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
Some vintage baby carriers from the past 100 years or so. These baby carriers were not as common and not always as ergonomic as the carriers in use today but there were certainly quite a variety! There were rigid structured carriers , improvised carriers, tandem carriers, hip seats, and soft structured carriers.
I came across lots of photos of carriers which look like little chairs and one which looks a little like a traditional cradleboard. Wearing baby on the back facing out seemed quite popular! Framed back packs were around too (at least from the 1960's).
Baby carrier 1945
A man feeds a piece of a doughnut an infant in a baby carrier at the Hog Farm Collective commune, , New Mexico, October 1, 1969.
Backpacks and Improvised Carriers
Some caregivers didn't even use a baby carrier just improvised with what they had - for example just popping baby in their bag or back pack.
Improvised baby carrier - 1926
Some carriers needed two people to use and some were not worn on the parent's body at all.
Baby carrier for couples - Jack Milford - 1937
Welsh Family waiting for visiting King George V 1935
Hip carriers seemed to be popular with a few brands available although they don't look particularly comfortable with their narrow shoulder straps. DIY patterns are found for these carriers too. There was at least one pattern available through a popular commercial pattern company and I found another which was available through mail order.
Cradleseat hip carrier (manufactured in London)
Christmas shopping - December 1968
Hip seat pattern 1970's
Bild-It-Yourself Club hip seat pattern.
There were also soft carriers similar to the narrow based carriers still sometimes found today and some with a more ergonomic wider seat. The Snugli was also around (the earlier versions are actually more ergonomic than later designs with their wide seat, comfortably padded shoulder straps and waist belt). The nursing mother's association (now the Australian Breastfeeding Association) were producing their Meh Tai carrier from the 1960's.
Narrow based carrier.
The Snugli was invented by an American nurse, patented in 1969. It had padded adjustable shoulder straps, a waist band and an internal infant harness and could also be used for older babies without using the harness. There are some great detailed pictures in this link here https://www.etsy.com/au/listing/599372091/vintage-soft-blue-cotton-corduroy-snugli?show_sold_out_detail=1
Soft Carrier (possibly DIY) from the Selma to Montgomery March 1965
Nursing Mother's meh tai 1960's
Do It Yourself
Sewing magazines and books also obsessionally offered DIY baby carrier patterns - some look quite comfortable like this meh dai like pattern from 1977.
Some patterns however look less so like this hip carrier. (Creative Sewing Things to Make For Children Jeanne Argent Studio Vista1979)
Do you have any vintage baby carrier photos to share. I would love to see!
Sources for images in this article can be found here - https://www.pinterest.com.au/hipababy/babywearing-history/
Hong Kong 1940's (source:https://collections.lib.uwm.edu/digital/collection/agsphoto/id/23471/rec/76)
The traditional Meh Dai (Mei Tai)
Mei tai/Mei dai/bei dai/ are transliterations of a Chinese word 背带 meaning ‘baby carrier’ A meh dai is comprised of a square or rectangular shape with a four straps (on the top and bottom). Chinese baby carriers are commonly also found with two top straps only but the western meh dai has been adapted from the version with four straps. Meh dai’s are used with both babies and toddlers and traditionally are mainly used to back carry. In western countries they are often used on the front and occasionally even for a hip carry (although this isn’t very common). There are similar carriers which are found in other parts of the world (eg parts of Africa) but it seems likely that the western mei tai was directly adapted from the Chinese version. This is explicitly stated by The Nursing Mother's Association when discussion the origin of their Meh Tai (Meh dai)
"For the last decade we have
advocated the use of a baby sling
similar vo the type in which
Asian women have carried their
babies lor centuries. The sling is
called a "meh-tai". which I
understand is Chinese for baby
The Canberra Times Wed 29 December 1976 page 2
When this style of carrier and similar ones from asian countries like podaegis/ hmong/nyia, and onbuminos became popular in the US in the early 2000’s they were lumped into the umbrella term Asian style Baby Carrier (ABC for short) . When reviews were fist set up at The Babywearer (the most popular online babywearing forum at the time) there were only categories for "traditional carriers" and for "soft pack carriers" and no separate category for 'mei tai'. However it was soon suggested that as these carriers were inspired by traditional Chinese carriers the term mei tai should be used to better reflect the carriers origins. More recently the spelling meh dai or bei dai has become popular as it more accurately reflects the pronunciation in the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of Chinese respectively.
Traditional Meh Dai’s
There was certainly variety in Chinese meh dais. There was variation in body shapes, hoods made of lattice work fabric strips, shoulder straps padded with plant material, headrests and even pockets! Carrier covers for cooler weather are found too Many traditional carriers are beautiful works of art, embellished with intricate embroidery with symbolic and cultural meaning (I highly recommend the book 'Bonding via Baby Carriers' – there are many wonderful Chinese baby carriers pictured).
Traditional Chinese meh dai’s were usually tied with the straps twisted at the chest and any excess tucked.
The traditional carriers used in Hong Kong had four Straps around 110cm each, tied at a knot at the chest. At the end of one or both shoulder straps the corners were folded over to the centre to form a pocket in which to carry a few coins. In the 19th and early 20th century The panel was quite large measuring up to 60cm. Gradually the overall size of the carrier became smaller during the 20th century. The carriers worn by the Cantonese and Hakka were about 25cm square. The shoulder and waist straps were a continuation of the top and bottom edges. The Hoklo and Tanka fishing people used carriers which were slightly smaller overall, longer straps were fixed diagonally to the four corners. Head supports were often attached. These were made of folded strips of cotton about Icm wide stitched at intervals to form a lattice square and attached to the top edge of the carrier to support the baby’s head. In the 1970’s it was usual to see most young children carried in these cloth carriers. Sadly By the early 2000’s the use of these traditional carriers has almost completely disappeared. Imported mass produced had mostly replaced them and most mothers tended to carry their children in front following Western fashion.
(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
Hong Kong 1957 https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/177188566575051521/
Children carrying siblings Hong Kong 1956 (source https://gwulo.com/atom/22127)
Western children in Hong Kong were usually carted around in prams. The exception to this was in the early's 1940's when Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese and many western families were interned in Stanley Camp. Traditional baby carriers were used by mothers and babies there.
The photo below is a sketch drawn in Stanley Camp of a traditional baby carrier in use. You can see a flat shot of the actual baby carrier pictured in this drawing in an article about a reunion of the camp inmates (the baby grew up and kept it!) Link to article https://gwulo.com/node/30240
Vintage Mei Tai (Meh Dai) - Pre Internet
Early western versions were quite close to the traditional Chinese ones. While there was quite a bit of variety in the traditional ones they generally they had thinner, unpadded, and shorter straps than the meh dai’s seen in western countries today.
Pre Internet - Early Commercially Produced Meh Dai’s
The meh dai seems to have first appeared in the west in Australia first in the 1960’s. Variations may have been around before this in other western countries but I haven’t found any other earlier commercially made examples so far.
There were very few commercially produced meh dai's or similar carriers with tied straps before the early 2000’s. The meh dai (Meh tai) sold be the nursing mothers association is the earliest example I have found. It was quite close to this traditional design with four relatively short straps designed to be tied at the chest by twisting all four straps together. The carrier was also fairly lightweight with thin straps (but the shoulder straps were padded unlike in a traditional carrier). This early version of the mei tai was designed and sold be the Australian Breastfeeding Association (then called the Nursing Monthers Association). It was sold as the Meh Tai and later a clip version which did up with buckles was designed.
The ABA meh tai had short straps and could be worn in the traditional way or in this variation. The lower straps were tied around the waist like an apron. Then the baby was held against your chest and the body of the sling pulled up over baby's back. The top straps went up over your shoulders, then crossed behind your back, then each should strap was tied onto the waist straps.
"In 1966, NMAA Founder Mary Paton and her family were featured in a Herald newspaper series about Melbourne families. This busy mum literally flew home from another engagement to meet with the reporter and photographer at her home. Whether by good luck or intention, Mary had her youngest child on her back in a Meh Tai and the photographer suggested she "do something" he could photograph her doing in this strange thing. Mary grabbed the vacuum cleaner and was thus captured for eternity cleaning the house wearing a smart dress and high heels - donned for her earlier engagement! The response from readers was amazing, contacting the newspaper asking where they could buy such a thing - and Mary quickly announced that NMAA made and sold them"
This photo was published by the Herald in 1967 to help publicise the Meh Tai and was used on the Meh Tai packaging and instruction sheet.
Another newspaper photo that appeared on the front of the Wagga Daily Advertiser February 1976.
Below in the Meh Tai instruction booklet from 1984.
Some more examples - produced later but still the same design.
Source: Google Images
There was also a similar style being sold by at least one US LaLeche Leaque group in the 1970’s.
'Later on, in 1975, my second child was born. By that time I was a member of LaLeche League and our little group was making a mai tai-type carrier out of soft denim with a Raggedy Ann or Raggedy Andy appliqued on the seat and selling them for $7. each to support our group! I so wish I had a photo or had kept it. It was so cute! And handy!
Instructions to DIY mei tai like carriers could be found in Family/ DIY/ Mother's magazines in the 60's,70's,80's, but overall information access to traditional baby carriers before the internet allowed an explosion of sharing is fairly rare.
One example can be found in this English pattern book. This design from 1979 is close the traditional in that is has 4 straps of equal length and the top straps are straight across rather than angled but it is being worn in more of a western style (straps are crossed and tied behind baby's bum rather than twisted together at the front)
I have a separate blog post about this pattern if you would like to learn more here.
The Comfey Carrier was likely another early meh dai although I couldn’t find a picture of it to confirm this. This carrier had no buckles, could be used for front and back carriers and included two long straps that the user would cross in back and tie in front. The carriers were around from at least 1989 and they were still being sold in 1997
"It's deceptively simple. It's made of washable cotton stretch velour, no buckles or anything to adjust. You just place the baby on it, bring part of the carrier up through her legs, tie it around her waist, then bring two long straps up over your shoulders, cross them in back or front depending on where the baby is and tie around your waist on the other side. Baby can be face in or out, front or back (4-ways) and (this is the best part) is so secure you can bend down to pick up something off the floor and s/he won't fall out. It's incredible comfortable to wear. I have a bad back and I could hike for hours with a 4-month old in this carrier.
Mei tai’s really took off around the early 2000’s probably at least partly due to the fact that the internet had made the sharing of information about different baby carrier options much easier. A cottage industry was soon born - many online shops were opened with each small company or hobbyist adding on their own distinct twist to the meh dai. These makers developed many of the features and fabrics we see on meh dai's today. There are now dozens of different brands of mei tai’s (some still available new and some no longer in production) with a wide variety of 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. More about this in part 2!
Chinese Style Baby Carriers in Hong Kong https://gwulo.com/node/38670
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
Chinese Style Baby Carriers in Hong Kong https://gwulo.com/node/38670
Information about the comfey carrier
https://www.facebook.com/groups/125491030798530/ (public group with some information about the ABA Meh Tai)
Beloved Burden: Baby-Wearing Around the World, 2015 by I.V van Hout (Editor)
Bonding Via Baby Carriers: The Art and Soul of the Miao and Dong People 2001 by Yu-Chiao Lin, Christi Lan Lin, and Brenda Liu Lan
threads from thebabywearer.com (you will need to join The Babywearer to read the posts)
Interesting discussion about the origin of the word 'mei tai' after one vendor tried to trademark it
How did you discover babywearing? What was your first carrier? Did you learn from a babywearing group or a friend or did you learn on your own? I would love to hear your story! You are welcome to share in the comments section below. Here's my story.
I only had a front pack with my first which I didn’t love so I only used it for a few months and I don't even have any photos (but it still counts right?). In 1999 there was no TheBabywearer.com and no Facebook so I didn’t have access to a lot of options. I wish I had have thought of making my own back then since my son would have loved being carried more! Unfortunately I didn't start making my own carriers until baby number three - I stopped sewing for a while as I found it frustrating to working in little pieces of time and being constantly interrupted (used to it now though!).
Before my second son was born I saw an ad in the back of a parenting magazine for a Hug a Bub stretchy wrap and a corduroy padded closed tail ring sling. So I bought both - through mail order! I loved both, the rings sling especially for it's very handy pocket, though in hindsight the ring sling was probably unsafe (a single layer of corduroy is not a sufficient weight bearing fabric).
I later added a Maya wrap (loved the fabric but it was the old unpadded style sized only for for the left shoulder so it was a bit tricky to switch shoulders when I wanted too). Also had a mesh ring sling which was almost impossible to get comfortable!
Thebabywearer.com started up around then and it was so great to know I wasn't the only babywearer around - (the local babywearing group didn’t start up till years later when my fifth child was a toddler and I wasn't babywearing much anymore). I learned a lot from The Babywearer forums and found the photo tutorials really useful especially when I became interested in other styles of carriers . And for a long time my internet was too slow to load any videos!
(Apologies for the quality of some of the photos which are from my photo album, some are before I got a digital camera and some I couldn't find the originals).
I wore him (mostly in the ring slings) until he was three or so.
When I had my third child (11 years ago) a few small baby wearing businesses had started up (mostly overseas ) so I bought a few slings to try and soon after also started sewing again taking advantage of some of the free patterns available on the internet. So with my daughter I had a combination of bought and handmade carriers, mostly ring slings, but also some mei tai's (meh dai's) and an ellaroo podaegi. Although she preferred the ring sling out of all of them so that's what I mostly used!
Once I discovered how comfortable unpadded ring slings were I never went back to my bulky commercially made padded ones. I experimented with a lot of different fabrics for ring slings. I made many but could not find one photo! A lot of them can be found in my ring sling patterns however. Check out my DIY page and the 'Bling for your Sling' pattern for pics.
I wore babies four and five in all kinds of carriers and thoroughly enjoyed exploring babywearing with them. With my fourth child I also discovered woven wraps. My second daughter was quite happy being carried in a mei tai/meh dai so she is the one who helped me develop my meh dai and half buckle designs. I made my first wrap conversion for her (from a striped BB Slen wrap scrap and a Didymos colourgrown waves I had dyed a lovely woodland brown).
My youngest is five now and is most likely finished being worn. I haven't worn him in a few months. Below is a full buckle I made for him - he's four in the photo. At five he still fits, he just prefers other forms of comforting now. I will miss babywearing!
The word 'podaegi' in English is usually used to mean a long rectangle of fabric with two long shoulder straps that tie around the carrier and the caregivers body. The narrow blanket podaegi seen in western countries is quite different in form and function than a traditional Korean podaegi. Narrow blankets podaegi's are a fairly recent introduction to western babywearing. The were first seen in the western world from the early 2000's. So where did this versatile carrier originate?
According to wikipedia 'Western interest in the podaegi style has led to new wrapping methods which do go over the shoulders, and to narrower "blankets". Variants of this shape include the Iu-Mienh/Hmong carrier and the Chinese bei bei. Iu-Mienh/Hmong carriers and bei beis are both customarily used with over-the-shoulder wrapping and often have stiff sections which help provide head support or block wind'.
Below is the information I have been able to find. I have looked at Chinese, Korean, and Hmong sources for the most accuracy when looking at how these carriers were used traditionally, where possible, and I have also looked at thebabywearer.com (and similar forums like Natural Mamas, Baby Centre, and Mothering) to see how these carriers were viewed by western babywearers. The Babywearer is a forum based in the United States (but has users from around the world). It was the most popular forum for babywearers before the advent of Facebook and was established in 2003.
If you know of any other resources or information about this topic I would love to hear from you!
A podaegi is a traditional carrier from Korea. It has two long straps and a blanket. The straps are sewn horizontally across the top (originally the belt would have been seperate). It is used as a torso carrier for back carrying.
Source: Google images
The Korean word 포대기 means 'baby carrier'. There are currently different ways of spelling the word since Korean words are transliterated into English. It is spelled podaegi, podegi, pod, podagi, etc. although Podaegi is the most common. An extensive article about the meaning and pronunciation of 'podaegi' can be found here https://www.uhboohbahbaby.com/2007/10/what-does-podae.html (Korean owned narrow blanket podaegi manufacturer) .
Other Styles of Korean Podaegi
In Korea other styles of podaegi have been developed although they are relatively modern. There is a wide blanket version made to go over the shoulders (which is a regular wide blanket podaegi but the straps are attached vertically rather than horizontally so made to go up over the shoulders, criss-cross at the chest and then the ends are wrapped around as normal)
Some regular wide blanket podaegis have the regular straight straps but also have extra detachable straps that go up over the shoulders. Chunei (buckle podaegi) are also found. There is a lot of innovation. I have even come across a podaegi with a waist belt. Today Korean manufacturers also sell narrow blanket podaegi. (These appeared later than the western version but this doesn't necessarily mean that was the source) Narrow blanket podaegi and similar carriers are called podaegi or 'modern podaegi' by Korean companies.
Chunei (buckle podaegi)
A korean made narrow blanket podaegi from ebay
Source: Google Images
How to Use a Podaegi:
traditional wide blanket:
(one shoulder variation)
Narrow Blanket Podaegi (straight straps)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ESMrsJRr-4 (one shoulder variation)
narrow blanket podaegi (angled straps)
The Hmong is a style of baby carrier traditional among the Hmong people of Southeast Asia. The Hmong are an ethnic group that resides mostly in Vietnam and Thailand. This style of carrier is also used by the lu-Mien people (also known as Iu-Mienh, Mienh, Mien, Lao Mien, Co, Yao, Dao, and Dzao) from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. These carriers are usually known as a Hmong style carrier but they are actually called Nyia or Dai Nyia. The name Dai Nyia comes from the Hmong term for these baby carriers --Daim Nyiam ev Menyuam. (https://hmongbabycarriers.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/blog-post.html)
Typically heavily embroidered and decorated, Hmongs are often collected for their artistic value as well as for their function as baby carriers. They are truly works of art.
There is a lot of symbolism in the designs found on Hmong/Nyia carriers. The embroidered motifs and bright colours are to disguise the baby (as a flower) so evil spirits will not lure the weak spirit of the baby away. The geometric patterns or ‘paths’ on the central panel keep the child’s soul from leaving the body and the bad spirits from getting close to the child (https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/115678 - Hmong baby carriers in Minnesota: a material culture study. Chaney, Mary Alice (2011))
Traditional Hmong carriers are completely handmade right down to growing the cotton the carrier is made from as well as looming yarn, raising silkworms and looming the silk, dyeing, and embroidery . Being highly skilled in these handicrafts makes a girl attractive to suitors. Hmong mothers cut off the straps of their babies' carrier as a keepsake when they are done with it and then sell (often reluctantly) the carrier itself. Keeping the straps symbolizes the preservation of the ties that connect mother and child. So this is why a traditional Hmong carrier is sold without the straps. ( Bonding via Baby Carriers: The Art and Soul of the Miao and Dong written by Yu-Chiao; Lin, Christi Lan; Lin, Brenda Liu Lan)
The Hmong/Nyia style of carrier consist of two long top straps, usually straight across, and a long blanket. The blanket usually consits of a smaller square sewn on top of a larger one. A Hmong often has thin straps but some have shoulder straps that are very wide (about 15") and they are folded over each other a number of times (ending up about 3-4 inches wide) and then stitched to the body. Traditionally the Nyia is used as a back carrier only. The straps are brought across the shoulders before being crossed across baby's bum and tying off. Functionally it is very similar to an angled strap narrow-blanket podaegi.
Photo from https://theartofhmongembroidery.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/precious-babies/
Blue Hmong baby carrier. Applique on batik cotton cloth with ribbon and Thai silk border by Chia Chou Xiong, 26.25"x17" (Photo from https://www.lib.uci.edu/hmong-textiles-exhibit)
More pictures of Hmong/Nyia here - https://www.tribaltextiles.info/Galleries/Black_Thai/BTE36.htm
Some westernized versions:
A Nyia made by Dai Nyia Hmong Baby Carriers
There are other similar carriers found in this region too. Cambodia, Laos, etc. as well as Thailand; the specifics vary depending on the tribal group (Hmong, Mien, etc.) more than nationality, This beautiful example has a straight rectangular blanket rather than a shaped one. This carrier is from Laos. Carriers from this area are also known as a Paj Ntaubs or Pandaus 'flower cloth'.
Photo credit : https://nickihawj.blogspot.com.au/2009/08/beautiful-photos-baby-carriers-made-by.html
How to wear a Hmong/Nyia
How to wear a Lu Mien
Bei Bei (also spelled beibei) is narrower in width than the traditional wide blanket Korean podaegi and wraps over both shoulders. It can be crossed in front or not. It is wider and longer than the Hmong / Nyia and instead of placing the fabric over the baby, it is traditionally wrapped around like a blanket and the baby is carried with relatively straight legs. (Although it is often also used just like a narrow blanket podaegi when worn by western babywearers). There are 2 top straps that go over the shoulders only and around the baby and then tied in front. Traditionally the Bei Bei comes from Southern China and are used by the Yunnanese minority.
According to the owner of the 'My Bei Bei' brand 'bei bei' literally translates to 'back quilt'. It is a different carrier to the Hmong/Nyia carrier as well as to the traditional Korean Podeagi. 'A Bei Bei can be worn like a Hmong carrier but a Hmong carrier can not be used like a Bei Bei. A Bei Bei is a traditional carrier of it's own and is still widely used'
My Bei Bei, Jun 14, 2007 (https://www.thebabywearer.com/forum/)
Similar top strap only carriers can be found in other regions in China, although some of these carriers have variations in construction. Lots of examples of Chinese two strapped carriers are detailed in the book 'Bonding via Baby Carriers' (most of them from Guizhou province in southwest China with many of the carriers made by the Miao (Hmong ) or Dong (Kam) minorities. There are also some top strap only carriers made by the Rau-jia a subgroup of the Yao people, the Shui minority, and by the Ge-jia group)
How to Use A Bei Bei
Popularity and Use in the West
When the wide blanket podaegi was adopted into the west in addition to a torso carry it soon started to be used for the some of the same carriers that could be used in a long woven wrap (those that started in the centre and crossed over the torso first) - back wrap cross carry (BWCC) and front wrap cross carry (FWCC). Then a narrow blanket version soon appeared - it was still tied in the same way for a while but users quickly discovered it could easily be tied like a waist-less mei tai/meh dai i.e over the shoulders first. This led to an angled strap version that was no longer suited to torso carriers. Traditional narrow blanket carriers from Asia were known about but were far less popular than podaegi's so while it is certainly possible that they inspired the narrow blanket podaegi it is also possible that the narrow blanket was a natural development of the podaegi being used in a new way. It is probably impossible to know for sure and the narrow blanket podaegi seen in western countries may be inspired by both sources.
Wide blanket podaegi, Hmong/Nyia and Bei Bei were all known about and discussed on the popular babywearing fourms - such as The Babywearer (babywearer.com), and Natural Mamas.
Podaegi were well known and somewhat popular. In the first decade of the 2000's There were several US makers of podaegi. Ellaroo, Freehand, and Lovewrap were among the best known. There were also a few small WAHM (work at home Mum) companies and wrap converters who soon offered podaegi's too. Podegi makers were also found in Europe (eg Zidee, Kleinsmekker and others).
Ellaroo discontinued production by 2007. In 2008 only Freehand were making podaegi's in the US but were joined be UhBoohBahBaby in 2007/8. Wide blanket Korean podaegis were well known and the people who preferred this style often bought direct from Korea.
The Hmong/Nyia carrier was fairly well know by early users of thebabywearer.com but far less poular than podaegi. There are twice as many threads about podaegi than Hmong. Hmong were sometimes imported from Vietnam but there were two local makers of this style. Freehand was the most well known. They adapted their version directly from a carrier bough from ebay.
There was also Dai Nyia Hmong Baby Carriers (a company based in Thailand)
(https://hmongbabycarriers.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/blog-post.html) although that company started a few years after the other maker had closed and the popularity of this style had fallen (this company was not mentioned on thebabywearer). Occasionally there were posts from people who bought or were given their Hmong carriers directly from overseas or from local immigrant Hmong poeple (or bought through ebay).
The bei bei was known to the early users of thebabywearer.com and seemed to be a little less popular than the Hmong (but 'bei' is too short a term for the search engine at thebabywearer.com so I may have missed some threads). There was one company who imported bei bei from China as well as producing their own. Like with the other carrier types babywearers would sometimes import these carriers directly. Babywearers in the forum would often use these carriers in the same manner as a narrow blanket podaegi even though traditionally these carriers were used differently.
These three carriers were seen as distinct styles but there was a lot of overlap.
Development of the narrow blanket style
The first podaegi's made for the western market had the very wide blanket and straight top strap of the traditional podaegi but later some of the same companies came out with a narrow blanket version. They just shrank the width of the blanket - the rest of the carrier was constructed in the same way (eg straight stap only). Ellaroo is a good example of this. Ellaroo took over another company making wide blanket podaegi's called Onmamasback (which was one of the first companies making podaegi's to appear) and kept the same basic traditional design although they did add padding to the straps.
Earliest thread on The Babywearer about podaegi's is 2003 (although one poster mentions she has know about podaegi's for about a year. The posters seem to be referring to traditional wide blanket podaegi's only and the only local (US) maker mentioned is Onmamasback which had recently been bought out by Ellaroo.
The narrow blanket podaegi is first mentioned in 2004 (although it doesn't sound like it was a brand new idea so may have been around before this)
The original ellaroo podaegi instructions although they do have a narrow blanket pictured do not show the tying version where the straps go over the shoulder first (Hmong/Nyia/Bei Bei style). The tying options are more traditional (well except for the front facing out option!) Torso carry is shown plus a front and back carry that is tied in a similar way but after the straps are crossed under the arms instead of going back around and bypassing the shoulders the straps are placed over the shoulders. This creates a carry that puts little weight on the shoulders as it distributes the weight to the wearers torso (and it does feel much more like a torso carry than a shoulder only carry) (basically it's worn like a FWCC or a BWCC for those familiar with woven wrap carries). It's almost like it's in between the old and new way of wearing.
Photos of Ellaroo wide and narrow blanket podaegi's (tied in the same way.) The blanket in later versions of their narrow blanket podaegi's were made longer.
The angled strap version appeared not long after (not offered by Ellaroo but typical of the later narrow blanket podaegi). Freehand switched from straight to an angled strap version (they may have offered both styles for a while) and were the most popular maker (this company also made a Hmong style too).
I suspect this change may have been influenced by the fact that the straps of the narrow blanket can be tied similarly to the top straps of a mei tai and that's what people tended to do, as that was what users were more familiar with (from the more popular mei tai / meh dai). This use may also have been influenced by the narrow blanket Asian carriers which were used over the shoulder only and some members of the babywearer were also familiar with.
There are certainly instances in the forums of people buying the Ellaroo podaegi and tying it without reading the instructions - tying it more like a mei tai with the straps over the shoulder instead - and liking it enough to stick with that even when they realized the way they had tied it was 'wrong'.
... I just got an ellaroo podaegi - it's the small blanket version. I tried it today with my 11 month old. Great I thought, didn't take long to put on and seemed comfy.... then I looked at the instructions again and realized I had put it on wrong....Does anyone else have a podaegi and use it tied this way - can anyone see an obvious reason why it shouldn't be used this way? Please let me know how everyone else gets along with the small blanket podaegi (ellaroo) (from thebabywearer.com Josie, Jan 15, 2005)}
Quite a few forum members mentioned that they thought the narrow blanket podaegi was more like a Hmong than a traditional wide blanket podaegi (most of the later narrow podaegi's available had angled straps and were not designed to be used in a torso carry so in use they certainly were in fact more like Nyias/Hmongs). However Podaegi picture threads were comprised of wide and narrow blanket podaegi, hmong, and bei bei so I think they were all still seen as being in the same broad category which could also be broken down further if desired.
While Podaegi's, Bei Bei, and Hmong were mainly seen as distinct carriers and there are quite a few posts asking for clarification of the differences and if there there is an advantage of one over the other. With narrow blanket podaegi's though there was also certainly sometimes confusion about which carrier type they really belonged to.
One thread in 2007 was called 'Podaegis..confused over naming confusion. ;-)
n response to the thread -'help ease my confusion...trad pods verses other pods? The poster asked "Okay why r the carriers that look like Hmong carrier called a podaegi just like the traditional korean kind? Are these kinds of carriers also used in Korea? How did they come to be called podaegis"
Some interesting quotes from the forums:
" i still really wonder if calling the narrow blanket Podegi's "podegis" is correct or if really they are traditional MT's (which afaik from all the pictures I see typically have top straps only) just using in a non-traditional way if we take the straps under our arms first...Anyhow, I don't think it matter too much...top strap only with rectangles hanging down... "
mom2twinsplus2, Apr 6, 2005
"the differences .... appear to be artifacts of specific manufacturers, not of hmongs themselves, at least from the info i found.real korean podaegis, AFAIK, are always wide. some pod makers in the US thought it'd be cool to make a narrow, MT-ish one, so they did. kinda reinventing the wheel, IYKWIM.(from thebabywearer.com ellyzoe1, Mar 11, 2006)
" They have been westernized and generalized.
now a lot of pods are with slightly angeled straps, traditionally the straps (or strap) was straight.
Now it seems like any ABC that does not have bottom straps is getting called a podegi.
Traditionally and currently there are variations on the podegi, so you will see a lot of carriers that are called podegis"
Alohaparenting, Mar 17, 2007
"Many of the traditional carriers that look like narrow podaegis are actually hmongs or bei beis"
OregonMom, Mar 18, 2007
"Podaegis are not traditionally narrow, the narrow podaegis are a western adaptation. Podaegis also have a straight body, and the body is not really long. The straps are also straight across.
Hmongs are tarditionally 'narrow', meaning that they do not wrap around your body like traditional podaegis do. The body of a hmong is also longer, and curved by the 'seat' of the carrier (where the baby sits). Looking at a Hmong, there are also two sections, the seat and the headrest are often different designs/patterns. The straps are more at a diagonal in relation to the carrier than a podaegi.
Westernized 'narrow' podaegis are often a combination of the two. Some have straight straps, some are angled. Some are straight bodied, some have a curve in the body, or a difference in the pattern or material around the seat area."
OregonMom, Jan 16, 2007
From a discussion about bei bei's
"They wear quite differently from either the hmong or the pod--they are similar, but quite honestly I think that the bei bei "comes first" relative to narrow blanket pods... the narrow pods are newer. "
Jenrose, Jun 14, 2007
"I'm still trying to figure out what the difference between a hmong and a narrow blanket podegi is really. The only thing that I see different is the way that the baby is carried traditionally in a hmong (legs straight down) vs a podegi (legs straddled around mom). Since Korea shares a lot of its culture with China, Mongolia & Japan, being right smack in the middle of them, I see how the podegi can be very similar"
mibelleson, Feb 6, 2007
"Discussion about a traditional Chinese carrier found on ebay 'Funny that we westernized a Korean carrier to look like a traditional Chinese carrier. I'd like to get one just to compare it to one of my pods"
daemonwildcat, Mar 21, 2009
The narrow blanket podaegi seems to be seen as a western variation according to this Korean based podaegi vendor:
"Then later as time went by, Koreans came up with many other versions like:
mesh, modern podegi with buckles (also called chunei) and people from the west came up with funky ones called "narrow blanket" with straight or angled straps. The name "narrow blanket" is because it's just a narrow piece of fabric and it covers only baby's body and not right up to mama's body in the front. The ones we have here in Korea are everything except the narrow blanket." Jen - Traditional Korean podaegis and chuneis, Mothering forum 07-13-2008. https://www.mothering.com/forum/245-babywearing/930945-podaegi-confusion.html
Other two strap baby carriers
There are other traditional Chinese carriers which use only two top straps. Although apart from the Hmong and Bei Bei these were not as well known The photo shows some of the top strap only carriers found in southwest China, Almost all Chinese minorites have their own carriers. They live not only in China, but in Laos, Vietnam, and and Thailand too.
I have read speculation that this style of carrier is older than the four strapped mei tai/meh dai and the four strapped carrier evolved from them. I haven't found any good resources to support this but if anyone has any good sources I would love to know!
More photos of top strap only baby carriers can be found in this article
Two strap/top strap only carriers are also found invented independently in other parts of the world. The skinnbog or krippsack - a traditional carrier from Sweden where baby was usually carried both legs to the side like in a pouch (although this carrier has loops on the bottom to thread the straps through so in use is actually more like a meh dai/mei tai or onbuhimo.
A similar traditional top strap only carrier is also found in Bulgaria. I haven't been able to track down much information about this carrier. If you know anything about it (especially if you have a flat shot) I would love to see it. Update: I did find a flat shot and this carrier has two straps each in a continuous loop (almost like a non adjustable ombuhimo). This carrier is also found in Serbia.
This carrier type can also be seen in some parts of Africa. (the source of this photo doesn't mention which country but it is most likely Ethiopia. If you can narrow it down let me know and I'll edit it in)
My podaegi like most western designed podaegi is a hybrid of different styles. It has a straight strap design (like a hmong, bei bei, or wide blanket podaegi) a body shape that is wider at the bottom than the top (a bit like a Hmong but without the stacked squares), a fairly long and wide blanket (like a bei bei) but can be worn in a torso carry (torso was only traditionally used in the wide blanket podaegi).
The narrow blanket podaegi was most likely a natural development from introducing the wide blanket podaegi to users with a different wearing style but it was also quite possibly influenced by traditional carriers as well. I think it can be reasonably argued that the angled strap podaegi is very similar to a nyia/hmong/bei bei style since it can only be worn with the straps over the shoulders. However Hmong/Nyia and other similar styles of narrow blanket traditional carriers are not used for a torso carry. The narrow blanket straight strap podaegi seen in the west can be. My podaegi can be used comfortably as a torso carrier, (and some of my customers certainly use it this way) - so while my carrier is a mixture of different styles I consider it more of a podaegi style (albeit one with a much narrowed blanket and one with other carrying positions and strap tying possible).
Some of my past customs.
https://interactchina.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/chinese-mei-tai-baby-carrier/ (blog from China. Top strap only carriers are also described as 'mei tai'.)
https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/115678 - Hmong baby carriers in Minnesota: a material culture study. Chaney, Mary Alice (2011)
Beloved Burden: Baby-Wearing Around the World, 2015 by I. C. van Hout (Editor)
Bonding Via Baby Carriers: The Art and Soul of the Miao and Dong People 2001 by Yu-Chiao Lin, Christi Lan Lin, and Brenda Liu Lan
I love to sew. I have five curious and active kids who keep me busy!