Czechs are known around the world for a number of inventions, such as soft contact lenses or the Semtex plastic explosive. But not many know that they also invented the so-called síťovka or net bag, which was a predecessor of the widely used plastic bags. Czech Radio paid a visit to a Prague-based company, called Czech Net Bag, which has been trying to revive the nearly hundred-year-old product and bring it back into fashion.
For most Czechs who grew up before the Velvet Revolution, síťovka is one of the symbols of the Communist era. The net bag was a staple in almost every Czech household. People would use it on a daily basis to do their shopping but also for transporting everything they needed, from apples and potatoes from their garden to a live carp from the Christmas market.
But not many people are aware that the net bag actually made its first appearance back in the 1920s in the small town of Žďár nad Sázavou. Karolína Pechová, founder of the Czech Net Bag company, explains:
“But then, short hair came into fashion and he didn’t know what to do. One day, he was playing with the net and he suddenly got the idea to attach two handles to it. And that’s how the net-bag was born.”
The plain and durable bag quickly gained popularity and Krčil soon started exporting his products all over the world, including Canada, France and even Africa.
But due to insufficient patent protection at the time, other manufacturers soon started copying his successful design. The net bag production was also hit by the Second World War. The final blow to Mr Krčil’s business came in the 1950s, when the company was nationalised by the Communists.
Despite the political change, the net bag continued to thrive for the next couple of decades, until they were replaced by the cheap and lightweight plastic alternative.
But with the recent ban on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets across the European Union, Czechs have started looking for a more ecological alternative. One of the options is the long-forgotten Czech invention - the net bag.
Karolína Pechová explains how she got the idea to produce these bags herself:
“It was my granny, who gave me the idea, because she would always send me shopping with a plastic bag.
“But in the 1990s, the single-use plastic bags arrived. I never liked those because they contributed to the negative image of Czechs abroad. We would always be pictured carrying a plastic bag and wearing socks in sandals.
“So I would ask my granny: Don’t you have anything else? I don’t want to walk around with a plastic bag. So she gave me a string bag she once got as a present from her Bulgarian suitor.”
Ms. Pechová was first a bit suspicious, but she soon grew fond of the durable and compact shopping bag. In 2011, she produced her first batch of net bags under the brand Česká síťovka or Czech Net Bag.
“We started with one model and others gradually started to evolve. I would say the first three or four years really were about testing the ground. I wanted to draw on the tradition, that’s why I called it Česká síťovka, but I also wanted to highlight the ecological aspect of the product, not just the vintage image, so that it would also appeal to young people.”
Ms Pechová’s company is a social enterprise, which means that all of her bags are produced by pensioners or by people with disabilities in sheltered workshops.
“When I started to think about the technical aspect of the production, I decided that I wanted to involve some charity organisations. This is why I started cooperating with a sheltered workshop.
To this day Karolína Pechová’s company has delivered around 400,000 net bags to her customers. It currently offers eight different models in twelve different colours, made of cotton as well as artificial fibres. Ms. Pechová outlines the process of making a net bag:
“We make several different models and the basic ones are made throughout the year. We use netting, which is cut and sown into a bag. I would say you can make around two to six bags in an hour.
“We are also planning to launch a new product, a string bag, which is hand-woven on a wooden frame. This bag is of course going to be more expensive, because it takes longer to make.”
Although some people still associate the net bag with the Communist era, Karolína Pechová says that today, it is more of a fashion accessory than just a shopping bag. So how would she describe its main advantages?
“You can fold it up and stick it into your pocket or a handbag but it can expand quite a bit, taking a huge amount of shopping.
“Some people don’t like the fact that you can see what is inside the bag, but I see it as an advantage.
“Ordinary textile bags can easily get dirty, which enables the spread of bacteria, and you have to wash it more frequently. The string bag doesn’t have so much material and doesn’t have to be washed so often.
“And it is of course multifunctional and ecological. It lasts for years and you can use it repeatedly.
Today, the most popular model is the cotton elastic net bag, which is also the closest to the original síťovka. It can carry up to 28 kilogrammes of shopping.
"We also have cotton and bamboo baskets that can be worn over the shoulder. And because some people complained that the bags are see-through, we made a special edition with smaller loops, which is very popular.
We also started making special food bags, because it is not really cool to have a net bag full of plastic bags.”
The company Czech Net Bag sells its products not only in the Czech Republic, but also abroad, with customers as far as Australia and New Zealand.
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