of England,” he wrote to Queen Victoria in 1868, when the Basotho became subjects of the British empire. “My country is your blanket, O Queen, and my people are the lice in it.”)
Ms. Rathebe says that one of the most challenging parts of selling the blankets is helping people find a way to pay for them. Like De Beers drumming up demand for engagement rings with its diamonds in mid-20th century America, blanket makers have succeeded in making Basotho blankets a must-have item for various stages of life here. But as with diamonds in the West, the price tag of a blanket – about $50 – is a hefty one in a country where most people work as subsistence farmers.
Built to last
Once a blanket is purchased, however, it’s generally expected to last a lifetime, or close to it.
Ms. Ramoreboli, the designer, says she got the idea to turn the blankets into jackets when, in 2013, she opened a package from her grandmother to find one of her old Basotho blankets inside – decades old and still in top shape. “To wear it just like that seemed old-fashioned, but I wanted to do something with it,” she says.
When she put on the jacket for the first time, the reaction was overwhelming, she says. People wanted them – and perhaps even more importantly, they wanted to know where they came from.
Three years later, Ramoreboli has hired a local seamstress to sew her designs for her in Maseru so that she can expand her operation. But there’s another important reason to have the jackets sewn there, she says.
“I want them to say 'Made in Lesotho' on the tag,” she says. “You can’t even say that with the blankets themselves, and I want us to claim that title back.”
Ryan Lenora Brown’s reporting in Lesotho was supported a grant from the Wits China-Africa Project.