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Definitive Guide on Tote Bag History, Creation, and Luxury

ToteBag Factory |


Ah, tote bags - the new fashion accessory of joyful, ambitious, and adventurous youth! Tote bags have seen an astronomical increase in popularity since the onset of the mythical 2010s, especially with arithmetic teachers that want to reflect their students’ hipness or seventy-year-old Woodstock survivors.

Tote bags aren’t just a hippie’s accessory, though. Sure, they look great with tie-dye t-shirts, especially if bearing a slogan associated with, say, environmental grassroots movements. On the other hand, tote bags also look surprisingly good if you’re looking to buy bell peppers at the convenience store at 3 AM in your pajamas.

Make sure to read on if you’re interested in tote bags and would like to know from which strange, ethereal realm they come from. We’ve cautiously delved into the manufacturing process and broken it down into digestible excerpts for an entertaining morning breakfast article that will hopefully kickstart a newfound tote bag obsession.

But that’s not all! This article also details how tote bags came to be and how they turned from a practical accessory to a luxury brand showpiece. So, without further ado, here’s a quick breakdown so you can delve into the world of tote bags in no time!

What Are Tote Bags?


Tote bags are large, sturdy bags typically made from refined cloth such as canvas or Jute that have gained a massive reputation for being the eco-friendly alternative to the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Their lack of popularity up until recent times is generally attributed to their association with modern grassroots movements. While tote bags are quite practical and efficient, the general stigma of being branded as a hippy was enough to turn off most people from wearing them.

However, a growing need to respond to the many environmental changes our planet is being subjected to has led to an overwhelming rise in tote bag popularity. They are now being worn by both yoga enthusiasts and business people looking for a casual accessory to end their workday with originality and convenience.

While the tote bag fanbase is predominantly eco-oriented, the truth is that they aren’t as environmentally friendly as most would think. A 2006 report study done by the UK Environment Agency has shown that some canvas bags have to be reused approximately 131 times to “ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional (plastic) carrier bags.”

Since most businesses have jumped on the tote bag bandwagon so they can prove and publicize their support for Mother Earth, the great irony is that you’ll be seeing tote bags flying through the air and dancing across sidewalk curbs instead of plastic bags.

The production of a tote bag is so involved that, in the end, for many people, the use of plastic bags is simply more effective, both from a production and an environmental standpoint. This is not to dissuade tote bag fans, however, as they can still make a difference by reusing their bags in-between “at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times” depending on the material.

It’s important to mention that as long as you buy a tote bag with the explicit intent of reusing it so as to save the environment, then we are genuinely proud of you - good job! On the other hand, buying a tote bag on a virtue-signaling whim and only using it twice before discarding it is worse than buying plastic bags, so please be responsible!

Designer Tote Bags


Who would have thought that a bag favored by those who eschew modern fashion and materialism would also receive the luxury makeover treatment? To nobody’s surprise, the recent market surge in tote bag popularity has led to large designer brands rushing to capitalize on the opportunity.

“What makes a designer bag?” you might ask. How about a brand logo? Amusingly enough, a huge number of luxury brand tote bags are made out of anything but organic materials. Balenciaga’s tote bags, to give a prominent example, are almost always made out of calfskin.

On the other hand, brands like Gucci have taken an approach that truly does leave a smaller carbon footprint, making their tote bags out of recycled nylon materials. Unfortunately for the average person, despite being made out of virtually the same material as your average $10 tote bag, they also cost significantly more.

The more the merrier, right

Designer tote bags can be a lot more than just stitched canvas, though. They aren’t a recent invention, either. Arguably the first designer tote bag in the world was the Hermès Birkin, famously innovated when British actress Jane Birkin met chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas on a plane.

When the mother of three spilled all the contents of her basket all over the corridor and complained to Jean-Louis about how there simply isn’t any bag out there that can satisfy her needs, he felt compelled to design a solution to her problem.

Since then, the Hermès Birkin has become the world’s most expensive luxury bag clothing line, becoming a favorite of figures such as Victoria Beckham and Melania Trump. In 2017, a matte white crocodile-skin purse was sold for the stunning amount of $382,000 - setting a world record in bag auction prices. 

By 2021, one of the world’s most exquisite bags is also a Birkin, estimated by its owner, Privè Porter creator Jeffrey Berk, to exceed the $500,000 quote at their upcoming auction.

The last bag that deserves mentioning is one that is priced at $3.8 million dollars: the Mouawad 1001 Nights Diamond Purse. Adorned with 4,517 excellently cut diamonds and with 8,800 hours of labor behind it, this unique item has broken the Guinness World Record in 2011 and is likely to maintain that achievement for several years to come.

Unfortunately, these bags will probably remain outside of our purview. Instead, let us take a break and focus on far more grounded topics, such as how tote bags are created!

How Are Tote Bags Made?


Surprisingly enough, while tote bags have a reputation for being more eco-friendly than their plastic counterparts, the most popular tote bags are actually made from plastic. Don’t be shocked! A lot of everyday products contain plastic, such as coffee cups or chewing gum.

Tote bags can either be woven or nonwoven. Woven bags are almost always produced from textile material, while nonwoven bags are generally made from some type of plastic. In terms of practicality, woven tote bags are stronger but nonwoven bags are water-resistant.

The process of creating nonwoven tote bags is relatively complicated but seems simple on paper. We’ve broken it down into simple steps for you so you get an idea of how your products are being made.

  • Polypropylene plastic is melted and pushed through a polymer spinneret to produce thin strands known as filaments.
  • The filaments are pressed into sheets of fabric and cooled down before being able to be used.
  • Depending on the desired size of the tote bag, the fabric is measured and cut appropriately.
  • Both the seams and the handles of the bag will be heat sealed. This “staples” the tote bag so it will not come apart.
  • The tote bag is decorated with a brand logo and finished.

  • It’s important to mention that not all tote bags are made the same. Woven tote bags will have a completely different production process and, on average, tend to be produced by hand rather than in a factory. A lot of people argue this gives them more soul and character, and we tend to agree, although we cannot deny the beauty of a plastic tote bag showpiece.

    Tote Bag Origins


    Today’s equivalent of tote bags is a relatively recent invention. Although containers similar to tote bags were used in the past, especially since the word “tote” is believed to originate from various West African words such as the Kimbundu or the Swahili “tuta,” what we know as tote bags didn’t come about until the 1940s.

    The inventor of the modern tote bag? None other than world-famous winterwear brand LL Bean. Interestingly enough, what became the tote bag was first designed to carry ice and snow instead. Dubbed the “ice bag” and made from heavy-duty builders’ canvas, the container cost $3 back then, which equals to about $60 today.

    Having noticed that the bag is surprisingly fashionable and popular, no longer exclusively being used for, quoted as detailed, “hauling ice from car to ice chest,” LL Bean decided a makeover was well deserved.

    Therefore, in the 1960s, they released the renowned “boat bag,” which was essentially the same as the ice bag other than having a colored trim. This type of bag is still used today and sold roughly at about the same equivalent price of $3 to $60 as it was all these years ago. It took twenty years until the design would be innovated yet again.

    During the 1980s, New York-based Strand Bookstore would revolutionize the tote bag design by introducing a much more casual, everyday wear model, built from softer canvas and created with the carrying of books and groceries in mind instead of ice and workers’ tools. The bookstore’s growing popularity was one of the factors that led to the rise of tote bags. 

    The 2010s have seen a very prominent surge in tote bag popularity due to a global realization about the importance of protecting the environment and fighting against climate change. By the 2020s, tote bags are so ubiquitous that they have almost replaced their plastic counterparts in some boroughs of New York.

    Your Identity, Your Tote Bag


    Tote bags mean something different to each person. To your next-door neighbor, they might mean a solution to the climate change crisis. Your kindergarten teacher, on the other hand, likes buying tote bags because of their texture. We’re sure that somewhere out there lies a secret tote bag cosplay convention as well.

    In the end, your tote bag is a reflection of your character and personality. So use it as a power for good: save the environment by reusing tote bags and show everyone how cool you are by brandishing your favorite logo!

    Interested in reading more from Totebag Factory? Feel free to browse through our website!