Plain weave of canvas fabric.

Plain weave canvas detail.

Perhaps one of the more interesting facets of innovation, despite advances in technology and engineering, is the reliance on successes of yore. Nature’s unflagging way of providing the most effective solution to a design problem continues to amaze.

This conundrum has recently surfaced more and more in the mainstream, in relation to our shopping habits and reliance on the vilified plastic shopping bag. While synthetic blends, sometimes even recycled from plastic bags themselves, make up a large part of the available alternatives, the canvas bag’s simplicity and efficacy remains the most attractive solution, due in large part to the natural integrity and lineage of canvas itself.

Twill weave of denim.

Denim twill weave of a pair of jeans.

Canvas refers to a heavy-duty weave of fabric, a plain weave as opposed to a more complex weave, like denim. Duck canvas is a tighter, stronger weave, incorporating linen. All canvas can be measured by weight or through its reverse numerical system where a number ten canvas is the lightest and a number one, the heaviest.

Historically its use is tied to painting and dates back to the progression from artists utilizing wood surfaces for their work to canvas. Prior to cotton, hemp was used, with the likely etymology of the word canvas essentially deriving from cannabis.

Manufacturing canvas boxing punching bags in 1918. (Image by Shorpy)

A man sewing a canvas punching bag in 1918. (Image by Shorpy)

Over the years, the strength and versatility of its fabric weave lead to integration in a diverse smattering of industries. Waxed canvas found widespread use in the 1500s for sailing and by the 1700s, America’s oldest continuing company, J.E. Rhoads & Sons got its start making canvas conveyor belts for water mills.

Over time, the rarity of hemp, despite its superior strength, coupled with the corresponding price increase lead to a switch to linen canvas and eventually its current incarnation, cotton. A quintessentially American crop, cotton boasts a number of benefits; renewable, biodegradable, reusable, it ages well and in terms of decoration, it is canvas after all, and functions as quite a palette for silk-screened or embroidered designs.

Waxed canvas detail.

The sturdy fabric of waxed canvas.

While in recent history, canvas mainly served the outdoor camping, military and industrial fields, a bit of a canvas reassessment and revival has accompanied the contemporary ecological renaissance, with waxed canvas in particular enjoying a revival.  Again boasting a rich history, with sailors using linseed oil to keep them dry at sea, each fiber is coated in a wax treatment, often close guarded secret ingredients,  that  create a remarkably water resistant fabric that ages quite gracefully. As new and novel as technological innovations to old problems may be, the timelessness of a classic simply can’t be beat.

The Indianapolis Star canvas bag, 1972. (Photo by Shorpy)

Newspaper boy and his Indianapolis Star canvas bike bag, 1972. (Photo by Shorpy)

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6 Comments

  1. Posted March 22, 2010 at 8:49 AM | Permalink

    Interesting pieces on canvas – I'm starting a small company to manufacture canvas/waxed canvas 'bags': duffel, messenger, tote, utility, etc. in Minneapolis, MN. Website not yet up, but soon. Looking for people who want to field test prototypes.

  2. rosita tomic
    Posted March 13, 2013 at 12:37 PM | Permalink

    I was hoping I could purchase a few yards of the canvas fabric, shown in the 3rd. photo from the top of this page. It is exactly the weave pattern I need to do a reproduction ammunition bag for my son. He collects ww 1 rifles . Can you help ??

    Kind regards

    Rosita Tomic

  3. Posted June 6, 2014 at 7:01 AM | Permalink

    An interesting post on canvas. I'm a designer hoping to work with canvas for my tote bags. Sourcing the right material is the key…..

  4. alexredgrave
    Posted June 10, 2014 at 11:58 AM | Permalink

    It is indeed, Krishnaa Good luck with the sourcing.

  5. Sean Fairburn
    Posted February 14, 2015 at 7:42 PM | Permalink

    Happy to help test your Gear, as a Marine combat Vet and Cinematographer I am very excited to test New Gear and find the good in it to share with you.

  6. Posted May 20, 2015 at 11:23 AM | Permalink

    We stumbled over here by a different page and thought I should check things out.
    I like what I see so now i’m following you. Look forward to looking at your web page for a second time.

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