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What are Seatbelts and How To Upcycle Them Into Bags?

We all know safety belts in cars and planes, but how are they made, and how can discarded seatbelts be upcycled into bags?

split image with on the left an air hostess demonstrating how to use the seatbelt and on the right an upcycled seatbelt messenger bag from eKodoKi

First things first, why do we need seatbelts?

A seatbelt (or safety belt) is a vehicle safety device designed to protect all occupants of a vehicle from the risk of death or injury that can result from a collision or sudden stop.

It reduces the force of secondary impacts with interior collision risks, keeping occupants properly positioned for maximum airbag effectiveness and preventing occupants from being ejected from the vehicle, hitting or even going through the windshield in the event of a collision or vehicle rollover. This is because the driver and passengers travel at the same speed as the vehicle when it is in motion, and continue at the same speed as the vehicle was traveling before when it stops or crashes.

car driver wearing a seatbelt, viewed from the back seat

3-point seatbelt, the car solution since the 1960's

Who invented seatbelts?

The seatbelt has a long history of inventions and patents by different disciplines in different means of transport: trains, planes, automobiles.

The first seatbelt was invented in 1840 by George Cayley, an English aeronautical engineer, for use in trains. But the first patent was granted much later to Edward J Claghorn, in 1885. The first car seatbelt was spotted in 1902 in a Baker "Torpedo", and the first patents for car seatbelts were filed a year later in France by Louis Renault and Gustave-Désiré Leveau.

In 1911, Benjamin Fabulous made an invention for the airplane seat belt that was implemented in all WWII airplanes. The first documented use of an airplane seatbelt was by French pilot Célestin Adolphe Pégoud, the second person who could make a continuous loop. In 1949, American car manufacturer Nash began offering seatbelts to consumers and they were fitted as an option on some Ford models for the first time in 1955.

In 1951, American engineers Roger Grisworld and Hugh de Haven designed what is now the modern seat belt, an early three-point seatbelt restraining the chest and lap – with however the buckle remaining in the middle. They patented it in 1955.

collage showing an early seatbelt patent schematic, an old illustrated advert for seatbelt, and a photograph of Hugh de Haven doing pioneering work in the field of aviation safety

Top right: Hugh de Haven

A great contribution to automobile safety was invented by a neurologist, Dr. C Hunter Shelden. After seeing an increase in head injuries in his emergency room, he came up with the idea for a retractable seatbelt, which was published in the Journal of American Medical Association in 1955. The results of the US Congress in 1959 had laid down legislation obliging all automobiles to conform to this idea.

In 1958, the Swedish company Saab was the first to install standard seat belts, but they were 2-point belts that simply restrained the chest. In 1959, Vattenfall in Sweden, which owned many company cars, investigated the contributing factor to excessive fatal injuries to car passengers and presented it to Swedish car manufacturer Volvo. As a conclusion of these studies, a 3-point seat belt was introduced by the Swedish Nils Bohlin, Volvo's very first safety engineer, who previously worked for the aircraft manufacturer Saab.

The seat belt was fastened through the occupant's hip rather than across the abdomen to prevent internal abdominal injury. This 3-point seat belt is still in use today.

collage of black & white photographs showing the early days of car seatbelts usage by both men and women, as well as a car seatbelt test in a lab

Top left: early 50’s
Top right: mid 50’s
Bottom left: a seatbelt test apparatus with a crash test dummy
Bottom right: Nils Bohlin

When did seatbelts become mandatory?

Although the invention of the seatbelt goes back a long way, the installation and adaptation took time, even when the lifesaving function was proven. The introduction of a mandatory seatbelt law differs from country to country, and even today there are still different laws.

split image with at the bottom a map color coding per country the difference in legislation about the use of seatbelts in cars, and at the top, the fasten your seatbelt signage lit up

• Australia – front seats 1970 (Victoria); 1972 (national)
• France – front seats 1973 (outside cities); 1975 (cities at night); 1979 (all); rear seats 1990
• Finland – front seats 1975; rear seats 1987
• Sweden – front seats 1975; rear seats 1986
• Spain – front seats 1975
• Netherlands – front seats 1976; rear seats 1992
• Germany – front seats 1976; rear seats 1984
• United Kingdom – front seats 1983; rear seats 1991
• USA – front seats 1984
• Italy – front seats 1989; rear seats 1990

How did people react to the seatbelt laws?

As it is now widely accepted that seat belts save lives, it is hard to imagine that resistance to these life-saving devices has long been the "norm". Drivers and passengers complained that the seat belts were uncomfortable and restrictive; but the uproar over mandatory seat-belt laws was mostly ideological. The battle over seat belt laws reflected widespread criticism of government regulation in a free society.

split image with at the bottom a map color coding per country the seatbelt wearing rate and at the top a summarized list of reasons given why not to wear by detractors

But even today, as shown on the map above, not everyone follows the rules.

What are seatbelt straps made of?

The seatbelt webbing is the part in contact with the passengers of a car, the part that runs across one’s body, round the waist and chest – a woven narrow fabric strap made from filament yarns or high tensile filament yarn.

close up of a seatbelt highlighting the webbing structure

At present, seatbelts used in cars are three-point seatbelts (as described further above under “Who invented seatbelts?”) with a single continuous length of webbing.

Which type of yarn is used to make seatbelts?

Seatbelt material today is usually woven from 100% polyester. Nylon used to be the most popular material, but nylon stretches more than polyester and is more prone to wear and tear.

rolls of yarn used in a machine producting seatbelts

Research has also found that less-energized yarns create more longer lasting seatbelts because the threads can pack together more closely.

How do yarns turn into straps?

Weaving of the seatbelts is called webbing. The original seatbelt webbing was originally woven on shuttle looms, which could only weave about 200 picks per minute.

Since 1975, most straps have been made on needle looms, which could reach 1000 picks per minute. Modern looms can weave up to 3000 picks per minute. Typically, seatbelt webbing has about 300 warp threads per 46mm belt, which works out to nearly 150 ends per inch.

close up of the webbing of a seat belt showing how yarns are turned into straps, with a picture insert showing the seatbelt making machine from a distance

The original colour of the seat belts is white before being dyed at the factory after weaving.

How are seatbelts dyed?

Polyester can be dyed to most shades and has excellent colour fastness. Many suppliers offer seatbelts in different colours on the market. The dyeing machine used for it is automatic flatbed dyeing printing equipment, high efficiency continuous dyeing system (pad steam).

seatbelts dying machine in action, with a picture insert showing seatbelts dyed in red colour

The dyeing machine is specially used for automotive double-ended seat belt webbing with European standard requirements, with elongation and relative calendar function.

Are there different weaving structures?

Although straps and belts can be ordered in any width today, car seatbelts are woven to international standard widths and are 46-49mm wide; most are 47 mm (1.85 inches). Seatbelts are often described as being "two inches" (50.8 mm) in size but are not actually woven to this width. Seatbelts are woven from about 300 ‘warp’ strands and one ‘weft’ strand.

overview of five different width of seat belts next to each other with a picture insert showing three different weaving patterns

There are three weaving variations, each with a different structure:

A/ Plain weave (tabby weave) – this is the simplest type and is formed by interweaving of warp and weft yarns vertically.
B/ Twill weave – it is woven in a pattern called a herringbone weave where the lines run diagonally from the centre line.
C/ Satin weave – this is the most traditional and comes with one or more panel straps (striped effect). 5- and 7-panel webbings are the most common. Other typical webbings are 11- and 12-panel (special cars) and 3- and 4-panel (old cars).

Why and how are seatbelts tested?

The seatbelt has long been the most important passenger restraint system. It must comply with multiple stringent requirements. Its test is described in detail in the UN/ECE-R16 regulation. In addition to various prerequisites for the belt (placement, humidity, temperature, light, drive, etc.), the test must be carried out on a test machine according to very strict specifications. In addition to the maximum force at break, values such as the transverse strain under load are calculated. ZwickRoell testing systems are also used to determine the strength of the produced seat belt system (with and without the seat belt lock).

machine testing seatbelts quality and conformity as part of the seat belt manufacturing process

Seatbelt test machine.

What are repurposed reclaimed seatbelts?

There are two forms of discarded seatbelts for upcycling purposes:

1.New seatbelt materials that are discarded at the factory and would otherwise end up in landfill. Since the lengths of new scrapped seat belt sections are quite large, it is usually possible to find enough material to make an entire product in a single colour shade with a single woven structure seat belt. eKodoKi RE-BELT bags are made from these new discarded seat belts.

repurposed seatbelts from used cars, with a picture insert showing scrap cars

2.End-of-life used car seatbelts. Used seatbelts are easy to find, from car wrecks and piles of end-of-life cars. On average, an auto recycler landfills over 270 kilograms of seat belts each month. Each car produces four seat belts, each belt is about 2.2 meters long. The disadvantages are that they have to be washed harshly, and it is difficult to make an entire product in one single colour in one single weaving structure.

What is upcycling and what are its benefits?

Upcycling represents a variety of processes by which reclaimed “old” products are modified and given a second life, by being transformed into a “new” product. In this way, thanks to the mix and aggregation of the materials, components and articles used, the final result is a "new product" with more value than the initial value of the sum of all its components. In other cases, upcycling concerns materials or objects that can be re-adapted and/or re-purposed in creative ways, and therefore have a longer lifespan.

The benefits of upcycling, in a nutshell:

• It stops adding stuff to a world already overwhelmed with things.
• It reuses materials that may end up in the landfill.
• It requires creativity, freshness, and innovative ways of thinking.
• It brings beauty to the world.

upcycling examples including palettes turned into a corner sofa, a fork turned into a bracelet, and disposable plastic spoons turned into a lampshade

Some examples of products that have been upcycled into other products:
• Wood pallets turned into a garden sofa.
• A silver fork transformed into a bracelet.
• Numerous plastic spoons used as components to make a lamp shade.

What is the difference between recycling and upcycling?

Recycling is the process of recovering material from waste and turning it into new products. The original product is destroyed in this process, usually through a melting process, but it used to form new products. Examples are aluminium cans, plastic water bottles, most food tubs, bottles, cans, etc.

Upcycling is a form of recycling. It is a technique of upgrading and adding value to a product or material that may otherwise be discarded. Upcycling means to use a certain material again, but in a manner different than what it was originally intended for. The original product is left mostly intact, utilizing its shape, form, and material for a different purpose.

schematics bringing together the seatbelt circular recycling process and the seatbelt upcycling process

Both help reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills that can take thousands of years to decompose and help preserve our natural resources and reduce pollution.

Where are eKodoki’s seatbelts coming from?

Seatbelts are one of the most wasted materials in the world. The large-scale production of cars, together with the high quality standards, lead to such huge waste. Millions of yards of seatbelt webbing are discarded by car manufacturers every year. For years, these were simply dumped in landfills. In many countries, what is allowed to be disposed of in landfills has been tightened. Automotive seat belt manufacturers need other outlets for these excess straps they have accumulated.

eKodoKi's rejected seat belts come from a manufacturer in Malaysia, in the same country than the bags are produced, to keep transport distances as short as possible. These materials are not given but purchased.

unsorted piles of seatbelts discarded from the factory, and kept in huge bags

Seatbelts are delivered in randomly unrolled bundles in large bags; typically, these are filled with a mix of weaving structures and a mix of colours. It is not possible to request specific variants.

How are discarded seatbelts sorted and selected?

Discarded seatbelts are used in the form they are delivered, i.e., in a variety of patterns and tones to play with. Upon receiving the material, the production line rolls them by hand and separates the seatbelts by colour tones and weaving structures.

It is a very time-consuming job because, even in a colour like black, there are many tone-on-tone shades like greyish-black, bluish-black, brownish-black – as well as many different textures and different amounts of panels (lines) per strap. In addition, there are many deviations in the width of the seat belt straps.

someone sorting out discarded seatbelt by sizes, colours and weaving patterns, with a picture insert showing three rolls of seatbelts: one white, one grey, and one black

These materials are then filtered once more to determine which are usable for the production of bags and from which the right amount is available. Seatbelts that end up in the “unusable” pile are still put to good use, as they are set aside for future projects and training.

How to make bags from seatbelts?

There are three ways to turn seatbelt straps into a textile to make bags from:

three ways to assemble a seatbelt bags, including weaven the belts, stitching the belts on top of each other at their edge, and stitching the belt side by side onto a backing fabric

1. Woven straps – forming a block pattern.
2. Straps sewed at their sides, on top of each other – resulting in a striped, ribbed, ‘roof tile’ texture.
3. Sewed side by side onto a backing fabric – forming a striped pattern that is perfectly flat and smooth. This is how eKodoKi seatbelt bags are made.

Who makes eKodoKi’s seatbelt bags?

eKodoKi partnered with a social enterprise and makers community in Malaysia, for the handmade production of its seatbelt bag collection.

tailor stitching with a machine seatbelt pieces onto a backing fabric, forming a linear patchwork textile to make bags, plus an insert showing the taylor holding a sign stating I made your bag

An in-house expert master tailor translates eKodoKi’s specifications into a first prototype – followed by a second prototype, in which issues conjointly identified on the first prototype are solved. When no further changes need to be made, production can start, under the supervision of the master tailor, who first needs to train tailors for each bag model – and who will then keep an eye during the whole manufacturing.

Seatbelt sewing and bag construction needs experienced people who can reach the quality achieved and agreed on the final prototype and repeat it from one unit to another. The precision required to stitch belts next to each other onto a backing requires a constant quality check. Sewing cannot be done with speed as in fast-fashion ready-to-wear, but at a slow pace. The largest bag in the RE-BELT collection takes 4 days to produce.

What else does this bag collection contribute to?

eKodoKi is a young and small company requiring small productions and flexibility. At this stage, it would not be viable to hire full-time employees, nor feasible to find and plan in a local workshop here in the Netherlands.

master tailor training refugees in need to become experienced freelance tailors

Apart from their experience, knowledge and ability to work flexibly, the other reason why eKodoKi has partnered the aforementioned social initiative is their access to a group of people through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who run with them sewing classes to underprivileged Malays or the Afghan refugee community, and place orders with them. It offers marginalized communities the opportunity to be self-reliant and receive a stream of income by learning new skills.

Why did eKodoKi choose to work with a social initiative?

The social initiative eKodoKi works with was formed by a group of young visionaries who set out to change the sustainability scene in Malaysia. Through their progressive ideas, they wanted to change how people look at waste and sustainability issues. Having realised the influence fashion can have on social and environmental issues, they committed to build a fashion brand that brings an ethical agenda to the forefront.

two members of the Biji Biji Initiative making seatbelt textile pieces out of upcycled discarded seatbelts

This social initiative has been a member of World Fair Trade Organisation since 2019 and is committed to:

• No forced labour
• Fair wages
• Safe & hygienic working environment
• No child labour
• Made locally in Malaysia
• No discrimination
• No harsh treatment or abuse
• No excessive working hours

What are the qualities of seatbelt fabric?

Seatbelt fabric is:

detail of a bag made with upcycled discarded seatbelt textile, in which the belts are laying next to eachother and have been mounted onto a backing fabric

Durable – has great strength.
Abrasion proof – excellent resistance to scratches.
Fire resistant – polyester is difficult to ignite and tightly woven structures do not burn quickly.
Excellent resistance to sunlight – polyester is one of the best material for outdoor use.
Resistant to most common chemicals.
Mildew and rot resistant – sweat and other liquids will not damage the material.
Water resistant and rainproof – its tightly woven yarn delivers a high fabric density.
Easy to clean.
Comfortable to carry – perfectly suited to make bag straps of.

Are seatbelts available in multiple colours?

Although black is the first colour that comes to mind, seat belts happen to be produced in many colours – for specific brands, aftermarket seatbelt replacements, or custom orders.

But there is also significant production for applications other than security in cars and aircrafts. All colours can now be ordered; but not all seatbelt materials turned into bags are upcycled seatbelts that are either used ones or discarded from a factory.

patchwork image showing various seatbelt pieces of different colors

Common colours for the automotive industry are black, grey, silver, beige and champagne. When you see bright colours, it often means they are aftermarket replacement belts.

Beware of bag manufacturers who claim to use factory or junkyard discarded seat belts. When the colours are atypical and bright, it most likely means that the seat belts were purchased new!

What can be made with seatbelts?

Next to bags, seatbelt webbing is usable in a wide range of applications, from apparels to furniture and architectural wall coverings.

For example, due to their resistance, they can become super strong and comfortable pieces of furniture. Tightly woven polyester that makes seat belts capable of supporting up to 5,000 pounds in force (2,270 kg / 22,200 N), is an ideal material for flexible woven seating in chairs, benches, and hammocks.

photomontage showing multiple applications of weaving seatbelts, such as a hammock, a seat, cushions, and a garment

Above – applications achieved by weaving seatbelt straps – a hammock, a set of cushions, a chair, and a kimono.

photomontage showing various ways of using upcycled seatbelts to make for instance a seat, a garment, or a sandal

Above – various ways to use upcycled seatbelts:
• a seat, obtained by stretching, twisting and intertwining seatbelt straps;
• a short-sleeved jacket, made up of folded and sewn seatbelt straps;
• a sandal, using a small piece of seatbelt for its main strap.

Why is a seatbelt bag a good choice?

Any seatbelt webbing is a durable, strong, flexible, and water repellent textile, making it perfect for products used daily outdoor, such as bags.

Why is a seatbelt bag from eKodoKi an even better choice?

Entirely hand-made, every eKodoKi seatbelt bags have been given full attention and time. Their charm comes from the meticulous craftmanship put into every single item by fair paid experienced tailors and trained refugees in low-impact manufacturing. All activities considered, as early mentioned, it takes up to 4 days to make one single eKodoKi bag.

fashion model carrying a large upcycled seatbelt sling bag from the brand eKodoKi

Thanks to their timeless design, eKodoKi seatbelt bags contribute to slow fashion, a responsible alternative to fast fashion. Made of upcycled discarded seatbelts, eKodoKi bags contribute to lessen the amount of waste going into landfills, preserve natural resources, and reduce pollution.

In the world of seatbelt bags, eKodoKi’s collection is of the highest quality:
• Belts are meticulously stitched side-by-side for a flat, smooth, finish.
• The inside is fully lined – with an eco-friendly and traceable fabric – and features pockets and dividers.
• Bags are padded to better protect the owner’s valuables, as well as help the bag keep in shape.
• All hardware parts are made of durable metals; no plastic involved.
• Most models feature perfectly integrated outer zipped pockets (anti-theft).

There is an intrinsic beauty in seatbelts, as light plays with their woven pattern. Normal bag at a first and distant glance, any eKodoKi seatbelt bag turns into a conversation piece at a closer look.

upcycled seat belt bags collection from the brand eKodoKi overlaid with the eKodoKi logo

Photo credits:
• Car-passenger-with seatbelt-1865856. – ID 3844328
• Car junkyard-5542203 – Fietzfotos
• Seatbelt up-close – Lee Haywood
• Flight-attendant-with-a-seatbelt-2264960 – Thinkstock
• Sewing seatbelt bag
• Sewing seatbelt bag, master tailor, I made your bag
• Sewing seatbelt bag by training refugees
• Biji Biji atelier of seatbelt making
• Male model with eKodoKi seatbelt sling bag
• eKodoKi seatbelt bag collection

Icon credits:
• Seatbelt-334 – Public Domain Nouns
• Seatbelt-324194 – Ben Davis
• Law-4194839 – SAM Designs
• Protest-5022622 – One Pleasure
• Webbing-2245666 – Wahab marhaban
• Yarn-2496710 – Andrejs Kirma
• Dye (Paint tubes)-2132861 – Llisole
• Test-3477907 – Komkrit • Noenpoempisut
• Factory-4428027 – SAM Designs
• Junkyard-46960 – Luis Prado
• Upcycling-4418666 – Martin Königsmann
• Drilling (raw source)-3660468 – Mohamed Mb
• Seatbelt user-4685991 – Eucalyp
• Grinding-3262661 – verry poernomo
• Ribbon (strap)-2208540 – Alena Artemova
• Tape (strap roll)-1475942 – Creative Mania
• Bag-2599401 – Line Icons Pro
• Garbage (trash container)-1351609 – UNiCORN
• Sewing machine-1733521 – Made
• Chain (durable/strong)-2001018 – arif fauzi hakim
• Sunlight proof-2474450 – haley hill
• Chemical dropper (chemical resistant)-4259991 – Jongrak
• Cleaning (easy to clean)-2032376 – Kiran Shastry
• Waterproof (water resistant)-3365448 – Ian Rahmadi Kurniawan
• Swatch-3414130 – Econceptive
• Sketchbook (fashion)-3688223 – Shocho
• Architecture-3104093 – IronSV

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