A Czech businesswoman revives a century-old local invention – the mesh shopping bag.
Karolina Pechova first laid eyes on a Czech mesh bag when she asked her grandmother for an alternative to plastic bags, which the then-teenager found unattractive. “I said, ‘You know, it’s terrible. I don’t want to go shopping with this ugly bag. Do you have something else?’ And she took out something like this.”
Pechova, now 37, lifts a bag, yellowed with age, made from knotted rope. She still carries it around today to demonstrate the history and resilience of the mesh shopping bag, called sitovka in Czech. “Sit” means net or mesh.
Today, she runs Ceska Sitovka, a company that designs and sells updated versions of the mesh shopping bag first made nearly 100 years ago in Zdar nad Sazavou, a small town in the central Czech Republic.
She has sold a million mesh bags since she founded the company nine years ago and is launching a second brand, Netty, for higher-end designs. Made from cotton, bamboo, or synthetic fiber, her bags come in a wide variety of colors and styles ranging from classic totes to cross-body.
A traditional sitovka scrunches down to pocket size. The open netting allows passers-by to see what’s inside, which Pechova says she finds “provocative.”
“It’s different, and not for everyone, and this challenges me,” she says. “They express something from the self, and some people really cannot do that, especially in the Czech Republic; we’re too shy.”
Pechova says the sitovka, a staple during the Communist era, is making a resurgence in the Czech Republic. It is still popular as a reusable shopping bag, although now it’s also a fashion accessory in its own right – at least in part because of its retro vibe and Czech identity.
“Because it’s a Czech invention, and I wanted to put it back in production, I wanted to go back to the Czech Republic because I think it’s not really good that a Czech brand would be made in China or India,” she says.
Ceska Sitovka bags are handmade in workshops for people with disabilities or in her own small workshop, and by local artisans who knot rope in the traditional macrame style.
The sitovka is the brainchild of Vavrin Krcil, a Czech businessman and netting manufacturer commemorated with a statue in Zdar nad Sazavou, where he is buried. Krcil had specialized in hairnets until the 1920s, when demand fell as women started to cut their hair short, and shops began importing cheaper hairnets from Japan. He then pivoted.
Stanislav Mikule, a historian at the Zdar nad Sazavou regional museum, says that even if other iterations of mesh bags existed before, the key to Krcil’s success was the woven handle. “Most shopping bags were made of textile or leather. Vavrin Krcil invented one thing that made string bags a unique thing – a special handle. Thanks to those handles the string bags were light, sturdy, and you could easily hide them in a pocket.”
The bags were omnipresent in Communist Czechoslovakia until plastic bags were introduced in the 1980s. “Everyone who remembers this era remembers string bags,” Mikule says.
Pechova began pursuing the idea of becoming an entrepreneur when working at her father’s hotel after she graduated from Charles University in Prague with a degree in cultural anthropology. “I was not very satisfied with that,” she says. “I wanted to launch my own business.”
The process took some time. During the first year, Pechova tested materials and designs, contacted potential clients, and taught herself how to trademark her brand and build her own website. She set herself up as a manufacturer of mesh bags for the wholesale trade, with big retailers as her main customer base. It was only when companies started bulk ordering bags for corporate gifts that she felt the business was finally going somewhere. Her break came when Kofola, a Czech cola drink, ordered 300,000 bags.
Before Ceska Sitovka, just two Czech companies sold net bags and only in their most basic form. Pechova’s bags feature details such as leather, fringe, or adjustable handles. In addition to selling wholesale, for rebranding by other companies, Czech Sitovka is sold in retail shops under its own name in the Czech Republic, as well as at the company’s Prague showroom and online shop.
Pechova’s ambition to reintroduce the sitovka as a fashion item is keeping its Czech legacy alive. The bag’s history has remained her strongest selling point. “It’s a very important point that it’s a Czech invention from 1926,” she says. When she takes a sitovka to the market she is stopped by older women who remember it from their own youth. “They love it very much,” she says.
Young or old, Ceska Sitovka’s customers are carrying a tradition forward.
Transitions intern Beatrice Tridimas is a London-based freelance writer and graduate of City, University of London Journalism School.