Design & Make


by Brion Paul December 07, 2009


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.

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.

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)

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