Who invented the blanket?

20Jan12

This here tomb is in St Stephen’s Church, Bristol, just off the city centre, a fabulously enigmatic place for all sorts of reasons, many of them to do with the Society of Merchant Venturers.

The tomb is nowt to do with the Venturers, though. It is generally thought to be the last resting place of a guy named Edmund Blanket, and of his wife, Mrs Blanket.

Local history enthusiasts will tell you of the local legend that Edmund Blanket invented, well, blankets.

Bristol’s most colourful Victorian newspaperman, Joseph Leech, wrote an extremely fanciful account of the blanket’s invention/discovery. In a story in Brief Romances from Bristol History (1884, a collection of what were originally articles in the Bristol Times) he imagined ‘Edward’ Blanket struggling to make his weaving business a success. One very cold night he and Mrs B were shivering in their bed covered only by a ‘camlet’ of goat hair. Then he had an idea; he went to his loom and took a length of woollen cloth he had been working on that day, and covered the bed with it. They slept snugly, and the following morning he told Mrs Blanket that he was going to go into the bed-covering business.

“My dearest dame,” said he, “I shall have the honour of giving a name to the article that will make my fortune and carry down my name to all future ages. Let others devote themselves to making cloth to keep them warm by day; be it my business henceforth to manufacture only that which will keep folks warm by night.”

Leech went on to call for an annual Blanket Day, in which Bristol would celebrate Mr Blanket’s most excellent discover/invention.

Of course the whole idea of the blanket being invented here is just a particularly bovine bit of local nominative determinism. The idiot and famously unimaginative ancestors leaping to a ridiculous conclusion, eh?

Well, yes, probably. But not definitely …

The words ‘blanket’ and ‘blanchette’ (plus assorted other medieval spellings) had been in use for at least 150 years before Edmund Blanket’s time. The Blanket family themselves might have got their name from being makers of this cloth, just as medieval blacksmiths acquired the surname Smith, and bakers became Bakers.

If you look closely enough, the idea of woollen bed-coverings being invented, or at least popularised, by a Bristolian is not completely ridiculous. It might, just might, have happened.

Only it wasn’t Edmund Blanket who did it. It was Thomas Blanket, who was Edmund’s brother, or possibly his father. Or maybe his son.

Weaving was medieval Bristol’s main industry, underpinning most of the town’s seaborne trade. It was tightly regulated by the guilds and the corporation to maintain the quality of the finished cloth and protect the interests of the weavers and associated trades.

King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377) started to change all that. He wanted the vast English cloth industry to be more profitable, all the better to tax it to pay for his wars. He restricted the wearing and importation of foreign cloth and the export from England of raw wool. He encouraged Flemish weavers to settle in England in order to build up the cloth industry. Some of them came to Bristol; the Blankets may have been Flemish themselves, or they may have brought in some of these foreign weavers.

In the late 1330s, Thomas Blanket set up several looms at his property in Tucker Street, just south of the Bristol Bridge. He was effectively setting up a factory, employing weavers rather than working as a self-employed artisan. Presumably his weavers hadn’t had to serve long apprenticeships in the traditional manner. The guilds and the Corporation didn’t like this and tried to put a stop to it.

Immediately, however, word came back from the King saying that Blanket was not to be impeded in any way:

“The said Thomas and the others who have chosen to work and make cloths of this sort, and also the workmen, should be protected and defended from injuries and improper exactions on that account. Order you, that you permit the said Thomas and the others who are willing to make cloths of this kind to cause machines to be erected in their own houses at their choice for the weaving and making cloths of this kind … “

The direct personal support of the king means Blanket was no mere clothier, but a very significant figure. The Corporation got the message and hurriedly performed a u-turn, and Thomas Blanket was made a local official in 1340. Blanket’s importance and royal support would have made him a well-known figure.

We don’t really know how people slept in the 14th century. Most poor people probably slept on the floor (perhaps on straw), fully or partially clothed, though getting completely naked to sleep was often favoured where possible as it helped get rid of the lice which infested most of our ancestors’ bodies.

The more prosperous classes owned beds, and may have slept in linen sheets under animal skins. Woollen cloth, meanwhile, was expensive stuff, produced by artisans … Until ruthless entrepreneurs like Thomas Blanket came along.

Blanket’s industrial production methods, however small they were by modern standards, may well have gone some way towards making woollen bed-coverings more affordable and fashionable. It’s possible that they became known by the name of the family who were making them.

There’s another intriguing scrap of circumstantial evidence from Witney in Oxfordshire. Witney was famous in the 19th and 20th centuries as the centre of Britain’s blanket industry. Until the duvet came along, almost everyone in Britain went to sleep under Witney blankets. Two separate 19th century histories of Witney both credit the invention of the blanket to “Thomas Blanket” or “Thomas à Blanket” of Bristol. (Giles, J.A.; History of Witney (J.R. Smith, London, 1852) and Monk, W.J.; History of Witney (J. Knight, Witney, 1894))

The good folk of Witney would have no reason to credit the main source of their prosperity to a Bristolian unless there was a strong local legend there, too.

So then, in summary: Few people, if any slept under woollen blankets until they became affordable and/or fashionable. Thomas Blanket’s industrial production methods would certainly have brought down the price of woollen cloth. He was a minor celebrity who was known throughout the land, and he was credited with inventing blankets not just in Bristol, but in the Oxfordshire village where their manufacture would become the main local industry.

Nope, we can’t yet definitively prove a Bristolian named Blanket invented woollen bedclothes. But I don’t think there’s any definitive proof that he didn’t either.

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2 Responses to “Who invented the blanket?”

  1. Well done Eugene! Very nicely put. Of course Tucker St was the street of the Toukers, the immigrant workers brought in to either (a)meet the expansion in the industry, (b) bring new expertise in Touking the cloth, or (c) – heaven forbid, keep the wage rates down.
    Can give you more if you want re the Templars involvement. Give me a call.
    Julian L-J

  2. 2 seren

    This well done 👍


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