An Interesting Story About Blankets

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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41 Comments

  • Reply Christian Ekleberry January 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Really great read!

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:44 am

      Thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Reply Catherine January 24, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    what a wonderful story, the blankets are really beautiful, you were right to splurge and the Melville cat will love it for his afternoon naps! and now I have one more address to enter in my SA notebook, thanks to you!!!!!

    • Reply Catherine January 24, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      Heathermdid you know that they also have a facebook page with the history of the shop?

      • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:43 am

        Yes, I saw that! I actually meant to link to it in the story and forgot. And yes, the Melville Cat has already tested the blanket for sleeping and he finds it quite satisfactory.

  • Reply wannabepoet January 24, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    Stunning post! Thank-you 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:42 am

      You’re quite welcome!

  • Reply Jay Jay January 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Lovely post. I’ve had my Basotho blanket (the black and yellow one) for a few years now and had no idea it was made locally. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:41 am

      My pleasure Jay Jay, glad you enjoyed it.

  • Reply worldairtravelandtours January 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Lovely story – and the blankets are great. I was in Lesotho for only a day unfortunately, but I remember the blankets very well.
    Also the Massai are popular for their red blankets. DId you ever check them?

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:01 am

      Hi there, no, I haven’t spent much time in East Africa so haven’t shopped for Masai blankets. I agree though – they’re beautiful.

  • Reply Jeroen January 24, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    It’s great to see the sisters are still running the shop – I met them in 2009 and 2011 (listed them in the Rough Guide) and got the blanket history told to me in Afrikaans 🙂 I have a blue one lying on my Berlin couch, and still use it often. They’re not cheap, especially for the locals, but they are top quality, rainproof due to the dense wool, and can last for decades.
    Did they tell you about the stripes? The story goes that an English factory had a malfunctioning machine so that two parallel stripes appeared on the designs; they shipped them to Lesotho anyway where it turned out that the locals considered the stripes to be most auspicious, and can’t do without them now. There are rules about wearing them horizontally or vertically.
    If you need more blanket history, ask the sisters to see the copy of the blanket design article they have. They also have various special blankets to show to customers, with papal insignia etc.

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:41 am

      It is shameful that I still don’t have your Rough Guide. I meant to buy it before this trip but then I got busy…you know how it goes. Sorry.

      Great stories about the blankets! I didn’t know the story about the stripes, although I think Minnie did mention that they are supposed to be worn in specific directions. There are so many interesting things to learn about these blankets. I need to go visit the Aranda factory in Randfontein.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough January 24, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Gorgeous! I couldn’t have spent $60 either, but I would have been tempted. Blankets are a big deal here, as well–though less expensive.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:38 am

      Everything is less expensive in Ecquador! 🙂

  • Reply Timmee January 24, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Lovely! I want one too!

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:38 am

      Timmee, apparently you can buy them cheaper at the blanket shops in the CBD.

      • Reply Wayne January 26, 2014 at 2:44 am

        Where are the blanket shops located in the CBD? Excellent story!

        • Reply 2summers January 26, 2014 at 6:12 pm

          Hi Wayne, I think the blanket shops are mostly around Diagonal Street. Past Experiences does shopping tours to the area — check them out here. http://pastexperiences.co.za

  • Reply qhopkins January 24, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Delightful story! And now I covet one of these blankets as well, even if it would mean I would have to leave all of my clothing behind when I headed back to the States 🙂 )

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:02 am

      Save some room on the next trip, Quince!

  • Reply qwirkdesigns January 24, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Very interesting story! Informative and Useful.

  • Reply nellsified101 January 24, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    H!!! I love this post! I walk away from this feeling so much richer in knowledge 🙂

    Can’t wait to have you explore IsiNdebele!

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 8:37 am

      I would love to do that!

  • Reply Lani January 25, 2014 at 11:02 am

    I love the ordinary, seemingly simple things like this. It makes for a good yarn 😛 and I thank you for sharing this! Cheers from Thailand (where it is so cold now I could use an extra blanket!!!)

    • Reply 2summers January 25, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      A good yarn! Hahaha.

  • Reply rosevoc2 January 27, 2014 at 2:36 am

    Reblogged this on Rosevoc2's Blog.

    • Reply 2summers January 27, 2014 at 12:39 pm

      Thanks for the reblog!

  • Reply dearrosie January 30, 2014 at 8:09 am

    I’m glad to hear that the blankets aren’t made in China. Really glad.
    It must’ve been so hard to chose a blanket from the amazing selection. Did you put it on your bed?

    • Reply 2summers January 30, 2014 at 9:57 am

      Yes, it was a very difficult choice. I currently have the blanket on my couch — it’s summer in South Africa and way too hot to have a blanket on the bed. But it might make its way there in winter 🙂

  • Reply giichi2 February 11, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Reblogged this on my999my and commented:
    世界がすごく広がっていく感じ。

  • Reply How do you #MeetSouthAfrica? | Going Somewhere Slowly October 30, 2015 at 9:08 am

    […] You #MeetSouthAfrica through the blankets of Lesotho and understanding and experiencing the […]

  • Reply Charmaine and Henry Espach February 12, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Hi my hubby Henry and I were in the shop this morning and Gerda was peeling apples ..I presume to make apple pie and Minnie told us the most amazing stories… we bought two Basotho blankets for our daughters and there hubbies ……one red which is very rare and Gertie said we should place it in the boot as the thieves will break in to get the red blanket….we are richer for having stopped there …what insprations these two ladies are …..they should be in parliment ….will definitely visit again …..

    • Reply 2summers February 12, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      What a fantastic story! Thank you so much for the comment. I’ve visited Gertie and Minnie three times now and bought to blankets. It’s always an extraordinary experience.

  • Reply Mohau Motsotsoana November 6, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Wow! What a good way to market Aranda and the sisters! Amazing!

    • Reply 2summers November 6, 2016 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks so much Mohau. Just out of curiosity, where did you come upon the link to my post? I see a huge jump in traffic to this story today and I’m curious about where it’s coming from.

  • Reply Yvonne Kolbe November 7, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    What a delightful and interesting story of the two dear old sisters and such lovely warm blankets!

  • Reply Motena November 8, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    Hi there. I am mosotho from Lesotho so i thought that i would first say this: The people of Lesotho are called Basotho, so saying Basotho people is like saying double people.. hence each time one need to refer to the people of Lesotho the word “basotho” is used instead. Other than that i love the story.. its a truly informative one indeed..

    • Reply 2summers November 8, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      Oh, thank you so much Motena. I will make that correction. I appreciate the comment!

  • Reply autumnashbough December 6, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    That is fascinating. Royally approved blankets. I don’t suppose they sell them online.

    • Reply 2summers December 6, 2016 at 9:28 pm

      Not as far as I know…They’re actually not that easy to find. I still need to visit that factory outside Joburg where they’re made.

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