Witney Blanket Project website logo Witney Blanket Project website logo

What is a Witney blanket?

The obvious answer to this question is 'a blanket made in Witney' but the matter is rather more complicated than that: blankets and blanketing were made in Witney, Oxfordshire, for several hundred years and during that time very many different sizes, patterns, qualities, colours, materials and methods were used to make them. Blankets were not made by a single company or business but by lots of separate individuals and firms over the years. In turn these had a broad range of clients and customers that put them to lots of different uses. 'A Witney blanket' meant different things to different people and its meaning also changed over time.

Label from a 'Witnedown' blanket made by Smith and Philips'.
Label from a 'Witnedown' blanket made by Smith and Philips'.
One definition, taken from a 1950s encyclopaedia, describes three types of wool blanket of which the finest quality is described as:

'the raised blankets of the Witney type, in which a soft spun yarn and long fibred weft is employed. In the finishing process of the Witney blanket the fibres are raised to form a fleecy pile on the surface so retaining its warmth properties' [1].

This is often what people mean when they refer to 'Witney blankets'. Many people also use the term 'Witney blanket' to refer to the point blankets that were traded through the Hudson Bay Company to North America, because they are one of the most famous Witney products.

Here is some further information that may help to explain what 'Witney blanket' has meant at different times:

  • During the Middle Ages 'blanquette' or 'blanket' was more of a general term used to describe a particular type of white woollen broadcloth, not just a name for bed coverings or a specific product. This definition seems to have persisted, as much later on in 1844 one description of 'Witney blanket' is given simply as: 'A heavy cloth produced at Witney and used for men's overcoats'.

  • Witney did not really specialize in or become famous for blankets until the early 17th century. Before this time its main trade was undyed broadcloth (in common with many other weaving industries in the country at that time). This was a kind of coarse, heavy woollen cloth made from fell wool and although it was commonly known as 'blanketing' many other things apart from blankets were made from it. It had warmth, weight and water repellent qualities that made it very useful for clothing such as coats and petticoats. In 1716 John Gay referred to this in his poem 'Trivia':

  • True Witney Broad-cloth with its Shag unshorn,
    Unpierc'd is in the lashing Tempest worn

  • As Witney's fame for making blankets gradually increased a 'Witney blanket' came to mean not only those made in Witney, but also any blanket of the particular soft, fleecy, good quality type that Witney was famous for, even if they were made in Yorkshire! The Witney name carried with it an implication of quality.

  • Label from a Smith and Philips' blanket produced for a client.
    Label from a Smith and Philips' blanket produced for a client.
    It was not until 1908 that it became an acknowledged legal requirement that any blanket labelled (or 'tabbed') with the Witney name had to be made in the Witney area. Before this, blankets made in several northern mills were labelled as 'Witneys' or 'Yorkshire Witneys' so that they could take advantage of the good reputation that Witney blankets held. An early trades descriptions act had been passed in 1887, known as the Merchandise Marks Act, but it wasn't until twenty years later that blanket makers in Witney found it necessary to make use of this and contest their case in law, in order to protect their good name. They successfully brought their case against Rylands and Sons, a Manchester wholesaler, for 'selling blankets with a false description applied'. After this manufacturers outside the town had to give up using the Witney name but some, such as James Walker and Co. of Yorkshire, were not to be beaten and moved business premises to the town so they could include real Witney blankets in their product ranges.

  • 1960s or 1970s Witney Blanket Company Ltd label for a wool and nylon blend blanket.
    1960s or 1970s Witney Blanket Company Ltd label for a wool and nylon blend blanket.
    The way of making of Witney blankets and blanketing gradually changed from a cottage industry where the master weavers employed people in their own homes to factory production where many processes were automated and people worked in shifts. One thing that did not change for hundreds of years, though, was the use of wool to make the blankets: a Witney blanket of whatever type or design would always have been made of wool. This changed after the Second World War when the development of synthetic fibres and new textile technologies began to be adopted in the Witney industry. For the first time a 'Witney blanket' might mean a product that was made up partly or entirely of man-made fibres and was not necessarily made on a traditional shuttle loom.

[1] Hammerton n.d.
Download audio file
Peter Baston, a former wool buyer for Marriott's and Early and Marriott Ltd, describes a sample of English wool and the different qualities he would look for in order to produce high quality blankets (76Kb).