Online Communities: High End Babywearing

Online communities can bridge nationalities and culture. They have their own lexicons, taboos, and beliefs. There are many online communities focused on babywearing, High End Babywearing is one that values carriers for their utility, as objects (even art), and their value. Carriers as investment pieces. Carriers as status symbols within their closed community.This interview was originally posted in Iowa City Babywearer’s blog, August 20th, 2015. Republished with permission of Kelsey Sandeno. 

Today I interviewed Kelsey Sandeno about the world of High-End Babywearing. We discussed the distinctions between High End (HE), Highly Sought After (HSA), and Hard-To-Find (HTF) carriers, as well as some of the jargon found in High-End Babywearing communities.

What is High-End Babywearing?

Kelsey Sandeno with her own High-End stash featuring Kokoro Koneko in Mini Luna & Artemis (black) and Chibi Moon (pink). The handwoven is “Rainbow Joy” by Threadbare Designs. Kokoro wraps were purchased retail ($250 each, via stalking) but now hold a much higher value because they are HSA. The handwoven was $100/meter and is considered an artisanal product.

High-End Babywearing (HE) is pretty much what it sounds like: more expensive carriers. People normally spend fifty to a hundred to a few hundred dollars on carriers. In High-End Babywearing  people are spending, you know, five hundred up to a thousand– or thousands– of dollars on a single big-name item.
What kinds of carriers are involved in HE Babywearing?

Mostly wraps and when you get into the whole wrap-thing you get wrap conversions (WC). Obviously when you get a high-end wrap and have it made into a conversion, it makes the conversion even more high-end, because you’re spending money on the conversion too. Ring slings, less so, unless they are made from a high-end wrap. Pouches I have seen made from handwoven fabric– like leftover bits of handwoven wraps. But for the most part: wraps.

What makes the High-End Carriers different from other carriers? Is there a difference in the manufacturing process, materials, etc.?

It varies– some wraps are high end because they use high-end fiber, first thing that comes to mind are Kokoro Ren which are made with tsumugi silk, which is the silk that is used to make kimonos. Other fibers include Egyptian cotton, organic sea-island cotton, other silks, or ethically sourced merino wool, which more costly than other wools. So there are the fibers that make a carrier high-end. Then there are the weaves: if you consider Pavo wraps, which have very intricate weave patterns rather than just basic straight weave, or jacquard. The more intricate weave patterns requires them to have to have a good relationship with the mills, for one wrap they had to build a loom in the mill.

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Baby Toting vs. Babywearing: carrying infants in 20th Century North America

This article is cross-listed in history and culture, as it bridges my 50 year cut-off for inclusion in each category. 

Dr. William Sears claims credit for inventing the term babywearing when his children were small. Dr. Sears recounts how they would put on the carrier in the morning and not take it off until they undressed at night.

“I remember one day when Martha fabricated a sling out of material from an old bed sheet and said, ‘I really enjoy wearing Mathew. The sling is like a piece of clothing. I put it on in the morning and take it off in the evening.’ Hence the term ‘babywearing’ was born in the Sears household.”- Dr. William Sears (askdrsears.com)

Though Rayner Garner invented the ringsling in 1981, Dr. Sears developed his own versions (with enough padding to resemble a duvet and prevent the user from adjusting the pouch effectively) and has sold it as the Over the Shoulder Baby Holder and The Original NoJo Babysling (as opposed to Garner’s The Baby Sling). 

The use of infant carriers wasn’t a novel concept in North America in the 1980’s but previously it had a stigma of poverty or transience attached since the European Middle Ages, to those who by choice or necessity carried their infants on their bodies. The Baby Boom seems to be the impetus for changing this attitude over the next half century. Patents for infant carrying devices were filed in quick succession after WWII ended– though traditional infant carriers were known of and in use, North American parents wanted innovated new forms made of new materials for their modern lifestyles. Yet even then, many people were suspicious of their use and its implications for the relationships between parent and child. 

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Europe: Medieval and Early Modern Infant Carriers

What kind of infant carriers were used in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern area? Europe has a variety of geographies and climates: from the sunny warmth of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Spain, the Alpine Glaciers, the ancient forests of Germany, the tundra in Finland, to the wetlands of eastern England. Different environments produce different carriers and Europe is no exception. In the Nordic countries, we find extremely complex carriers, called Komse, which are cradleboards that would not look out of place in many North American First Nations cultures. Elsewhere, there are extremely simple carriers: fabric tied at the shoulder to form a sling.  The most striking differences in how infants were carried in the Middle Ages stems from the practice of swaddling. Continue reading

Big Babies, Baby Feet, and Body Hair

Our evolutionary cousins, non-human primates, have smaller, more precocious babies than humans. Adult gorillas, for example, are significantly larger than adult humans, yenewborn and adult weightst their newborns are about half the size of our newborns.  Non-human primate babies are more physically developed (precocity) at birth than human babies. Human newborns are both huge and totally helpless (altricial). In order for a human newborn to be similarly developed to a chimpanzee newborn, our babies would require 18-21 months of gestation. Humans, like that of all primates, are riders, we carry our young because our breast milk is not suited to parking infants for long periods. We must carry our infants with us. Yet for humans, infant carrying is more energetically costly than for our cousins: our babies are relatively large, they lack grasping feet, and they are born to comparatively hairless parents. Our evolutionary ancestors faced similar challenges with changes to infant and adult morphology and the result was the invention of a tool to help carry large, altricial infants with less energetic expenditure than carrying in arms.

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Beng Babies of the Côte d’Ivoire

In 2004, Alma Gottlieb published a unique ethnography on the babies of the Beng people in Côte d’Ivoireivory coast. The majority of ethnographies focus on the culture of adults or verbal children. Babies, if considered at all, are described in the context of their relationships to adults and older children. Gottlieb’s work focus on infants as the subject in The Afterlife is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa. I hope that her work inspires more ethnographic research into the cultures of infancy around the world. For me at least, the subject is endlessly fascinating.  I recommend the book to everyone interested in anthropology, parenting, or infants.

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Sewing

We understand that the infant sling would have been among the first tools our ancestors invented after bipedalism. Early infant carriers would have required fastening technology of some sort: knotting, weaving, or other means. Early infant slings, the kind A. africanus may have used, would most likely have been simple slings of animal tissue or plant material (Russell, 47). They may have resembled the ayĩ strap of the Amazon Kayapo or the forehead strap of the Jawara people.

Mother.and.child-Jarawa.woman.with.her.unique tribal.baby.sling
Jarawa mother carrying infant. Photo from Dinodia.com
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Kayapo mother nursing infant in a sling. Photo by Catherine Bourgeois.

These straps simply provided a place to balance the weight of the baby, requiring most support from the body of the adult. There is little protection from the elements for the baby with this kind of carrier: they would have full sun, rain, wind, and possibly branches or leaves of plants brushing against them.

When H. erectus left Africa (or, for some populations, evolved out of Africa), they expanded across Asia, into Indonesia. They may have even populated portions of Europe (fossil evidence is disputed as to species on this point). H. erectus used complex tools, used fire and cooked food, and living in small hunter-gatherer groups. They even created abstract art. What is significant is that they remained in warmer regions, environments that suited tropically adapted bodies.

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The Costs of Carrying

laetolifoot2 by john reader
The Laetoli Tracks in Tanzania, photographs by John Reader.
laetolifoot1 by john reader
The Laetoli Tracks in Tanzania, photographs by John Reader.

Our early bipedal ancestors were “riders”, meaning that they carried their young with them, that they had highly altricial, or dependent infants which cannot cling on, and which extremely large relative to adult size, compared with the infant size of quadrupedal primates. This creates some issues for carrying, not just logistically but energetically.

Based on the fossil record, including the Laetoli Tracks in Tanzania, bipedalism was established at least by the time of A. afarensis, also known as Lucy, around 4.2 million years ago. They show a non-opposable hallux, or big toe and a high arch: something only seen in bipedal species. For more about early bipedalism, I recommend the following video, “One Foot in the Past”, (2:45 is the start of the most relevant material, though the whole video is very interesting).

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