UPDATE (March 2018): I’ve just learned that the Blanket Shop is Clarens has closed down. I’m devastated.

The people of Lesotho are famous for the blankets they wear. The blankets are thick and wooly and have a distinctive type of pattern that is immediately recognizable and unique.

Man on horse

Photo of a man wearing a Basotho blanket, which appeared in my recent post about Lesotho.

Basotho blankets have an interesting story, as far as blanket stories go. The British first brought the blankets to Lesotho in the mid 19th century — before that time the Basotho kept warm by wearing animal skins. The blankets became popular quickly, and within a few decades they were an established part of Basotho culture. Today, the blankets are still the most popular type of Basotho outerwear. But Basotho blankets are not made in Lesotho and they never have been.

I can’t remember who first told me this, but I’ve always been under the impression that Basotho blankets are made in China. During my recent trip to Lesotho and South Africa’s Eastern Free State (which borders Lesotho), I learned differently.

After my friend Michelle and I left Lesotho last month, we hopped across the border to Clarens — a tourist town in the Eastern Free State — and spent a few days there. On our first morning in Clarens we drove past a tiny blanket shop, abtly called “The Blanket Shop”. It looked cute so we went in.

Blanket shop

The Blanket Shop.

The Blanket Shop is owned and operated by two sisters, Gertie Dejager and Minnie diMezza, who are both around 80. Their father started the shop in the 1940s. Minnie and Gertie have been working there since the 1950s.

During the old days, this shop was a general dealer (what Americans call a general store), selling food and clothing and other supplies needed on what was then a South African frontier. Today, Minnie and Gertie focus mostly on Basotho blankets, although they do sell other kinds of blankets, some clothing, and a few local crafts.

Michelle and I were enchanted from the moment we stepped across the threshold of the Blanket Shop. Minnie immediately welcomed us and took us to the back room, where the Basotho blankets are neatly folded and stacked. Then she proceeded, in the most charming possible way, to educate us.

Gertie and blankets

Minnie schools us on Basotho blankets.

Minnie was horrified by my suggestion that Basotho blankets are made in China. In reality, the blankets were manufactured in England until the manufacturer was bought out by a company in South Africa. The blankets are now manufactured by a company called Aranda, which is based not far from Joburg in Gauteng province. Although there are knock-offs being produced elsewhere, Aranda is the only company making the real thing.

Blankets2

Neatly folded Basotho blankets.

The blankets are made with a limited number of patterns, which must be approved by Lesotho’s royal family. Minnie spread out the blankets one by one and told us about the different patterns. She also explained the different grades of blankets, the most expensive of which is made from 100% virgin wool (wool that comes from a lamb’s first shearing).

Blankets1

More blankets.

I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the blankets, and I couldn’t get enough of Minnie’s melodic narrative. The more I listened to Minnie, the more certain I became that I needed a Basotho blanket of my own.

The 100% wool blankets, one step down from the top-of-the-line virgin wool, cost R650 (about $60). More than I could really afford to spend on a blanket, but so be it. It had to happen.

Heather in blanket

This was probably the first and only time that I will actually wear my Basotho blanket. (Photo: Michelle Stern)

As I was paying for my blanket, a Basotho couple came into the shop. A large percentage of the region’s Basotho — also referred to as Sotho — actually live in South Africa. The woman, Maki, was pregnant and buying her first blanket. (Basotho women wear blankets around their waists when they are pregnant.) Maki already knew which blanket she wanted. She pulled out her cash and paid quickly.

Since I had just taken a picture of myself with my new blanket, I asked Maki if she would put hers on as well.

Lady with new blanket

Maki with her new blanket. Unfortunately I had already taken mine off and Minnie had folded it nicely in its bag. Otherwise Maki and I would have posed together.

Minnie and Gertie spoke to Maki and her partner in fluent Sesotho. “We’ve spoken Sesotho since we came out of the womb,” Minnie said.

Gertie and Minnie

Gertie (left) and Minnie (right). I love them.

It was a happy blanket day.

The Blanket Shop is at 499 Naauwpoort Street, just off Route 712 on the outskirts of Clarens. The number is 058 256 1313.

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