Modern meh dai's (also know as mei tais) are based on traditonal Chinese carriers. Meh dai is a popular modern spelling - but in the era I am convering mei tai or asian baby carrier (ABC), would have been the terms used.
This article covers the history of the meh dai in the western world from the early 2000's until around 2006. Meh Dai’s really took off at this time and were a popular carrier style.
Traditional Chinese Meh Dai
The traditional meh dai introduced to the western world was a simple square of fabric with four straps of equal length. Traditional Chinese baby carriers can be found in many variations as most minority groups have there own distinct style -some have only two straps for example, but these were not as well known. Traditional meh dai staps were genearally narrow and unpadded and the strap attatchment to the body was often horizontal. This is the style sold by the NMAA (Nursing Mothers Association Australia) in Australia since the 1960's. Mei Dai's were also occasionally sourced direct from China. In the US this traditional style was imported and sold on peppermint.com from the early 2000's one the first websites selling several styles of baby carrier.
"The Mei Tai ("may tie") is a traditional Chinese baby carrier that ties on. Young babies are carried on the front. Older babies are carried on the back. The Mei Tai seems to work best until 20 lbs (Comfort-wise, that is. It is plenty safe for heavier weights.) Straps each measure 3.75 wide and 39" long. The bottom straps are tied around the waist, then the top straps are brought over the shoulders and tied to the waist strap. The design is flexible enough that one can come up with various ways to tie it on."
Before the internet babywearing information would only have been available (rarely) in magazines, and through parenting groups like Le Leche Leauge (US) or The Nursing Mothers Association (Australia) or if you were lucky enough to have a friend or relative who knew how to use one and was willing to show you. In the early 2000's the growing popularity of the internet allowed information to be shared much more quickly and easily. This is a large part of the reason that meh dai's (and babywearing in general) become much more popular. The Babywearer the first popular internet forum devoted to babywearing launched in October 2003 and many other parenting forums had a section devoted to babywearing too. From the few meh dai's available to parents (almost unchanged from the tradional design) there was soon an explosion of online shops that were designing, sewing and selling meh dais with each vendor adding on their own twist.
These modern carriers had a wide variety of new features such as head supports, sleeping hoods, pockets, long padded or wrap style straps, mesh panels for hot weather, and cinchable bodies for easier use with different aged babies. Of course many of these features were really reinventions as elements of these are also found on some traditional asian style baby carriers. For more information about traditional meh dai's see this article.
Early US Made Meh dai's
The Packababy and The Baby Back Tie
Early small scale brands stayed fairly close to the traditional design with a few small differences. The Baby Back Tie and Packababy were both basic designs. Neither had any padding (though Packababy eventually made shoulder pads that would slide on)
The website for the Baby Back-Tie was launced in December 2002 and the Packababy's in July 2003. The Kozy carrier arrived later in 2003. The Packababy had a large body and the Baby Back Tie (BBT) a smaller one. The Packababy and Baby Back Tie were made with heavier fabrics and longer straps (a departure from the lightweight fabrics and short straps traditional mei tai’s tended to have) but they still had narrow straps.
Packababy (pictured to the right) had a unusal construction with wide cotton webbing straps crossed through the body and sewn to the outside. These carriers were made from sateen canvas with a layer of cotton on the main side. There's an interesting description of how the packababy was sewn here - https://web.archive.org/web/20040806201034/http://www.packababy.com/makingof.html
The Baby Back-Tie had four long straps meant to be tied traditionaly (straps tied to form one single knot in the front) but it was also pictured on the Baby Back-Tie website as tied in the newer style with back pack style tied shoulder straps and the waist strap tied around the waist
Baby Back Tie (Packababy pictured above)
In the US the first really popular meh dai was the Kozy, designed by Kelley Mason in late 2002, after a picture she saw on the Internet and she also took some inspiration from the Packababy and Baby Back Tie.
"The Kozy is a modern version of the Asian Mei Tai, and it was inspired by the carriers that proceeded it. I have added things to it to add in stabiIity and comfort but have been very cautious to keep the design true to the style...simple, compact, and comfy...I don't claim to have "invented" this carrier (hey, I am creative, not brilliant ;-) These types of Asian style carriers have been around for a long time. I simply added my own ideas to the more modern versions out there today with the hopes that perhaps I could offer you something a bit "different" that might not be offered in other "asian style" carriers.
The body of the Kozy was larger and taller than it's traditional counterparts, and the shoulder straps wider, longer, and padded (and with a pocket on the end). The waist straps were unpadded and angled. There was a curved top useful as a headrest, but no hood. The shoulder straps (like many early US mei tai’s) were not quite as long as those found on many meh dai’s today and were were designed to tied off under baby’s bum or across the back. For many years many of the mei tai’s made in the US after the Kozy came out were influenced by this design.
The Kozy was the first really sought after meh dai with a long waiting list at first and reselling quickly when listed on FSOT (For Sale or Trade) boards in the forums. Unlike the other more basic mei tai's which came before it was available with designer prints and luxurious optional extras (Bling Kozies) with silk panels, panels with beads and embroidery, and velveteen straps. There is at least one instance of a panel Kozy selling for $400 USD, way above the original retail price of $125 USD.
Design and Construcion
By the mid 2000's there were numerous small companies making and selling meh dai's (and often also ofering modern takes on other traditonal carriers too like podaegi's, hmongs, and onbuhimo).
The Kozy carrier was followed by popular brands like Ellaroo (2004) Freehand (2004), Sachi , Babyhawk, Mei Tai Baby, Napsack, Angelpack, and Kolamo (later bought by Ellaroo). CuddleN Carry, Equanimity Baby Mei Tai, Freehand (2004), Cat Bird Baby (2005). There were also many small brands made by work at home mums which tended to come and go quite quickly although there are a small number which evoled into larger well know brands.
These early brands added their own stamp to the traditional Chinese meh dai design. CuddleN Carry added a hood and wider straps, Sachi added leg padding. Babyhawk added a stiff and tall padded headrest and Happy Cruiser came up with a contoured body. Mei Tai Baby later added an adjustable base for their carrier with a drawstring and later with snaps (in 2005) and Catbird baby was working on a different adjustable system around the same time. These are all features still commonly found in many meh dai's today.
Mei Tai Baby
Body Shape and Construction
Traditonal meh dai's are generally quite square and early western meh dai's followed this pattern but soon evolved a variety of body shapes. Freehand for example had an unusual design with a padded rail across the top straight egde of the body and triangles attached to the bottom of the body for more leg support. Some carriers had a large body shape (like the Kozy) and were marketed for all ages but they could be tricky to use for a small baby without using some tweaks such as 'frogging' (tucking up) babies legs inside the carrier. (Carrying small babies legs in was much more common than it is today). Some companies soon evolved a narrower and sometimes shorter body to better accomodate smaller babies. Early Meh Dai's came in one size only at first but then some companies started to offer different sizes for different stages (usually baby and toddler sizes). Contoured (hourglass shaped) bodies were a popular shape - when the body is rolled to shorten the meh dai the body becomes narrower as well which allowed the carrier to be used across a wider age range.
Most early meh dai's were made from cotton canvas and decorated with a cotton print panel on the body but luxurious options were also available, like fancy panels made of silk, brocade, and even wool blends, and sometimes including embroidery. Eden (founded in 2005), made their carrier entirely from gorgeous cotton velveteen. Kolamo also offered 100% duponi silk carriers among their selection.
Ball Baby often had an all over pattern as the panel was usually made out of the same heavyweight fabric as the straps (usually home dec fabric) which was unique at the time when solid coloured straps were the norm.
The Zippy made be Mei Tai Baby offered interchangeable panels which zipped in. The body of this carrier was width adjustble too through tabs that snapped together at the base of the carrier.
You can see a great comparison of meh dai body shapes here -
Panelled designs were very popular where the print on the body was surrounded by a fabric 'frame'. This style is not often seen today.
Customs were one of the hallmarks of the early meh dai brands since many of them were made individually rather than mass produced. Mei Tai Baby and Baby Hawk had fun website features where you could match prints to different straps colours and see what your carrier would look like
Babyhawk with a panelled print and headrest
Hood and Headrests
Hoods didn't become popular until a little later so early meh dai's simply had differerent styles of headrests or just a slightly rounded or simply a straight top edge, sometimes with a bit of padding. The Kolamo's headrest was almost a hood - it was not a seperate piece but it could be folded down - (the Kolamo was later bought and produced by Ellaroo)
"I just didn't feel the previous rounded top was enough support for this head and finally I have found the answer to this! I have placed a unique fabric into the flat that provides structure, yet is still so soft! This special feature is not offered anywhere else and is a unique speciality of Kolamo"
Since most meh dai's didn't come with hoods one one mum came up with a universal hood desing that could slide on to any carrier (Monkey Pockets) but most people just got used to wearing without one.
Some more in depth geekery of the popular mei tai's available throughout the 2000's can be found here-
This thread has some info on even more brands - http://www.thebabywearer.com/forum/threads/what-is-your-favorite-mt-at-the-moment.83002/ (update links)
Strap Length and Tying Methods
Strap lengths changed over time. Traditional meh dai's generally were sewn with all four straps of the same length and straps were much shorter than the standard strap length seen today (as they were tied on with the twist and tie method rather than knots). You can see a demonstration of how traditional meh dai's are tied here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeAxzyZ7gL0
The first modern meh dai made with shoulder straps longer than the waist straps was the Packababy. The designer of the Packababy was inspired by the way woven baby wraps are tied and realized if all four straps were not all tied together the waist straps could be tied around the waist and then the shoulder straps tied separately- rucksack style or crossed over the chest and then knotted over then under baby’s legs or knotted behind babies' back. Video of an example here (with a Kozy meh dai) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3R9OclxvZOY
Strap lengths got longer and longer. At first meh dai's came with 152cm/60" straps and then a few makers started offering 179cm/70" straps and the standard length was soon in the 175-183cm/69-72" range. This length was the standard for quite a while until the Scandi meh dai style come along and meh dai shoulder strap length increased again (which better accomodated most sizes and a variety of tie off's). Most meh dai's made today now come with a standard of around 2m/80" long (with some companies offering even longer custom lengths).
When meh dai's had short straps as standard the straps were first crossed over the wearers back and then tied off in the middle of baby's back or just under the bum. As straps got longer they were brought back around the wearer's back to be tied off (or back to the front again if the straps were long enough) and often twisted or crossed again over baby's back first. Nowadays tying off or twisting over baby's mid back is not often used as it's no longer recommended (tying lower across baby's bum/nappy is preferred instead).
The first meh dai's tied 'lexi twist' appeared around this time. In a Lexie twists the shoulder straps were twisted together across babies' bum and back - this added some extra support and was a handy was to use up extra length.
Lexie twist in an Ellaroo
The idea of the Lexie Twist was borrowed from a wrapping variation (for woven baby wraps) and was well know by 2005.
Longer straps offered more possiblilities for tying off in a back carry too. These variations were often inspired by woven wrap finishs. The idea of the Tibetan tie appeared in the mid 2000's (borrowed from a traditional tying method adapted by woven wrap users)
To tie Tibetan the shoulder staps are tied back pack style and then the tails of the shoulder straps brought though. The straps are then tied together to finish or left to hang loose. You can see lots of strap tying variations here - http://beltwaybabywearers.blogspot.com/2011/09/mei-tai-tying-tips.html
Wrap Straps and Padded Waists
Wrap stap and wide strapped meh dai's appeared quite a while before the idea of wrap conversion carriers did. By the mid 2000's there were quite a few makers offering these styles. Popular wide strapped meh dai's available in 2006 include Napsack, Ball Baby, Happy Crusider, Cuddle N Carry, Octi Mei Tai, Maya Tie. Some lesser known brands were Honeybunch, Loveseat and Mei Tai Carrier
http://thebabywearer.com/forum/threads/wrap-like-straps-on-mt.60727/ and also this thread -
Before wide wrap like straps become available most meh dai's had padded straps around 4 inches/10cm wide or so. Then there were a handful of wide strap styles available which had an in between width of around 6-8 inches/15cm-20cm wide and were often double layered (e.g Ball Baby Overall, Cuddle N Carry). And there was also Napsack which had 'oar-shaped' straps, which was wider across the shoulder but narrower where it attached to the body.
The idea of an unpadded very wide unpadded single layer shoulder strap seems to have have been invented by the writer of a popular DIY pattern, called the Frankenkozy. The carrier was inspired by the Kozy carrier (hence the name) but with the addition of modified straps which mimicked the feel of a wraparound baby carrier.
One of the earliest commercially made wrap strap mei tai's was the Maya Tie which was based on the Frankenkozy (with the pattern owner's blessing). It had very wide 12"/30cm wrap like, unpadded shoulders, pleated where they met the body. The Octi Mei tai was another early example (also based on the Frankenkozy) with a slightly narrower width 8-11 inches/20-28cm and a different method of pleating where the straps met the body.
Octi Mei Tai
Some meh dai's had angled waist straps (Kozy, Sachi) and some straight (Ellaroo, Sachi, Babyhawk, Freehand). The angled straps can give a slightly better seat when wearing apron style. Today almost all meh dai's have a straight waist strap probably because it's easier to roll to reduce the height for smaller babies and because most waists are padded.
Almost all early meh dai's were designed to be worn apron style (where the carrier is tied on like an apron before putting baby in, which allows baby's bum sit below the waistband when worn). Waists were unpadded with the exception of the Kolamo, one of the first carriers to add a (lightly) padded waist strap. Meh dai's with structured or firmly padded waists designed to be worn non apron style, where baby's bum sits above the waistband to better transfer weight to the wearers hips, started to become more popular from around the mid 2000's (this waist style was commonly seen on the popular scandi style meh dai's) and they slowly overtook the unpadded waist mei tai's which are now fairly uncommon today.
Half buckles (meh dai's with a buckle waist) also appeared in the mid 2000's. The Mei Favorite made by Babies Beyond Borders seems to be one of the first commercially available. This carrier has a structured waist and 15cm/6" wide lightly padded shoulder straps.
Mei Favorite Half Buckle (Source: Pinterest)
The interest in meh dai's didn't just occur in the United States. Other countries soon had cottage industries of their own. It's harder to find the timeline for these small brands (as there isn't a much information about them that is easily accessible). Meh dai's started to become popular in other European countries in this period especially Scandinavia If you have any information about early mei tai's outside the United States. I would love to know, please let me know in the comment section below. Here is a list of some early brands I have come across - Nuzzli (UK), Sakura (Finland 2003), Cwitshi (Wales 2004), Bear Hug Baby (Australia 2006?) and Mother's Helper Piggie Pack (Canada 2004)
Colibri (a meh dai produced in Norway from 2005) became hightly sought after and a harbringer of the scandi meh dai craze.
The next big chance in meh dai design were the scandi mei tai's with their sturdily padded waists, long shoulder straps, hoods, luxury fabrics and highly sought after status. In the forums I start to find mentions of Scandi Style mei tai's from around late 2006 and they steadily increased in popularity.
There is gradually more chatter about full buckle carriers/soft structured carriers from around this time too as the choices and customization options for that style increased (before then the chatter is almost exclusively about meh dai's, onbuhimos and podaegis)
The history of Scandi meh dai's and the early history of wrap conversion carriers will be covered in another post. If you have any memories or photos of these send me a message, I would love to hear from you!
Babywearing: The Benefits and Beauty of This Ancient Tradition by Maria Blois, Hale Publishing, 2005, p150
Chinese Baby Carriers: A Hong Kong Tradition Now Gone Valery Garret Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society © 2001 Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch
I love to sew. I have five curious and active kids who keep me busy!