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Updating a family heirloom

Jan 27, 2014

My brother, sister, and I are almost exactly two years apart. So, in almost every family photo of an outing, one of us is in the baby backpack. This was a late-60s/early 70s-style backpack, with straps that look like today's school backpack straps and a metal kickstand of sorts, which could be pulled out to make the backpack into a baby seat. It was usually worn by my dad, who inevitably ended up with Cheerios down his collar.

A Chinese baby carrier (mei tai) in use. (Watercolor drawing by Ann Swanson)

An ornate baby carrier from southern China from the personal collection of Anni Kristensen of Himalaya Yarn. (Photo by Joe Coca)

When I saw Lily Chin's Chinese Silk Baby Carrier in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of PieceWork magazine, memories of our family's version of the baby carrier flooded back to me. Since I'm four years older than my sister, I remember her being carried around in the pack, smiling her darling little smile and waving her precious, chubby hands. She was the cutest baby! Even an older sister appreciated her charm.


The original baby carrier (mei tai) that was used by Lily Chin and her sister Amy when they were infants. Their nephew and his wife used the carrier for their first child; it is now on its way to their niece, who is expecting her first child. (Photoby Joe Coca)

Lily Chin's knitted silk baby carrier.
o by Joe Coca.
Here's Lily, to tell you the story of her baby carrier, and its cultural history.

A Chinese Baby Carrier

When my nephew Victor and his wife were expecting their first child, my sister Amy gave them a baby carrier (mei tai), the very one in which she and I had been toted around as infants. She had saved it, but I'm not certain how long it had been in the family before our generation.

Baby carriers are known in nearly all Asian cultures. On a recent trip to China, I saw many in use even today. Anni Kristensen of Himalaya Yarn has one from China; she has two Indonesian carriers from Borneo made of wood and beads, not fabric like Chinese ones.

Chinese carriers have a square or oblong body with a long strap extending from each corner and may be worn either in front or in back. Traditionally, the center square is 15 to 16 inches (38.1 to 40.6 cm) across. I made mine larger, however: having no children of my own, I plan to use it as a wall hanging. I've included both sizes in the directions.

For yarn, I chose silk, the most Chinese of fibers, as China is the original source of silk. The "back" of the carrier is just as nice as the front, and so I see this as a fully reversible piece.

The geometric motif comes from the traditional "good luck" envelope filled with money and given to children when they reach one month of age. Red and gold are the de rigueur good-fortune colors. Good luck envelopes also are given to children on Chinese New Year and other special occasions.

Our family's original mei tai is now on its way to my niece, who is expecting her first child, and I hope that this tradition will continue for many generations to come.

—Lily M. Chin, from PieceWork Nov/Dec 2013

These days, there are lots of innovative baby carriers out there, and I love that Lily has updated a treasured family heirloom. (Please note that the knitted baby carrier does not provide head support, so it's best for older infants who have fully developed head and neck control.)

I love these sorts of stories from PieceWork, and I look forward to each issue, because I know I'll learn so much!

Stitch pattern detail
Get yourself a subscription to PieceWork, it's on sale for almost half price!


P.S. Have you updated or passed along any knit family heirlooms? Tell us your story in the comments!

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Shelley@5 wrote
on Apr 13, 2014 2:29 PM

My mother taught me to knit when I was very young. When I was 8 years old, she had me make my first real project ... a baby sweater. Bad choice! With fine yarn, and many rows to the inch, it took me 5 years to complete, with also a hat and booties and mittens. After all that work, I didn't want a baby to cheese on it, so I allowed my sister, and then my brother, to just wear it home from the hospital. And so the tradition began. Then my children and their children came home from the hospital in it. Sometimes births were close, like when my grandson was born in LA only 2 weeks after my niece was born in NC. So FEDEX was involved. Now my oldest has the sweater,  and a list of everyone who wore it home from the hospital, with their name, birth date and birth weight. I think it turned out to be a pretty cool tradition, and I hope it continues for many generations!


hilaryblake wrote
on Jan 31, 2014 9:22 AM

On the safety of mei tais in general, a baby carrier that supports your child from knee to knee in a sitting position (such as a mei tai) is much better than a 'crotch dangler' (like a Baby Bjorn) according to the International Hip Dysplasia Institute:

I carry my 6-month old son in a mei tai made of strong woven cotton, but I'm not at all convinced that a knitted fabric such as this would be strong enough to support parent and baby comfortably and safely.

But it's a beautiful pattern for a purely decorative piece.

Cosfordgirl wrote
on Jan 28, 2014 10:59 AM

My first summer job was at a bakery at Victoria Beach, Manitoba, Canada.  An older woman whose family had owned a cottage there for years had no children but loved to knit.  She had made it a custom of hers to knit mitts for all the girls who came to work at the bakery over the years.  They weren't just any mittens; her pattern was similar to thrummed mittens where little tufts are knit into stitches intermittently so as to form a cosey inside surface. Her version was done in two colors, the base in a Kroy sock yarn, and the tufts were done with a loop stitch in a "sticky" similar weight wool.  I treasured those mittens and still have them, albeit well worn. Not being able to track down the pattern I finally pieced it together from the originals and made several pairs.  The pattern/technique has not shown up in any of the folk mitten books I've collected over the years, but most of all I regret not writing down the knitter's name.  She had a warm heart.

Catmum wrote
on Jan 27, 2014 11:33 AM

When I was 25, In the summer of 1972 I was in Hong Kong with a friend, we were on our way to India.  I didn't know it at the time, but I was already pregnant, with what would turn out to be boy-girl twins! ( the nausea should have been a clue!)  We spent several days sightseeing, riding ferries, shopping in the the Sandalwood street, and I also went to a store that sold crafts and goods from Communist China.  There were all kinds of beautiful silk embroidered items, ranging from small squares with gorgeous flower and bird motifs, to blouses, dresses and jackets, each one more beautiful than the last.  I finally chose a number of the flat squares and one item I thought I might find of use "some day," it was a gorgeous, richly embroidered baby carrier.  I never did use it, since I could carry both babes in it, and now, 40 years later, it has disappeared in one of my many moves.  I would have liked to pass it on for my grandbabies (who are now too big for it, even if I had it.)

maicas wrote
on Jan 27, 2014 11:13 AM

Love your articles and have never commented before, but I must comment on this one. These baby carriers are extremely bad for the development of the child's hips, so I hope no one will make or use these.


Susan@297 wrote
on Jan 27, 2014 10:01 AM

The photos in the email of the Lily Chin Backpack did  not come through. I assume the photos on this web page are the same. Thanks