The small town Clarens lies nestled in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains. Although it is a well known tourist destination it hides a secret, found only by those who leave the centre of town and explore the outskirts.
On entering we were greeted by a lovely lady of at least 80 years old, standing behind a shop counter reminiscent of the 1950’s. She introduced herself as Minnie and invited us in.We were unceremoniously ushered into a back room where Gertie, her almost identical sister was waiting to tell us about the blankets that the shop sells and their history.
The shop was founded by the sisters’ father in the 1940’s and both of them have been working there since 1950.The Blanket Shop sells mainly traditional Basutho blankets. As Clarens is situated near the border between Lesotho and South Africa, the majority of their customers are the people from Lesotho who come here to buy their blankets. The Basutho blanket has a rich history interwoven with history dating from the time when South Africa and Lesotho were British Colonies.
Gertie spread out one blanket after the other on the counter and explained the meaning and origins with the ease of having done so for years.
According to legend, in 1860, a blanket was presented to the then King, (King Moshoeshoe I) by a Mr. Howel. The King was by all accounts quite taken with the blanket (“a handsome railway wrapper made of light blue pilot cloth, heavy and hairy”) and wore the blanket in preference to his then neglected traditional leopard skin karosses. At first only the royal family were allowed to wear the blankets, but soon ordinary people began wearing them too.
These traditional blankets differ from most modern blankets in that they are almost entirely made of wool (88% wool and 12% cotton), hence their rougher and firmer texture.The blankets are manufactured in Gauteng but all new designs have to be approved the royal family of Lesotho.
The visible stripes on the blankets are known as “pin-stripes”. Historical records indicate that these 1cm stripes originally came about as a weavers fault. Instead of correcting this fault, the manufacturer shipped them with the “pin-stripe” which subsequently became a traditional feature.
The Lesotho blanket plays an important role in the social and ceremonial life of the Basutho people. The way the blanket is worn as well as the design has meaning and a new blanket is used for each milestone in life. Read more here.
To this day the designs of the blankets have a distinct British influence. Gertie showed us the heart design influenced by Queen Victoria and the Sandringham design which contains symbols of the British armed forces .
My favourite was the spitfire on which if it is spread out one can recognise the shape of a spitfire aeroplane and the crown of the British empire.
The most popular design for everyday wear is the corncob design.This design symbolises fertility. The well known corncob, from which the main food of the Basutho people, pap is made, is the main focus of the blanket.
We spent a delightful hour visiting the shop browsing the various designs and colours of the blankets and listening to Gertie’s enthusiastic tales about the blankets. The shop also sells some ceramics from a local artist.
I trust that Gertie and Minnie will still be there when I visit Clarens again, as they and their shop add to the charm of this beautiful village.