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School of Self-Reliance

The hooded blanket coat of the Plains Indians
by Christopher Nyerges

(see the illustration at the bottom of the page)

     When I see a picture of a capote, it conjures up past images of the rugged Plains Indians surviving in the cold and wind. The capote (French for "cape") was commonly made from a wool trade blanket. Traditionally, the trade blankets were white blankets with one or more several bands of bright colors. Originally, the more bands of colors meant the thicker the blanket, and thus the more suitable it would be for colder temperatures. But as the years went on, capotes were made with any wool blankets that were available.

     When I realized that the Plains Indians made capotes because they were the epitome of simplicity, I figured that I could probably make one also. Using nearly all of one blanket, the capote looks like a hooded robe, akin to the robes worn by some monks. It is an ideal cold-weather survival garment, and it is easily made.

     The main pieces of the capote consist of the body (nearly the entire blanket wrapped around you), two arms, the hood, and the belt. Some good quality Pendleton blankets cost nearly $200 each, so I decided to shop around for used wool blankets. Eventually I located a man who sells good quality used wool blankets at the local flea markets, and I have purchased several blankets for about $15 each.

     To make a capote, you need a blanket, needle and thread, scissors, and your pattern. The thickness of the blanket and the color, pattern, etc. are all personal preferences. I highly recommend that you make your first capote with a used blanket -- even a military wool blanket which can often be had for under $10. Don't cut up an expensive Pendleton blanket until you've made a few capotes and you know what sort of problems you'll be dealing with. A large bed blanket works fine for the average adult. You'll be using nearly all of the blanket to make the capote.

     Anyone skilled at sewing could probably work up their own pattern jsut from looking at the garment. However, if you purchase our capote pattern, it comes with detailed instructions for seams, edges, and fine details.

     Rather than cut up the original pattern, I took a roll of butcher paper and traced the pattern pieces for my size, and then cut out one pattern on the butcher paper. You can also tape opened-up brown paper bags together, and then cut out your pattern on the brown paper.

     Before you do any cutting, study the pattern so it's clear to you what you'll be doing. Cut out the pattern pieces and lay them out on your blanket to make sure your blanket is adequate. All main pieces are made on a fold, so you begin by folding your blanket in half lengthwise. The pattern piece for the main body of the capote is, of course, one half of the body. You lay this pattern piece on the edge, and then cut it out. If you cut it carefully, you'll actually be able to try on this piece, minus the arms. If it fits you well, then proceed.

     You only need one pattern piece for both arms. You lay the piece on the fold of the blanket, and cut out one arm. You may need to refold your remaining piece of blanket to get the next piece on a fold. Once each arm is cut, you sew up each seam. Now you have two arms, which you sew onto the main body.

     Sew all seams on the inside so they don't show.

     Once your arms are on, your capote is nearly complete.

     Next, make the hood. Again, the hood pattern piece is one half of the hood because you will cut the fabric on a fold. Cut out the hood and sew up one end to create the hood. Next you sew it onto the next of the capote. If you wish, you can wear your capote at this stage. However, a few more pieces will be worth the effort.

     Cut some belt loops -- usually two -- and sew them onto the waist area of the capote. Then cut a long piece of the wool blanket about two inches thick for the belt. Many of the Indian people would also add fringe to the shoulders and they'd add a decorative tassle to the end of the hood.

     If you used a thick wool blanket, you should have no problem with the cut edges of the blanket losing threads. However, you may wish to hem all of the cut edges with a special piece of fabric designed specifically for this, and which you obtain at a fabric store. Any fine details that I have not mentioned are described in the pattern.

     I had looked at the pictures of capotes for some time before I had actually made one. My first one was made from cotton fabric, because I just wanted to discover what was involved. It was quite simple, and so far I have made two wool ones for myself (one lightweight and one heavyweight), and I have made three as gifts. I have used traditional white wool trade blankets with stripes and I have used solid colors.

     Here in Southern California, I found that the wool capote was too warm for everyday use, but, for hiking, I found it far superior to my "backpacker's coat" that I used to wear in the mountains. The capote is not bulky, and it allows free movement. It's comfortable and even somewhat fashionable. I found it exceptionally comfortable in the cold, largely because of its length -- down to about my knees. By contrast, I usually always feel cold around my waist with the shorter "regular" coats since many ride up when you lift your arms, and this exposes your waist area. The capote protects the waist area and the thighs, too.

     As with all garment-selections, the best size, length, fabric, & color must be considered carefully by the person who will wear the capote.

      I have worn my capote on the trail, and in the supermarkets. People in the supermarket often do a doubletake, but rarely ask about it -- probably due to that reasonable urban caution about talking to strangers. But on the trail, I have been asked about my capote many times.

     The capote is rich in history, it is simple to make, it is inexpensive, and it is far more functional than most of the bulky backpacking coats I have seen. Making one is an educational project that I believe you will find most enriching.