Canadian Fashion Connection – The HBC coat; A Blanket Statement

(Originally blogged September 17, 2010)

Painting by Cornelius Kreighoff, c. 1860, depicting Native hunter in a capote made from a blanket

Founded in 1670 by an English royal charter, the Hudson’s Bay Company received its name after the inland sea that gave access to the northern and central lands of North America. Initially, the company consisted of a few trading posts that bartered wool blankets, iron kettles and glass beads for fur pelts. Blankets were the most popular trade item and were often fashioned into winter clothing by the Natives and early European fur trappers and settlers. An early style of hooded wrap-around coat, called a capote, was closed with a long sash called a Ceinture fléchée (arrow sash), due to its woven arrow-like pattern.

In 1779 the size and weight of blankets began to be identified by a series of lines woven into the edge called points. A full line, or point, measured about 5 inches in length, and a half point, about 2½ inches. A one-point blanket measured approximately 2½ feet by 8 feet and weighed about 3 pounds (these narrow sizes were typically made into Capotes.) The largest point blankets today are a Queen size blanket at 6 points and King size blanket at 8 points, although these sizes were not available until the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. A common misconception is that the number of points represented the blanket’s value in the number of beaver pelts required for trade – it’s a great story but its not true. The earliest blankets were solid colours but in 1798 an order for a white blanket with stripes of red, blue, green, and yellow were placed with the English manufacturer, resulting in the identifiable Hudson’s Bay Company classic pattern blanket.

1965 version of the Mackinaw

A more tailored style of coat was created out of necessity when British Captain Charles Roberts was unable to procure winter coats for his troops stationed near Sault Ste Marie in 1811. He commissioned Native women to sew short, double-breasted coats from 3½ point HBC blankets for his 40 men. The coats became known as Mackinaws after the Michigan fort Robert’s men occupied the following year, during the War of 1812.

1922 advertisement

In 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company merged with its rival, the North West Company, expanding the company’s domain over a land that stretched from Alaska to Nunavut in the north and from Oregon to the Great Lakes in the south. Over the next century, the Hudson’s Bay Company transformed itself from a series of frontier trading posts into an urban department store chain. By 1922 commercially made HBC blanket coats were being made. The solid colour mid-thigh length coats were ideal for winter activities such as skiing and snowshoeing. Manufacturing shifted to Winnipeg from England by the 1930s and by the 1950s the multi-stripe had become the most popular Hudson’s Bay coat style as well as an internationally identifiable symbol of Canada.

Early 1920s Hudson's Bay blanket coat, from the collection of the Fashion History Museum

Label from early 1920s green wool blanket coat (see right)

Following the height of its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, sales for HBC coats began to decline. In 1981 HBC commissioned five Canadian designers to create updated versions of blanket coats. Alfred Sung, Pat McDonagh, Leo Chevalier, John Warden and Jean-Claude Poitras each came up with a design; only 19 copies were manufactured and sold of each style. The manufacture of HBC classic coat designs ceased in 2000 but in 2009 ‘The Bay’ (as it is now known) introduced a new product line based on the traditional multi-stripe blanket pattern. To promote the collection, ten Canadian fashion designers were invited to create one-of-a-kind coats from Hudson’s Bay Company Point Blankets. The ten designs from Comrags, Erdem Moralioglu, Harricana par Mariouche, Jeremy Laing, Klaxon Howl, Krane, Lida Baday, Pink Tartan, Smythe and Todd Lynn were displayed in Toronto and Vancouver and a special order of 100 jackets of the Smythe design were sold during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for $695. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be enough interest to bring back any of the classic coat designs and this symbol of Canada may soon fade away.

Click HERE if you want to know more about HBC blankets or coats.

11 thoughts on “Canadian Fashion Connection – The HBC coat; A Blanket Statement

  1. I have always been interested in the Hudson Bay Company, and hae several blankets, but have never been able to aquire a Hudson Bay Jacket which is still my goal.

      • Used ones sell quite well – if you aren’t able to list it on one of the online auction sites, then you could try putting it up for sale through Kijiji or Craigslist. Or sell it to a local antique store that deals in vintage textiles. It should find someone who is interested. Search online for the prices of used ones. I use that as a good estimate for value.

  2. Pingback: The French-Canadian Fur-Trapper Wizard Coat | A Woman A Day

  3. I have a HBC coat and am trying to determine its age. The tag is pre-bilingual, but post-All Wool. So my guess is somewhere between 1950 and 1970. Does anyone have any idea where I can find the info?

  4. I own one of the 19 HBC coats by Jean Claude Poitras -1981.
    I know they sold for around $800 back then. It was owned by Kay Lynch who was a Metis Senator and there is a letter from her grand daughter who sold it to me . There is also a picture of her wearing the coat with the Prime Minister.
    Would the cost hold it’s value or would it have increased in value…I wish to insure it and have no idea how to value it!

    • You can insure an item for any amount you want – it depends upon the premiums you want to pay. If you are looking for a replacement value then you need to hire a credible appraiser who does evaluations professionally and will sign their name to a document asserting the value, which includes a hands-on examination of the coat to assess condition. No responsible appraiser will give an evaluation without handling the item, nor will they do it for free. I would suggest you call your local museum and ask if they can recommend someone who can do a professional evaluation for you. I can do one for you if you are in the Cambridge area. My fee varies according to volume, but for a single item $50.00 for a written evaluation is my standard charge.

      • I shall be in touch! I would love to get it appraised by you as no one here was able to appraise it at my local Museum

  5. Do you know anyone who could make a custom coat out of an HBC blanket? I would be interested in buying such a coat.

    • Anyone who works as a tailor could do it, but I am guessing you want someone to make a replica of a capote? I would try a seamstress or seamster associated with a Canadian living museum – perhaps someone at Louisburg, or one of the forts? They are probably familiar with how they are made, and may be interested in making a bit of extra money on the side…

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