The period between 1880 and 1930 is considered the golden age of the Native American trade blanket, and it was during this time that most of the classic patterns we cherish were first woven. The term "trade blanket" describes items that were initially manufactured for trade to tribes at established posts throughout the Western United States and Canada.
There were five American companies that dominated this market manufacturing blankets of pure wool: Buell Manufacturing Company, J. Capps and Sons, Oregon City Woolen Mills, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Racine Woolen Mills. Each company, while producing simlar patterns, had some distinguishing characteristics. Oregon City's designs were very intricate, for example, in contast to Capp's simpler blankets. By the end of World War II, however, all but Pendleton had closed their doors.
From the outset, Pendleton stood apart from other manufacturers, as it was established to deal solely with Native American trade and was the first company to utilize Native Americans as advisers in developing its designs. The Umatilla and Cayuse tribes were among Pendleton's initial customers, and for this reason, Pendleton originally set up shop on the Old Umatilla Reservation in Oregon.
As tourists began to take these pieces of functional art home as souvenirs of the American West, the blankets' desirability began to transcend Native American culture. Visitors were attracted to the vivid colors of the blankets -- greens, browns, tans, reds, blues, oranges and yellows -- all of which could be found in the Western landscapes and sky.
Although the earliest of these blankets were very basic, incorportating only blocks, rectangles and crosses, the introduction of the Jacquard loom in the early 1900's revolutionized the industry. Designed and developed in France in the mid-19th century, this loom allowed for much more intricate designs and the characteritsic zigzag patterns. The process also produces a weave that is beautiful on both sides, each mirroring the other. Joe Rawnsley, an early and gifted Pendleton designer, is credited with creativng patterns that took full advantage of that then-revolutionary process.
Today these original trade blankets have become sought-after collectibles for both their artistic and historical value. Designer Ralph Lauren has a very large collection of these original blankets, and extensive exhibits are also on display at many Western museums.