The Duffel Bag: History, Style and Today

Table of Contents

    What is a Duffel?

    In it’s original form the duffel bag is a cylindrical bag made of cloth, with a draw string closure at the top but the term is now used to describe a variety of soft sided bags which are sometimes referred to as a ‘weekender’.


    The Oxford English Dictionary dates the origin of the word duffel back to 1677. The word was originally used to describe ‘a coarse woollen cloth having a thick nap or frieze’. The cloth was produced in the Belgian town of Duffel, situated not far from Antwerp, it was exported to Spain and Portugal and because of its durable qualities it was used as a covering material on ships. It is suggested that Spanish and Portuguese sailors used offcuts of the material to fashion crude bags for their belongings. By the late Nineteenth Century the material was in circulation in Britain and America. The O.E.D cites the poet Wordsworth’s line of 1884 ‘let it be duffel grey’ and, at the same time, in America, the word was used to describe ‘a sportsman’s outfit’. In the 1890’s the British Royal Navy used the material to produce coats for an Antarctic expedition, initiating the use of a garment that was to become popular with Field Marshal Montgomery, CND protest marchers of the late fifties and Paddington Bear.

    The Origins of the Duffel

    The first recorded use of the word to describe a bag is in a letter from the poet e.e. cummings (a writer averse to the use of capitals) who served as an ambulance driver during World War One. The popular First World War song ‘Pack up Your Troubles in an Old Kit Bag’ almost certainly refers to the use of a duffel bag. It was a bag which was particularly suited to wartime conditions, it could be flat packed when empty and filled speedily. In the Second World War it was used extensively by British and American servicemen and was produced in a variety of sizes and designs. At the end of the war the duffel bag, like much other military equipment, found its way into army surplus stores, where it was appropriated as a style accessory by surfers in California and Australia.

    Duffel or Duffle

    Duffle is an English corruption of the original word and although both spellings are still in use, duffel has been the preferred spelling since the Second World War.

    What Makes a Good Duffel Bag?

    The bag takes its name from the material from which it was originally made, but these days duffel bags are produced in a range of materials. A good duffel bag will have strong stitching and be made from a durable material such as canvas or leather. Traditional duffel bags are carried by their draw string, but this is an uncomfortable way to carry a heavy bag and modern bags tend to use carrying handles. A good quality duffel bag will use sturdy fittings and strong zips.

    Can a Duffel Bag be Used as a Carry-on?

    In some ways a duffel bag is the ideal bag to use as a carry-on, because of its supple exterior it can be part filled and squashed to fit particular airline baggage restrictions. It’s probably not the best choice if you require your ironed garments to arrive absolutely crease free, but if you want a bag which will accommodate all those last-minute items or holiday purchases then you need a duffel, a bag where you can always squeeze in something else. The duffel is a versatile and timelessly stylish travel companion, quick to pack and easy to carry.

    Leave a comment

    All comments are moderated before being published

    Shop now

    Excellent Quality

    Buying online is always a risk but this apron is fantastic. It came in a timely manor and quality is great!

    Meg W.- The Classic Apron - Verified Buyer