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.