Safari Style: Kobo ke bophelo – the blanket is life

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Lesotho is renowned for its beautiful blankets. Georgina Lockwood discovers how the iconic Basotho blanket wove its way into the fabric of society…

Legend has it that in the mid-1800s King Moshoeshoe l (1786–1870), a known snappy dresser, received a large blue blanket from a French missionary. Thrilled with his new gift, Moshoeshoe cast aside his leopard skins and wore the blanket poncho-style. This is largely regarded as the beginning of the blanket-wearing tradition in the mountain kingdom.

Its popularity was increased in the 1890s when a rinderpest outbreak decimated livestock and local wildlife, making blankets an added necessity for warmth in the absence of hides.

The beautiful blankets have captured the attention of designers like Louis Vuitton, as well as Black Panther director Ryan Coogler – they featured in the movie’s eye-catching wardrobe designs.

Sotho children are given a blanket when they are born and a new blanket when they reach puberty. As part of the mountain school ceremony, they literally and figuratively throw down the blanket of childhood, and return with a new one. The most desired blanket is the Seanamarena that accompanies them into adulthood.

In Lesotho, there is a blanket for every occasion, with new designs continuously commissioned by the blanket-wearing population. In 2007, the Motlatsi blanket, meaning ‘the successor’, was created in honour of the birth of Crown Prince Lerotholi Seeiso. Political parties even commission blankets in their colours.
Perhaps the most significant new design is the King Letsie III birthday blanket. On July 17 each year, one of the 10 districts of Lesotho commissions a new blanket in the district’s colours, to celebrate the occasion. This year the king is celebrating his birthday in Quthing.

Britain’s Wormald and Walker created the famous Victoria England blanket in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Year. The design charmed the small landlocked country and remains popular today. The Victoria England, affectionately called Lefitori in Lesotho, is one of the oldest trademarks in the world.

Lesotho’s relationship with England goes back to 1867 when King Moshoeshoe l wrote to Queen Victoria, asking for protection for his country. In 1868 Basutoland became a British protectorate, and ties between the countries remain strong today. Lesotho captured the heart of Prince Harry during his gap year, and in 2006 Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso founded the Sentebale Trust, to assist vulnerable children.

The Seanamarena, which means ‘to swear by the chiefs’, comprises two designs: one resembles an ace of spades, while the Poone or ‘corncob’ represents fertility and good wealth. For this reason it is a popular wedding gift for brides.

Nkwe is the leopard-print design that represents royalty, strength and wisdom. Other popular blankets include the Kharetsa, which features a spiral aloe at its centre, traditional hats in the corners, and the
Lesotho shield.

The colourful pinstripe was the result of a factory glitch, but it was embraced by the Basothos and assists the wearer with the way in which the blanket should be worn. The pinstripe is traditionally worn vertically, but at funerals it is sometimes worn horizontally.

The blankets are suitable for every occasion, from protection against the elements while herding sheep to traditional wedding attire. Blankets are fastened with a safety pin similar to those used for Scottish kilts.

Men wear blankets with the darker side exposed, while women show the lighter side. Men wear the blanket to the right side for mobility. Women wear the blanket pinned to the front.

Information supplied by Tom Kritzinger, manager exports and Basotho AT Aranda Textile Mills (Pty) Ltd. Blanket colours as per Aranda swatches.

 

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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