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Sunday, March 20, 2016


Hudson Bay blanket coat
photo by Steelbeard1 from Wikimedia Commons
Carolyn Mulford worked on five continents as a magazine editor and freelance writer before making the transition to fiction. She divides her time between her first love, historical novels, and her last love, mysteries. Her latest releases are Thunder Beneath My Feet, set during the devastating New Madrid earthquakes, Show Me the Ashes, the fourth book in her Show Me series. Learn more about Carolyn and her books at her website.

My teenager had to have a blanket coat. Nothing else would do for her.

Lots of young women felt that way last year when fall fashions arrived. But the blanket coats advertised in 2015 were ponchos or ruanas rather than the original hooded, calf-length wool coat. Worn by French-Canadian voyageurs from the late 1700s, the warm, durable garment spread rapidly among American fur trappers and Native Americans.

And it endured. Most fashions and textiles have changed drastically in 200 years, but the frontier blanket coats—particularly those made from the Hudson Bay Company’s white wool blanket with short red, yellow, green, and black stripes—lived into this century. Today those who value them for outdoor activities settle for used ones or buy the blanket and make their own.

My teenager, fifteen-year-old Betsy, wasn’t making a fashion statement in 1812. She needed the coat to survive a three-week trek from a mild climate into weather so cold that the Mississippi River froze from bank to bank.

Betsy is the resourceful, courageous protagonist of Thunder Beneath My Feet, a novel for tweens and teens set during the devastating earthquakes centered near New Madrid, Upper Louisiana (Missouri) Territory in 1811-1812. Weeks of quakes, severe aftershocks, and shakes destroyed homes, made the river run backwards, created lakes, and prompted most of the population to flee.

Betsy stayed on her family’s farm with her younger brother and four strangers until the shocks and shakes posed more danger than a 200-mile walk north.

I’d placed her in this historically accurate fix, so I had to find her a realistic way out. Her shawls definitely wouldn’t withstand the cold and snow. She couldn’t walk and work under the weight of the buffalo robe. She lacked the time and materials to make a wool-lined buckskin coat. That left the blanket coat, which she could also curl up in at night.

I’d seen the coats in photos and a museum, but my 4-H sewing projects hadn’t included making a coat of any kind. I remembered how frustrating it had been to put a sleeve in a blouse or a dress. At least these coats had no buttonholes to contend with. Instead a sash held the open front closed. Could Betsy make coats for herself and her little brother?

I went to Google for advice. To my surprise, links led me to information on making blanket coats, including the original French-Canadian capote (cape). One site said it took only three to five hours. A Californian who used a pattern to make one for winter hiking warns that he’d spent three days, part of that time practicing on an old blanket. Smart man. And he had no regrets.

Betsy had no pattern. She borrowed a blanket coat to figure out how to size it by measuring with a piece of yarn, cut the pieces with a knife and by tearing, and sewed together the loose-fitting garment. Ease of construction and warmth far outweighed such considerations as how it draped.

A traditional blanket coat has only five or six pieces. The major one is the body, made by cutting according to the wearer’s girth and height and folding that piece with the edges overlapping several inches at the front. Betsy would have overlapped folds on the shoulders and left a flap for the collar. The pointed hood, two pieces sewn together, attached to that. The hood had to be big enough to go over a skunk- or coon-skin cap.

A slit from each shoulder to under the armpit allowed her to insert the broad end of the raglan-style sleeves, ones long enough that she could turn down the cuffs to cover her mittened hands. She would have used a multipurpose rope rather than a sash to keep the front closed.

Making a blanket coat remains relatively simple today despite our concern for fashion. If you want to make a traditional or modified one, I recommend investing in a pattern rather than winging it as Betsy did.

Thunder Beneath My Feet
Shy, sensible fifteen-year-old Betsy takes charge of the family farm and her ten-year-old brother Johnnie when their mother rides south to bring her sick husband home to New Madrid, Missouri Territory. Four days later on December 16, 1811, powerful earthquakes destroy homes and trees, flood and poison the land, and turn the Mississippi into a river of death. Their neighbors flee the never-ending quakes. Betsy stays to wait for her parents, care for the animals, and find the family’s stolen money. She and Johnnie share a lean-to with four strangers—a 16-year-old French-Shawnee boy, a mute slave woman, a poor French tutor, and his elegant Spanish wife. Their secrets hold them there as the quakes and the cold threaten their lives.

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Avid Reader said...

This book is a great read for any age. I particularly liked the historic accuracy of the experiences of the locals, the terror of the original earthquake, the fear and response to the after shocks, and how they coped. I've researched making a blanket coat some and think a blanket coat is a tricky project. I sew a lot, but if I were to make one, I'd take Carolyn's advice and go with a pattern.

Angela Adams said...

As I read the blurb, I thought this book would be a great read/book report for 7th or 8th graders. Thanks for the post.

Maya Corrigan said...

When I read the book, which I enjoyed immensely, I wondered what a blanket coat was. Now I know! Thanks for providing the details about making one, Carolyn.

Carolyn Mulford said...

I'm glad someone who knows more about sewing than I do verifies that the blanket coat is a trickier project (at least if you want to wear it in public) than it may seem. Just cutting to get the stripes in the right place could be difficult.

I enjoyed researching such things as how to make blanket coats and snake oil, what songs the characters would sing, and who lived in the New Madrid area. Writing the book, I followed that old rule of knowing much more than I tell the readers, so I hope they will be intrigued but not burdened by the information woven into the story.

Joyce Campbell said...

Sewing by young people is coming back into fashion. I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising young reader doesn't research blanket coats and decide to make one for herself and become a trendsetter at her school. What a great statement for the book!

Carolyn Mulford said...

Quite possible, but they may choose to use a different blanket.