Point blankets and North America
Point blankets are perhaps the Witney industry's most famous product. They were traded mainly with North America, where they came to have a cultural significance far beyond that of mere bed coverings.
The origins of points
Point blankets were so called because they had several short lines known as 'points' sewn or woven into one edge near a corner; the number of points on a blanket was intended to indicate its size and therefore its value . The blankets were always made from wool and had one or more 'headings', or bands of colour, at either end but were produced in a great variety of colours and patterns over the years.
Three and a half point blanket showing detail of the points.
Points were first used on blankets made for the domestic market in France during the 16th century; indeed the term 'point' is thought to come from the French verb 'empointer', meaning to make stitches on cloth. French traders had introduced the system to their blanket trade with North America by the 1690s. Blankets (typically of one to four points, in half-point steps) and other goods were traded with Native American peoples in exchange for a set number of beaver pelts, a fur in huge demand in Europe for the hat and clothing trade . The number of points on a blanket was not originally intended to indicate that it should be traded for the same number of pelts, but that was often how they came to be used. Half points were worth either half a beaver skin, or an imperfect one . The exchange rate of points-to-pelts varied from place to place and over time, however .
Three and a half point Witney blanket made by Early's.
The North American market
Many different groups of North American Native peoples prized point blankets for clothing and bedding because of their excellent insulating and water-repellent qualities. They were also boldly coloured and hard wearing without being too heavy. Colour was certainly an important factor for these discerning groups of consumers; different shades (and their intensity) often held spiritual meanings as well as acting as a personal or fashion statement. The manner of wearing a blanket could, according to tradition among some cultures, also denote status or a particular attitude or emotion of the wearer . Far from being just practical household items, blankets had an established wider religious and cultural significance in this part of the World.
Early's advertising sign showing a point blanket trading between
a Native American and an early merchant.
Later, point blankets became named items in the treaty agreements made between Native peoples and the American and Canadian governments when the Northwest Territories were formed in 1870. The original inhabitants of the territories were compelled to give up title to their lands and in return were supposed to receive areas of land for their sole use, hunting and fishing rights and annually paid benefits that included farming equipment, education services and blankets for each man, woman and child .
1970s advertising sign from Early's showing a hunter wearing a
capote coat made from a point blanket.
Point blankets were also valued by the many European settlers in North America. They are still popular there and are in demand as furnishings, collectors' items, gifts, souvenirs and for making into clothing as well as continuing to be a traditional source of warmth and comfort on the bed. Although no longer made in Witney they are still produced in quantity elsewhere and this has long been the case: in the past they have been made by many different firms in countries such as Canada, the Czech Republic, England, India, New Zealand and the USA.
Witney and the point blanket trade
Point blankets and their forerunners seem to have been produced in Witney since the 17th century. The historian Dr Plot described the trade in his essay 'The Natural History of Oxfordshire' of 1667:
'...of which Duffields and Blankets consists the chief Trade of
Witney. These Duffields, so called from a Town in Brabant, where
the Trade of them first began (whence it came to Colchester,
Braintry, etc. and so to Witney) otherwise called Shags, and by
the Merchants, Trucking-cloth; they make in pieces of about 30
yards long, and one Yard three-quarters broad, and dye them Red
or Blue, which are the Colours that best please the Indians of
Virginia and New-England, with whom the Merchants truck them for
Bever, and other Furrs of several Beasts, etc., the use they
have for them is to apparel themselves with them, their manner
being to tear them into Gowns of about two Yards long, thrusting
their Arms through two Holes made for that Purpose, and so
wrapping the rest about them as we our Loose-coats. Our
Merchants have abused them for many Years with so false Colours,
that they will not hold their Gloss above a Months Wear; but
there is an ingenious Person of Witney that has improved them
much of late, by fixing upon them a true Blue Dye, having an Eye
of Red, whereof as soon as the Indians shall be made sensible,
and the disturbances now amongst them over, no doubt the Trade
in those will be much advanced again' .
Witney had first supplied the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) with woven goods as early as 1681 but the town did not become a major provider to it until the 1730s, when James Empson started receiving regular HBC orders . One of the earliest definite records we have for the supply of point blankets comes in December 1779, when five hundred pairs of 'pointed' blankets were ordered by the HBC from the firm of Thomas Empson (James' son). The demand for points then seems to have increased rapidly until the fur trade reached its height in the early 19th century.
Witney blanket makers including the Collier, Early, Empson and Marriott families received the lion's share of orders for points from the HBC to such an extent that 'point blankets' and 'Witney blankets' became used interchangeably for many years, although other English manufacturers also supplied the company . Within the town there must have been competition among the blanket makers to secure the good custom of the HBC, not least because orders required that blankets were delivered between April and June so that ships could make their deliveries to North America unhindered by winter ice. In Witney this meant valuable employment during winter, which could be a thin time of the year: the home market decreed that summer was the busiest time for blanket making, in readiness for the increased demand during the colder months . Witney manufacturers came to develop a high level of mutual cooperation, however: small master weavers often undertook sub-contracting work to help out larger firms that had secured big orders, and in the early 19th century the Colliers shared orders with Edward Early, John Early and Sons and the Marriotts. From the 1820s until at least the middle of the century, the Colliers and John Early and Sons seem to have been joint contractors to the HBC, sharing orders almost equally .
Early's Witney Point blanket label showing the Native American
symbol they adopted for their point blankets.
Witney continued to supply the HBC with point blankets until the 1920s, when a rivalry seems to have developed between it and Early's. As well as supplying point blankets to the HBC, Early's had also begun marketing 'Genuine Indian Point Blankets' under their own label in Winnipeg in 1878 and supplying points to non-HBC outlets. Other British blanket manufacturers followed their example. This competition led to a series of threatened law suits by both companies in a struggle to gain control of the North American market for 'genuine' point blankets, a situation which was not resolved until 1949, when the two companies agreed terms out of court . Early's had changed from being a supplier for HBC to becoming their major competitor in the point blanket trade.
Women workers sewing points in by hand at Early's.
The tradition of making of points carried on in some Witney blanket firms right up until their demise. In 1976 a new commemorative line marking the bicentennial of the United States of America was bought out by Early's. Smith and Philips' of Bridge Street Mill also produced point blankets for the HBC during the 20th century.
A member of Early's staff seeing a roll of point blankets
through one of the final stages in the production process.