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In style again, blankets blend old and new

For Linda Carpenter, a blanket is not just a blanket.

Carpenter, who works at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, collects Native American trade blankets and is fascinated with their designs and long history. The colorful patterns are displayed on the walls of her home, and her part-Cherokee daughter even wrapped herself in a blanket for her graduation ceremony at Dartmouth College, when she graduated with a certificate in Native American studies.

Far from being a utilitarian object, blankets of yesteryear were an integral part of Indian life, linked to births, marriages, and christening. Made from woven plant fibers, animal hide and fur, and then cotton and wool, the blankets were traded for other goods, including commercially made European blankets.

Today, blankets are often an afterthought, tossed over the sheets. But whether consumers realize it or not, they spend many of their nights with a blanket, "and there's a personal relationship of aesthetics as well as comfort and warmth," says Bob Christnacht of Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Pendleton, based in Portland, Ore., is one of the few remaining wool mills in America, and continues to make the popular Chief Joseph blanket, a pattern symbolizing strength and bravery, originally created in 1924.

The blanket is gaining a higher profile despite fluffy, puffy comforters being all the rage in the $7 billion home textile market.

Jennifer Marks, editor in chief of the trade magazine Home Textiles Today, says a flatter "top of the bed" profile is popular now, and blankets help create that look.

"Instead of comforters, consumers are using blankets as an alternative, along with quilts, coverlets, and bedspreads," said Marks.

With so many mind-boggling bedding options - duvets, sheets, throws, pillowcases, mattress covers - the definition of a blanket blurs, but typically a blanket is woven, knitted or stitch-knitted, or made by flocking fibers onto a polyurethane foam base, according to The Home Furnishing Trade Marketplace.

They're usually made of cotton, wool, or acrylic material, but the trendiest blankets try to be eco-friendly, constructed of bamboo, organic cotton, or the corn fiber Ingeo. And a recent breakthrough in fabric technology even includes silver as an antimicrobial agent that also has insulating properties.

New York blanket designer Patricia Feiwel, who has crafted blankets for Fieldcrest and Cannon, says natural fibers breathe more than synthetics, with cotton most commonly used for thermal blankets, typically made of a lightweight weave that includes air spaces for insulation.

Washable wools, another popular material, include merino lambswool, which provides excellent insulation. High-end luxury fabric features cashmere as well as baby alpaca wool, which comes in 28 natural colors, such as white, brown, gray, tan, and cream.

There are those, though, like Tracey Smith of Mendon, who prefer acrylic, in particular microfibers, for practicality and warmth.

Smith has multiple blankets in her home on a country road, with her favorite being a green acrylic throw on a couch where she sits and reads.

"I look for materials that are appealing to the eye and soft to the touch, the kind of texture that makes you want it wrapped around you," says Smith, who has also made numerous quilts.

Then there's Pendleton's queen-size Heirloom blanket, a hefty 5.5 pounds of virgin merino lambswool, edged with satin binding. Yes, this is your grandmother's blanket, the kind of cherished household staple worthy of being passed down to the next generation, providing both warmth and longevity.

"Now that's the kind of blanket you can have a relationship with," quips Pendleton's Christnacht.

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The details

n Electric blankets: The latest wire-free designs use a conductive tape; other new features boast of an ambient temperature control that adapts to changes in room temperature. Most electric blankets have dual-temperature controls, preheat buttons, auto shut-off, and multiple heat settings.

n Down blankets: These are similar to a down comforter but with less fill; they are usually made of a box-stitch construction, which keeps the down from shifting. Down blankets are lightweight but warm.

n Recycled fabric blankets: Eco-conscious blankets use recycled-content yarns that are already dyed and treated, so there is less chemical processing.

n Cotton blankets: Look for long-staple cottons, such as Pima cotton, which has longer "hair" and a softer feel.

n Wool blankets: Newer processes have created non-itchy, washable wool that does not shrink or stretch.

n Acrylic blankets: Synthetic fabrics do not breath as well as natural fabrics, but are cheaper and easier to care for.

n Blanket manufacturing: Most blankets are made overseas in China and India; the few remaining American makers are Pendleton, Faribault, and Sunbeam. Polartec LLC, formerly Malden Mills, makes Polartec blankets.

SOURCE: Home Textiles Today