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Save the Bay.

Looking through some WWII-era LL Bean catalogs I picked up, a constant on the few color-print pages was a white blanket with stripes in primary colors. Although my family never had one of these around (grandparents preferred loose knit afghans), I vaguely remembered them from friends’ homes as a kid (and the Preppy Handbook, guide to many things both cool and Bean). These are Hudson’s Bay blankets, a Canadian classic with some weird connotations.

The blankets are basically synonymous with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the centuries-old organization that ran large-scale trading (essentially for beaver pelts) in Canada from the 17th through 19th centuries. The Bay, as it’s colloquially known, is still around—how’s that for heritage? Suck it, Woolrich.

The blankets were one of the primary bartering currencies when English and French traders conducted business with indigenous Canadians. Allegedly, the white color was good camouflage in the snow, although that seems to conflict with the primary colored stripes that are often woven into the blankets (the ubiquitous multicolor blanket is sometimes called a chief's blanket). The blankets’ quality (or size, sources are vague) was defined by “points”—marks (not the multicolor stripes) sewn on the blankets that denoted their value.

Today, Hudson’s Bay blankets and similar blankets made back in the day by English and French weavers are sought-after collector’s items. In the US, you can still buy the real deal from Woolrich (or, maybe, from Bean, who is a little vaguer about the origin of their blanket—it best be real for that amount of cash!). Bemidji Woolen Mills also carries them. In 1948, a 72" x 90", 6-pound blanket ran $19.85 postpaid from LL Bean. Today, a similar blanket is $289. Considering Bean boots were $6.95 at the time, that's really not a bad price.

The Bay blanket doesn't just appeal to a vague nostalgia for something I never experienced at the time--a wool blanket with some heft is a nice change from today's lightweight, pilly fleece slankets. Often re-purposed on the Canadian frontier as coats, packs, or whatever needed to be made with durable, natural fabric, the blankets are also undoubdedly influential when it comes to non-blanket style. Did the primary colors used in the blankets inspire LL Bean’s 90s palette? Are this year’s striped fabrics from Woolrich Woolen Mills echoing Bay blankets?


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