The Basotho Blanket is the characteristic daily dress of the Basotho, the peoples of Lesotho, a small country entirely landlocked by South Africa. These blankets act simultaneously as the brand identity of a nation, its cultural symbol, practical attire and the assimilation and then transformation of a colonial legacy.  

As is bound to be the case with such an iconic legacy, the origin story is somewhat confused by myth. While the common narrative claims that the first blanket was given as a gift from Queen Victoria in 1897 to King Lerotholi Letsie, who after draping it over his shoulders was followed in suit by his nation, historical accounts show that the Queen had never stepped foot on African soil, or that of any of her other colonies. 

The prevailing historical account states that the first blanket given for royal approval was to King Moshoeshoe I, the father of the Lesotho nation, by a trader in 1860. Seven years later when he asked Britain for protection against the encroaching settlers, which resulted in the 1868 declaration of Basutoland as a British Protectorate, he described it as Queen Victoria “spreading her blanket” of protection over his nation. Apparently blankets of this sort had commonly been sold by European traders in Southern Africa for quite some time by this point, but the approval by the king sparked mass adoption by his subjects.

Before the introduction of the British imported blankets, animal hides were mostly used for apparel in Southern Africa in the form of a kaross, but in the 1800s following an increase in population, decrease in cattle made worse by rinderpest, drought and famine, along with increased colonial influence and trade, the move to blankets was adopted quickly particularly so in the severe mountain climate of Lesotho. The first brand of Basotho blankets “Victoria England” was produced by the Wormald and Walker blanket mill of Yorkshire and was introduced in 1897. The original blankets featured leopard print designs, imitating the traditional skins that the king had traditionally worn. Although this original mill folded, the brand was taken over by AW Hainsworth who were also the manufacturers of the Point Blanket, which were similarly introduced to the Navaho Indians of North America but were adopted to a less iconic degree. These blankets were imported to Basutoland by companies such as Frasers LTD which was first set up in 1877 in Liphiring, by sons of a wool merchant from England and quickly expanded, cementing its position in the nations history. In the early 1990s Frasers was bought out by Aranda Textiles Mills in Randfontein, South Africa. The mill was originally founded in 1953 by three Italian brothers who’s mill had been destroyed by Nazi troops and relocated on the encouragement of South African soldiers who helped to liberate their town. Since the buyout of Fraser, Aranda took over many of their brands, designs and staff and has since been firmly established as the primary manufacturer and supplier of Basotho Blankets. Under a special royalties agreement they are also the manufacturers of the Victoria England brand, the royalties of which fund community development in Lesotho. 

Although its roots are colonial, the Basotho Blanket has been a long cemented as an icon synonymous with all aspects of the life and culture of the Basotho People, as exemplified in the common phrase: “Kobo ke bophelo, the blanket is life.” While they have never been produced in Lesotho itself, the distinguishing tribal blankets are an integral part of life in the cold “Mountain Kingdom”. As well as being used for daily wear, blankets are involved in symbolizing every phase of life and all rites of passage all of which feature special designs to signify the culture and occasion. At birth babies are welcomed into the world in blankets, they are worn through initiations, pregnancies, beer ceremonies, weddings, deaths and special editions are released to celebrate the births of successors and coronations of kings.  They are characterized by the use of various specific symbols, bold colour combinations and the characteristic pin stripe which runs vertically to symbolize growth and thus dictates how the blanket is worn. This 1cm ‘pinstripe’ was originally a weaving fault from the British mills but was popular among the market and was quickly worked into the design as a quintessential element which survived and flourished. 

The blanket designs feature a host of motifs all of which must receive approval from the royal family before entering manufacture. The most prestigious of the Basotho blankets are manufactured under the Seanamarena brand which was founded in the 1930s and means “to swear by the Chiefs”. This brand commonly features the motif of the Maize Cob which is the staple food of Lesotho and therefore signifies wealth and fertility. The Kharetsa design features motifs of the common Basotho icons of the hat and shield around the central spiral aloe, which is indigenous to the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho. The Victoria England brand often features the Pelo ea Morena design of crowns and hearts as a symbol of love and respect for the King or Chief. A range developed for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of independence features Spitfire airplanes in memorial of the Basotho squadron which supported the Royal Airforce in the British war. Another new range features Malekable, a design featuring flames which was introduced as a revival of a traditional design after the late king aired his concern for the designs becoming too modernised.

The various designs come in numerous colors and are usually quadrilaterally symmetrical and reversible so that the blanket can be draped as required. Originally they were woven in a 88% wool 12% cotton combination, making them durable and sturdy. They are now most commonly produced in a mix of 50% lambwool, 50% Dralon acrylic although the higher end ones are pure wool, with the top of the line being virgin wool from the lamb’s first shearing. The addition of acrylic makes them durable, warm, soft to the touch, more easily serviceable and more affordable. They are always 155cm x 165cm and weigh approximately 1.75kg. The size is perfectly suited to wearing draped as a garment, but they are also commonly used as bedding, rugs or for other domestic application. 

While the blankets hold a fixed position in tradition, they are also being promoted and reinterpreted by a young modern market. The Lesotho Winter Festival facilitated by the Alliance Francaise and sponsored by Aranda along with other stakeholders was initiated in 2016 and aims to promote traditional blanket wearing among the younger generation while simultaneously encouraging tourism to the nation. Several designers of both Basotho and South African descent are working with the their material and motifs in creating modern fashion apparel and accessories. In 2017 Louis Vuitton sparked a contentious discussion on cultural misappropriation when Basotho blanket designs heavily influenced their menswear collection without due credit. In the 2018 international blockbuster “Black Panther” a super hero was featured clad in a Basotho Blanket which immediately boosted international demand for the blanket. Although certain groups found this appropriation contentious, the award winning costume designer responsible, Ruth E. Carter, claims that she and her crew had travelled to Lesotho and gained permission from the Basotho people before incorporating its use in the film.

While the iconic Basotho Blanket has never been locally produced in the country itself, it is an example of how a colonial influence and legacy has been fully assimilated and claimed by a nation in creating a nationally synonymous icon. Similarly to how the Basotho maintained their autonomy from the British colonial power, the Kingdom adopted the British manufactured blankets in such a way that they retained their independent cultural identity. Rather than being seen as a threat of the erasure of local culture by the modern west, they material was fully assimilated, adapting it and enforcing their own standards of approval in a manner which served both the international suppliers as well as the local consumer which served to not only preserve their local autonomy and culture but enforcing it through the application of a powerful visual nation icon in the form of a beautiful and foremost practical product.

Reading List
Unsworth, A. 2017. “How the Basotho Blanket Became the Brand Identity of a Nation.” The Sunday Times. Online
Lesotho Blanketwrap. 2010. “The History of the Basotho Traditional Blanket.” Online
The Aranda Textile Mills website
Image credits
Featured Image: Badges of the Brave Blanket design by Aranda Mills
Top: Images from the series The horsemen of Semonkong by Thom Pierce
Bottom: Unknown Sources showing traditional and contemporary examples of the Basotho blanket
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