The Basotho Heritage Blanket is woven into the culture and fabric of the Basotho nation. The blanket is a symbol of “The Mountain Kingdom” or “Roof of Africa”, as Lesotho is affectionately known.
The long and very rich history of the blanket began in early 1860 when the King of Lesotho, King Moshoeshoe 1st received a blanket as a gift from a French missionary and used it as a wrap. This gift signified the birth of the blanket wearing tradition in Lesotho, the blanket wrap soon replaced the karosses (animal hides) as the Lesotho kingdom’s primary attire.
Over time, the blanket became rooted in the Basotho culture not only as a shelter against the cold but as a bold and beautiful expression of Basotho virtues, status, and unity.
The Basotho blanket has expanded into a colorful array of diverse and distinct names and designs. Every style symbolizes and celebrates Lesotho nationality, rites of passage, peace, love, royalty, bravery, and courage, and above all warmth.
The oldest Basotho blanket trademark, “Victoria England”, established at the turn of the 19th century, signifies the high regard by Lesotho for England, Queen Victoria having spread her “blanket of protection” over Lesotho in 1868 on the plea of King Moshoeshoe I.
Until its independence in 1966, Lesotho remained a British protectorate, good relations with England continue to this day. Both Prince Harry and Prince have a close relationships with the current Lesotho Royal Family.
The iconic “Badges of the Brave” blanket commemorates the Allied Forces who defeated Germany in World War II.
The royal crown jewel of the Basotho blanket, “Seanamarena”, which is produced in various designs, the most characteristic being “Poone” or the “corncob” symbolizes fertility and growth.
The “Kharetsa” pays tribute to the Spiral Aloe, found only in the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho, whereas the “Motlatsi” features a series of hearths that signify the “heart of the nation”.
The “Khotso” talk of peace, or the “Malekabe” of flames or fire, the “Nkwe” of royalty, strength, courage, victory, and wisdom; and others of prosperity, wealth, and succession.
The Basotho blanket is immersed in the Basotho nation's way of life, the blanket has become a tradition in itself and an indicator of Basotho identity and nationality.
The Basotho blanket has now made its mark also on the big screen and the catwalk, suggesting that its signature is quite spectacular and expressive, even on the biggest of stages.
The Basotho Heritage Blanket features heavily as the Chief's guards wrap and shield in “Black Panther”, Marvel's “2018 blockbuster superhero movie”.
The Basotho blanket has also caught the eye of the Western fashion world, it was used by international Fashion house Louis Vuitton Louis in their 2017 menswear collection featuring designs that take inspiration from the Basotho blanket.
Lesotho is a high-altitude, landlocked kingdom encompassed by South Africa, and crisscrossed by a network of rivers and mountain ranges including the 3,482m-high peak of Thabana Ntlenyana. Roughly translated, the name Lesotho means “the land of the people who speak Sesotho”, and its motto“ Khotso, Pula, Nala” refers to “Peace, Rain, Prosperity”.
Although there have been pivotal moments in time and notable people that shaped the Lesotho story, the story is not defined by any one moment or person. The story speaks of a symbiotic environment where all of these moments, people and the Basotho as a whole, form part of the Basotho blanket signature.
Where most other nations may have protected their territories or clung to set customs and stereotypes, the Basotho people explored the “new, strange and beautiful” and adopted, adapted, and molded it into a core part of their heritage and daily lives.
Besides its practical value, there are social and symbolic values inherent in the blanket, of which national identification has become one of the most important, announcing “I am a Mosotho”.
Lesotho emerged under King Moshoeshoe I in 1822, and his leadership extended until 1868. During the mid 19th century, Lesotho was under attack from various fronts, and Moshoeshoe in 1867 appealed to Queen Victoria of Britain for protection. When she agreed to his request, he spoke of her “spreading her blanket” of protection over the country, and so began an enduring path with England.
Lesotho became a British protectorate in 1868 when peace was established. The benevolent relationship between Lesotho and England remains intact today and transcended Lesotho's independence in 1966. England's protection at the time sparked off trust and gratitude that paved the way for the embracement of foreign cultural goods.
During the early 19th century, missionaries, settlers, pastoralists, travelers, adventurers, and traders all entered and explored Lesotho. With it, they brought along diverse cultures, religions, and enterprises.
The blanket was part of a wide spectrum of European cultural goods introduced to the Basotho during the 19th century. Missionaries and traders had some noticeable effects on the Basotho community, which extended to a certain moral and even dress code.
The traders, gravitating to mission stations, exhibited their exotic goods and purchased by the Basotho. Traders were instrumental in establishing trading stations and, having an air of friendliness about them, they were soon trusted for advice and help. There is enough evidence that the Basotho used an advanced filtering process when it came to western cultural goods. Certain features were embraced, others hated or resisted.
Moshoeshoe the influencer king
It's written about Moshoeshoe that “ a great cloak of leopard skin, as supple as the finest cloth, was allowed to fall negligently about his waist, its folds covering his knees and feet”. This reveals to us that Moshoeshoe was aware of the significance of clothing as a sign of status and prestige. Many of the writings of that time refer to Moshoeshoe's outfits.
The blanket was described as a “Beautiful wrapper made of light blue pilot cloth, heavy and hairy”, and Moshoeshoe was delighted with the gift and wore it over his shoulders like a poncho in a way not far removed from the way traditional animal skin mantles (“karosses” / “cloaks”) were worn by the Basotho.
This was the birth of the blanket wearing tradition.
Moshoeshoe's longing for the exotic and the wearing of his blanket gift more than likely helped in the acceptance of the “strange and foreign”. Moshoeshoe was likely a trendsetter or in today's terms an influencer to his people.
It was a gift to the king, a gesture of goodwill, but welcomed and embraced. Most significantly though, this European bed blanket gift was adapted by the Basotho as a wearing blanket, fitting the blanket into the Basotho culture.
You could accept that the way Moshoeshoe wore the gift blanket like a poncho, was as natural to him as putting on a skin kaross, but since the blanket was a material item of western culture meant for sleeping under, it was pivotal acculturation.
Today, the blanket distinguishes the Basotho nation from all other ethnic groups in Southern Africa, none of which have developed the blanket as an item of everyday wear and significance to the same degree as the Basotho people.
The prominence of the wearing blanket to the Basotho was further catapulted by natural disasters, such as the rinderpest (cattle plague) of 1897, which greatly depleted the wild and domestic animals of Lesotho. Also, The sudden population growth of the Basotho after European contact and protection added to the pressure to explore and establish alternative covering. It stands to reason that over time the Basotho increasingly substituted the skin “kaross” for the readily available blanket.
The basic construction and aesthetics of the blanket in Lesotho evolved from a basic white 5ft sq blanket, made of reconstituted yarn from old woolen coats or clothing to patterned blankets made on box looms or check pattern blankets made on dobby looms. Over time evolving to the cherished blanket of today.
The prominence and demand for the Basotho blanket in the late 19th century exploded. Frasers department store, along with other traders, Wormald & Walker (manufacturers of blankets in England) produced a patchwork blanket in the late 1880s using two Jacquard looms. This was a forerunner of the patterned of today blankets and the new design made the blanket such a status symbol that the quality of materials had to be improved.
A fine quality rug, known as the "Austrian blanket" became instrumental as a point of reference for the manufacturers, which was adopted so enthusiastically by the Basotho that in 1897 a deluxe version was produced, and called the “Victoria”, in honor of the Jubilee Year of Queen Victoria (1887). This exclusive label later became and remained the cherished “Victoria England” brand, ensuring that the high regard in Lesotho of the Queen and England remained entrenched.
Aside from its construction and aesthetics, the marvel of the Basotho blanket lies in its deep-rooted meaning to the Basotho people and that it became interwoven into the fabric of the Basotho nation's culture.
The blanket transcends its functional (yet pivotal) use as a form of protection against the elements and extends boldly into symbolic virtues that celebrate nationality and rites of passage.
The Basotho people had accepted, embraced, and transformed a gift, a gesture, of centuries ago, into something quite magnificent, unlike any other nation.
Revered by traveler and journalist alike, Lesotho or the Basotho blanket has been affectionately referenced as
When, where, and why the blanket is worn, carry nuances that elude the uninformed. The inherent feeling for uniformity is satisfied, with enough variation in the blankets to point to the status of a person. The excitement generated by forming part of a visually recognizable group at time surpasses the meanings which were previously traditionally attached to the blanket.
New significance is now added to the existing symbolism when the blanket is donned. It makes a statement to fellow Basotho and also the world outside; a statement of nationality and the pride of being a Mosotho (a Basotho person).
The ingenuity of the creation of the Basotho blanket is unique. That certain names, designs, and colors have certain symbolic meanings that are unobtrusively decoded by wearers. Great changes in design and manufacturing have proven futile in the past. This indicates the sensitive manner in which the blanket trade needs to be handled, which indeed transcends typical commercial purpose and use.
The Basotho blanket is worn in many different circumstances. The most humble surroundings, as well as in the most important places.
The Basotho feel that “appearing in a blanket adds gravity, elegance and a certain symbolism to the event”. It is said that when wearing a blanket, a person should walk slowly and graciously.
When hard work is expected, the blanket is either discarded or doubled up and hung over one shoulder by men. Men also fasten the blanket on the right shoulder, leaving the right arm free for movement or action. Conversely, women fasten the blanket in the front.
Traditionally, women carry their babies on their backs, a way of caring for the young. For this task, at least two shawls are used, one to fasten her child to her body and the other covering her child and her shoulders.
There are further significance and protocol contained in the correct wearing of blankets, such as:
A blanket worn by a Basotho reveals a diversity of information to members of the community, and in fact, touches every aspect of the life cycle.
Entrenched in the nation is the motto “Kobo ke bophelo”, which means “The blanket is life”, and which finds its way quite vividly in rich symbolism and ritual.
Traditional wedding ceremonies: A young bride will wear a blanket wrapped around her hips to stay warm. Warmth is typically associated with fermentation in the making of beer, or fertilization.
At birth, the child is wrapped in a special blanket, which blanket later is used to tie the baby to the mother’s back, which works to strengthen the bond between mother and child.
Basotho Blanket rites of passage
During Basotho rites of passage, a young boy will wear a blanket before his initiation into manhood and a different blanket after, as proof that he has reached manhood in the Basotho culture. The wearing of this blanket, apart from its utility purpose, symbolizes emergence from the status of boyhood to that of manhood.
Basotho Blanket in wedding and marriage
As a gesture of union, typically how a Westerner would present an engagement ring to his bride-to-be, a husband would present his bride with a wedding blanket. The blanket may also form part of “bohali”, the gifts given to the bride’s parents as part of the agreement or union of marriage between families.
Basotho Blankets are used extensively in celebrations of all types, from small get-togethers among friends to the coronation of a king. The Basotho are equally as majestic and rich in meaning as the simple gesture of gifting a person a Basotho blanket.
Every good wish, be it for health, peace, or in the preparation for rites of passage Basotho blankets are bestowed and celebrated
Death and funerals
Even in death, it is customary to wrap the deceased in a blanket as a gesture of warmth. The metaphorical use of the blanket as the symbolism of warmth, security, peace, or pleasantness, “maybe in essence only understandable to the Basotho”. Even if not fully understood, it is impossible not to take notice of its beautiful symbolism.
Basotho Blankets in public life
On national and public stages, the Basotho blanket is often worn by dignitaries and public speakers.
Memorable and historic moments often are celebrated in the special design or gifting of a blanket.
Such moments include the visit of Pope John Paul II to Lesotho in 1988 (“Katelo ea Morena Papa”), which visit was commemorated with a blanket gift and which blanket resides today in the Vatican in Rome.
In 1989 the historical event of King Moshoeshoe II installing his heir, Prince Letsie III, emphasized the visibility of the blanket as “thousands of Basotho, wearing their traditional blankets”, gathered to see this memorable event.
During the mid-1980s King Moshoeshoe II expressed his concern of the Basotho nation becoming more westernized and pointed to an old Victoria England design, which blanket was no longer on the market at the time. It was decided to revive production and the blanket became the “Malekabe” of today, which signi.es “flames” or “fire”. Only years after, when Queen Mmamohato showcased the blanket on many public occasions did it become popular.
The close and cherished relationship between the Royal Family of Lesotho and the Basotho blanket manufacturer has been in existence for many decades, and still, today remains very much intact. Considered a mentor, Queen Mmamohato was often visited and consulted at the Royal Residence in Matsieng, and so blanket designs and developments were typically discussed. It is recalled with fond memories that the blanket for the Royal wedding of His Majesty King Letsie III in the year 2000 was designed with Queen Mmamohato in the heart of the Royal Residence. In tribute to Queen Mmamohoto, the “Marona” was later created, “Marona” meaning“Mother of All”.
As traders played a key role during the birth of the Basotho blanket in the 19th century, they are still very much integral to the distribution and accessibility of the blanket, and even at times party to new blanket designs. As such, the “Moshoeshoe” blanket was created by Mme Libusing Titi from Maseru and launched in March to coincide with Moshoeshoe Day, celebrated on 11th March.
The“Moshoeshoe” blanket features the icon of King Moshoeshoe I, founder of the nation, the Qiloane Mountain, and the Basotho Shield. The center of the blanket showcases an arrangement of the Basotho Shields which forms, at its center, the Victoria Cross, as a gesture of tribute also to Queen Victoria, who likewise played a treasured role in the history of Lesotho.
The “Linare” was created by Motsamai Moloko, originally from Leribe in Lesotho. The iconic Buffalo features boldly on the blanket and signi.es the traditional symbol of Leribe. Furthermore, its colors of black and peacock, on the back of natural over-stripes, display the colors of Leribe.
The“Linare” was developed for the celebration of the birthday of King Letsie III in Leribe during 2005. As such, a unique blanket is created for each unique area where the birthday of His Majesty is annually celebrated on 17th July.
New series of stamps was released in 1990, which underlined the importance of the blanket in the public life of the Basotho.
Blankets also feature strongly on most of the posters and postcards of the Lesotho Tourist Board.
An iconic blanket was developed after World War II, designed to honor the British and Allied Forces who fought in the war, and in memory of the Basotho's who lost their lives. It deeply celebrates bravery, power, and conquest. The blanket, called “Badges of the Brave”, depicts thirteen iconic and meaningful emblems associated with the brave Forces.
The British Royal visit in 1947 emanated in a symbol of the crown appearing in the blankets, which reenacted a certain touch of royalty in the wearer. The acceptability of these blankets that ensued illustrates a traditional love, admiration, and adherence towards England.
It is believed that “because the blanket is so intertwined with the Basotho way of life, a Mosotho dressed in a blanket has become synonymous with Lesotho”. It is said that “today the Basotho cannot go without the blanket”. At times, it's expected of him to appear in a suit, but at other times he must appear in a blanket as well as his western clothing.
Unique names and designs have been carved into Basotho heritage over more than a century, and the collaborative ingenuity, therefore, continues as vividly as ever.
Although the blanket had an identity much earlier on, it is with the present flourishing of Lesotho nationalism that this identity has now been cemented in Basotho culture.
The prediction of the Basotho people that the “blanket will not stop” has come true. The entrenchment of the blanket into the everyday life of the Basotho seems to be a fact as it is interwoven with every aspect of the social and public lives of its wearers.
It cannot be denied that the blanket has, through a process of evolution, become a tradition in itself and an indicator of Basotho identity and nationality.
May the beauty, love, and meaning of the Basotho blanket live on. History and indeed the Basotho people say it will.
Thula Tula is the proud custodian and licensed U.S distributor of the Basotho Heritage Blanket.
The article has been written with central reference to, and extracts of, a research document, “THE BASOTHO BLANKET, BORROWED BUT TRADITIONAL”, written by Myrtle Karstel for the National Museum Bloemfontein and published in 1995.
The article also includes central input from Tom Kritzinger, who has been instrumental in the development and prestige of the Basotho Heritage Blanket over several decades.
Other contributors include:
The Other, Getaway Magazine, Joël Tettamanti