Apart from the stunning landscapes, the most striking thing about the Kingdom of Lesotho is the traditional Sotho clothing. Basotho blankets are a part of everyday life and can be seen all across the country. But the blankets are more than just a way to keep warm – they are woven into every part of Basotho culture.
Basotho blankets and Basotho culture in Lesotho
Lesotho is a tiny, land-locked country completely within the borders of South Africa. It is a former British protectorate, but gained independence over 50 years ago. Unlike most countries in Africa, the Kingdom of Lesotho has a nearly homogenous ethnic makeup, a fact to which the country’s lack of civil strife is attributed. It is also the reason that the traditions of the country have survived so long without significant change, and why even today, Basotho blankets and mokorotlos are a point of national pride.
Basotho or Lesotho – what’s the difference?
A quick bit of housekeeping – you are going to read “Basotho” and “Lesotho” (and “Sesotho”), so let’s clear up what each of these means, though in Lesotho they are often used interchangeably. Note that in all instances, the “th” is pronounced as a “t” (e.g. le-Soo-too).
Lesotho is the name of the country (the Kingdom of Lesotho).
Sotho can confusingly refer to the Sotho languages and cluster of Bantu speaking people (even if they speak Tswana, not Sotho).
Basotho (formerly Basuto) is both the name for the ethnic Bantu group in Lesotho and the former name of the country and its kingdoms (as early as the 19th century). It was also known as Basutoland. Mosotho is the singular word for a person from Lesotho.
Sesotho is the Bantu language of Lesotho (a Sotho language). Learn more about Southern Africa languages here.
The history of Basotho blankets – from birth to death
Blankets penetrate every bit of the country’s history. They have both cultural and historical significance, but also play a role in everyday life. No one tells the history of Basotho blankets like ‘Me Masetho in Semongkong. She has been sharing the history and use of blankets in Lesotho for over a decade and every visitor to the country should go see her and her blanket presentation in the mountains. If you’re interested in her presentation and collection (and you should be), you can set it up via the Semongkong Lodge.
Blankets date back to pre-civilization in Lesotho. They were traditionally made from only animal skins and are a part of Sotho life from birth to death. A newborn receives their first blanket before they are even born, for many events throughout their lives, and eventually will be buried in one.
The transition from animal skins as a traditional kaross to the textile blankets we see today is attributed to King Moshoeshoe I. The king was gifted a textile blanket that he began wearing on his shoulders in the late 19th century and the country quickly followed suit.
Occasions for Basotho blankets
An average household will have up to a dozen blankets. These have been acquired over the years, starting with a blanket given before birth. They are used as a gift for big events, but they play the biggest roles in birth, marriage and death.
Birth and puberty
Babies are received in a new blanket, gifted to the parents for the event. A new blanket ushers males into puberty and through their circumcision.
Sotho people have long believed in life after death, and so traditionally are buried with a blanket to keep them warm for the next life. They also are not buried laying down, but instead in a squatting position, covered with their blanket and with seeds and other important items needed for the next life in their hands. Though Basotho has widely adopted Christianity, this tradition remains.
Marriage in Lesotho is steeped in tradition, and surrounded by family. When a boy wants to marry a girl, he starts by talking to his parents. First, they will interview him to be sure that he is mature enough for marriage and is prepared to be a husband. Once they are happy with his maturity and his choice of bride, they will write a letter of request to her family. It will be delivered to her family by one or two male members of the boy’s family, dressed in their blankets.
Upon receiving the request, the future bride’s parents will go through the same process of interviewing her, ensuring she is prepared to be a wife and soon a mother. If they approve of her preparedness and of the boy, they decide as a family to accept his letter of request.
Once this request is accepted, the bride’s parents buy her a blanket. This blanket will be used at her wedding. The day the couple is to be married, they will arrive at the boy’s village before dawn. The girl will be surrounded by older, wise women from the village whose role it is to prepare her to be married.
Basotho blanket materials
Despite Lesotho having a long history of exporting wool and cotton, there is only a short history of using these materials in their blankets. Animal skins were the only material used until after the second world war. British Donald Fraser came to Lesotho and recognized potential to take the blanket culture and evolve it using materials already being exported. He brought designs and Basotho wool and cotton back to the UK and began production.
This is now how most Basotho blankets are made. While there are three classes of blankets, Sotho people emphasize that no one should be judged by their class of blanket.
1st and 2nd class blankets are both made from a 90% wool:10% cotton blend. 3rd class blankets are acrylic.
Basotho blanket designs
Where the blanket classes are more differentiated is in design – the higher the class, the more complex the design. For example, a third class blanket might have four cobs of corn featured; the second class version would have eight cobs and the first class has 16, intricately incorporated into the design.
The blanket designs are always reversible, with one side more colorful than the other. This is because the blankets are shared between husband and wife, so one side is feminine and the other masculine. You can always tell which is which because the feminine side is more colorful and brighter. It is culturally acceptable for men and women to wear either side, but typically they would only wear the “other” one if their side is dirty.
Basotho blanket manufacturing and sales
There are multiple Basotho blanket brands, but all except one are owned and run by Aranda in Randfontein, South Africa. The exception is Victoria England, which is still primarily in England. However, Aranda has a royalty agreement to manufacture Victoria England in South Africa as well.The blankets are more than just a way to keep warm – they are woven into every part of Basotho culture.Click To Tweet
Basotho blanket prices
If you are visiting Lesotho, a blanket is an excellent souvenir given their cultural relevance and heritage. These can be purchased in the country, in South Africa or online. You can expect to pay about $60-$150 for a proper heritage blanket. If you are interested in looking at them online, some are available on Amazon:
|Wool African||Seanamarena Chromatic||Victoria England|
How to wear a Basotho blanket
Basotho blankets are meant to be worn. They measure 155cm x 165cm, making them too small for beds. Their purpose is to be a garment, not a blanket as we would traditionally think.
Even as traditional dress is set aside for more Westernized clothing, Basotho people still wear the blankets on top. Regardless, they are worn over the shoulder and waist, or just over the waist. They are pinned at the right shoulder to keep it free and accessible.
Women will adjust the blanket around the back and waist to carry children on their back, or front, depending on the situation. Women also pin their blanket at the bosom, rather than the shoulder.
Basotho blankets in pop culture and controversy (Louis Vitton and Black Panther)
While the Basotho blanket is equated with the Kingdom of Lesotho, the style has made its way out of the country, to both controversy and praise.
Louis Vitton visited Lesotho and was inspired by the blankets. The designer used this inspiration in his 2017 menswear collection and it was met with cries of appropriation.
When “Black Panther” took the world by storm in 2018, people were quick to note the costume design and applaud its roots in Africa. There has been criticism of appropriation by Marvel, along with defense of the film’s use of African styles.
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Mokorotlos – Basotho hats
The second-most noticeable earmark of Basotho style after the blankets is the hats. The most commonly seen by outsiders is a conical hat with a knot at the top. A mokorotlo is so important to the country that it is on the Lesotho flag and license plates. The straw hats are made by women in the villages and are designed after the similarly conically shaped Mount Qiloane.
It is traditionally worn only by men, but in modern times there are female versions of the design.
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