Comfort zone

Married to your mohair? Wedded to your wool? Nadine Botha explores why a blanket is the perfect partner for winter.

Most of us had a favourite blanket as a child. And whether it was called Blanky or Banky or Pinky or Lovey, it was supernatural. In seconds it morphed from blanket to teddy bear to tent to picnic to superhero cape to comforter. Being tied to our mother’s back was sublime, sleeping without it was unimaginable, and as for warding off the giant big-nose monsters…

Security blankets are for many of us the first inanimate object with which we create a relationship and find comfort in. Like Linus and his blanky in the Peanuts comic strip, dependence on these comfort objects can either evoke empathy or scorn in others.

Psychologists, however, regard them as a positive part of key developmental stages. Termed a ‘transitional object’, the security blanket eases us into independence from our mothers, and are said to facilitate learning as well as helping children adapt to new situations.

Recent research has also revealed that adults who have kept some form of comfort object (not necessarily a blanket) are more independent and better at dealing with stress. In Japan, many adults have traded up from blankies to robotic pets, while in the UK it is estimated that about 35% of adults still sleep with a teddy bear.

The blanket as comfort object is timeless. Weighted blankets are used in psychiatric care to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to autism, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. They provide deep pressure and are described as a ‘firm hug’.

Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort writes in her latest book, Fetishism in Fashion (win one of five copies by entering here), ‘Most babies are given a safety blanket that is meant to be a partner and protector, a cuddle to be cherished. Some people will hold on to that first bit of cloth for the remainder of their lives and will be very distressed when losing the cherished object. Therefore this first encounter with fibre and weave is responsible for many of our future encounters with fabric. We will continue to search for the same softness, a similar colour, an equal weight.’

A blanket as fetish object? Well, there’s no denying that wrapping yourself in a good blanket is a sensual experience and that, especially as adults, we often choose our blankets with as much care as we do our partners. We do, after all, have to sleep with it.

What makes a good bedmate? Natural, manmade or blended? Cotton, wool, mohair, merino, polyester or nylon? What about allergies? Matted, woven, knitted, felted or fleeced? Will it get too hot? Handmade or machine produced? What about microfibre and, even, electric? With the range of options on the market today, you should be able to find whatever you desire. You can even find one with sleeves, called a ‘slanket’ – not that it’s advisable to leave the house wearing a sleeved blanket.

If you’re having a Linus day and can’t get by without your blanket, rather take your cue from Louis Vuitton. Developing the hipster oversized scarf trend to its supersized conclusion, swanky men and women were seen wearing blankets across their shoulders and around their necks during the European winter. However, with Louis Vuitton’s blanky going for US$1 260 (about R12 600), it’s not likely to take off here any time soon.

Mzansi is the original home of blanket fashion. Many African people use blankets as cultural identifiers. Checked Masai blankets are widely known, and Zulu and Xhosa people also make use of blankets during initiation ceremonies and other rituals. The Basotho people in Lesotho and the Free State wear their tribal blankets throughout the year.

Deeply embedded in the Basotho culture, blankets are differentiated through striking colours and motifs, which indicate special occasions and social status. Originally produced in Britain, the blankets are now produced locally based on the patterns and colours integrated by the Basotho. To this day, the blankets are still made of 90% wool and 10% cotton, making them fire and rain resistant. Shnu Tribal & Basotho Blankets produce beautiful heirloom blankets, with royalties going to the Basotho nation.

Breathing new life into traditional blankets is young fashion designer Thabo Makhetha. Born in Lesotho and now based in Port Elizabeth, she showed a striking range of clothes and accessories made from Basotho blankets at this year’s Design Indaba Expo.

Laduma Ngxokolo, who’s known for his Xhosa-themed Fair Isle knit jerseys, has also collaborated with mohair weaving company Hinterveld on a range of blankets inspired by African culture, from the corn blankets of the Sotho to the burnt orange blankets of the Xhosa and the colourful throws of the Ndebele.

Just a rectangular piece of cloth – that’s all a blanket entails. Native Americans leave a flaw in the weaving to let the soul out, while Nasa coats plastic with a metallic film to create space blankets that conserve body heat in emergencies. So simple, so versatile, so indispensable.

First published in iMagazine and VISI, 5 August 2013