A tradition of craftsmanship: Pendleton blankets
Oregon: Since opening in 1909, Pendleton Woolen Mills and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have worked closely together to create blankets with original, authentic designs.
The Bishop family, who opened and own the mills, have always made it a point to meet with tribes to discuss new artistic concepts. This warm, circular relationship between the mills and the tribes remains alive and strong today.
Bob Christnacht is the director of sales worldwide. He frequently travels to Eastern Oregon and the Southwest to meet tribal members and study their designs. Factors he considers are cross-cultural appeal, salability and historical or emotional resonance.
“I look for a story. We’re storytellers at Pendleton,” said Christnacht.
When new creations are accepted, Pendleton compensates the designer and adds the new blanket to the company’s lineup.
Pendleton blankets are made of sheep’s wool from Eastern Oregon, New Mexico and Montana. The raw wool is processed, woven and dyed by the Washougal Weaving Mill in Washington and the Pendleton Blanket Mill in Pendleton. From there, the finished product is sold to the public.
Of all Pendleton blankets sold across the world, 50% are purchased by American Indians because of the blankets’ immense cultural importance.
Tessie Williams, 80, is a tribal elder and close friend of the Bishop family. She said Pendleton blankets are a celebration of honor in the community.
“From each different design, there’s something that it honors,” she said.
As far back as she can remember, Tessie's family and friends have gifted blankets to each other at major events: births, graduations, weddings, ceremonies, medicine dances and even funerals, where many families wrap their loved ones in a woolen blanket.
Williams’s childhood was ripe with tribal tradition. At that time, many families lived in one home. Today reservation households have become more scattered, but the importance of the blankets remains as powerful as ever.
Round-Up is a major event for the Pendleton Woolen Mills. Held every September in Pendleton, Oregon, “we bring a large contingent to Round-Up each year. We bring customers and staff,” Christnacht said.
The company donates specially designed trophy blankets for two events: the Junior Indian Beauty Pageant and the Saturday night powwow dance competition.
The judges for the dance competition are elders who know the old steps and movements by heart. They present elegant prize blanket to the winners in several categories including Best Traditional War Dance, Best Straight War Dance and Best Swan Dance for the women. Each blanket is a top-quality piece of art.
“Every design that they put into a blanket portrays a lot of designs in coloring,” said Williams, who owns a small collection of Pendleton originals.
For her, along with members of the tribes, Pendleton blankets are more than simple woven wool; they represent a shared tradition many generations old.
Village © Gina Boltz
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