Footbags are small, soft pliable bags filled with pellets or other small solid objects. Also known as Hacky Sacks—the brand name for certain footbags—they are a little bigger than a golf ball, a few inches in diameter and an ounce or so in weight. Footbags come in two varieties: a crocheted version and paneled kind made of one of several kinds of leather or artificial materials.
The modern footbag was developed as a rehabilitation tool in the 1970s. They were soon marketed as sporting toys and became popular on a large scale. To play with the footbag, it is bounced or kicked with the foot or other parts of the leg with the goal of keeping it off the ground. Leather court shoes specially laced are the preferred shoes for using footbags. Shoes are an important part of using footbags so that optimal control is maintained.
Footbags are now the center of several games (including net sack), and organized international competitions are held regularly. Soccer players also use footbags to train for their sport.
The footbag originated in Asia during the dynastic era in ancient China. Imperial guards stayed alert during their overnight assignments by kicking about a small round object stuffed with hair. A similar object was used to train Chinese soldiers in 2600 b.c. About 2,000 years ago in Asia, a game called shuttlecock began to be played. At its center was a disc with feathers on it that was kicked between players. Shuttlecock is still played in parts of that continent.
Other footbag-like games are still part of Asian culture. In Malaysia, the national sport is sepak takraw. It is played with plastic or bamboo ball that is light and hollow. Similar sports are played in Philippines, Myanmar, and Singapore.
The history of the footbag in the United States began in the early 1970s. Mike Marshall had taken a trip to Asia and seen one of the footbag-like games there. In 1972, Marshall met John Stalberger Jr., a former football player recovering from a knee injury who was looking for a rehabilitation exercise. They came up with the footbag. This early version was a small sock stuffed with dried corn and tied. Stalberger and Marshall tested out several versions of the bag, a few of which were beanbag-like, and experimented with various ways to use it.
Stalberger dubbed the small bag a Hacky Sack because when he and Marshall would play with the bag, they said they were going to "hack the sack." Despite Marshall's death in the mid-1970s, Stalberger continued to market the footbag to schools and sports stores in his local (Portland, Oregon) area. Receiving an enthusiastic response, Stalberger patented the Hacky Sack in 1979. (He sold the rights to the name to Wham-O! in 1983.)
Early footbags were made of a heavy cordura-like fabric, though cowhide leather soon dominated the market. The leather was used to make panels that were sewn together, not unlike a soccer ball. In 1981, crocheted foot-bags (called granny sacks, because they were handsewn, allegedly by grandmothers) were introduced. Crocheted footbags were seen as an improvement on the leather footbags, which were hard to break in. Crocheted footbags were already soft.
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, artificial materials began to be used more often than leather. Ultrasuede does not require the same kind of break-in period that leather footbags do. Paneled footbags became made of vinyl, pigskin, water buffalo skin, snake skin, kangaroo skin, and various artificial materials.
While the crocheted type of footbag are popular among some footbaggers, others believe that paneled footbags are better and last longer. Different footbags have different characteristics, especially concerning bounce. Both types of footbags are usually filled with plastic pellets, but have been filled with other materials like cherry pits. In 1995, sand-filled footbags were introduced, and soon became popular among freestyle enthusiasts because they are conducive to certain tricks. By 1995, several million footbags were sold every year.
Footbags became a popular fad in North America by the early 1980s. A million footbags were sold by 1983. Though interest in footbags was concentrated in the United States, it soon became a worldwide phenomenon. Though faddish interest in foot-bags faded, a core constituency has remained. Those who use footbags value how it increases agility, endurance, coordination, balance, and concentration. Others enjoy footbags because they are not competitive in the same way most sports are: users have to cooperate with others to keep the footbag off the ground.
One way that footbags are used are in hack circles. The footbag is passed around a circle via foot, using one of the five basic kicks (the inside kick, knee kick, toe kick, outside kick, or back kick). Circles can be comprised of as few as two and as many as 25 or more players, and is often played on college campuses. Hack circles evolved into footbag freestyle. Footbaggers show off tricks like toestalls and clippers, linked together in routines, while keeping the footbag off the ground. Competitors are judged on difficulty of routines as well as artistic merit.
Freestyle is just one event in footbag competitions. Another is Footbag Consecutive, played in singles or pairs. The object is to keep the bag going as long as possible. A world record in pairs set in 1995 had two people completing 123,456 kicks in 19 hours, 19 minutes, and 20 seconds.
Some footbag games are individual while others involve teams. Net-sack was invented by Stalberger in the late 1970s. It is essentially volleyball with a footbag. Played on a badminton-sized court with a 5 ft (15.2 m) high net, net-sack features singles and doubles brackets and is scored like volleyball. Footbag golf is played and scored like golf on a course with holes and obstacles.
Crocheted footbags have designs woven into them, including stripes, names and symbols. The patterns are set before production.
While some paneled footbags have brand names or logos silk-screened to them, the primary design process concerns how the panels are shaped, colored, and placed, and the number of panels. The panels can be shaped like squares, triangles, octagons, circles, and pears. Colors are limitless. There is even a footbag made with a glow-in-the-dark exterior. Early paneled footbags were sometimes made of only two panels, but more panels have become more common. Eight to 14-paneled footbags are very popular on the retail level. Footbags made of 32 panels also have a large following among accomplished foot-baggers. The more panels, the rounder the footbag.
Crocheted footbags are often made of double stranded heavy duty rayon. Most paneled footbags are made of ultrasuede, though they can also be made of split-grain cowhide, vinyl, pigskin, water buffalo skin, snake skin, kangaroo skin, facile, multifuzz polymer suede, or other artificial materials. Paneled footbags are sewn with a tough, durable synthetic thread, not unlike dental floss. Faceted styrene plastic beads the size of the BBs are most often used to stuff footbags. Sometimes footbags are filled with plastic regrind pellets, plastic polyresin filler pellets, small rocks, com, or sand.
The Manufacturing Process
- Rayon is hand crocheted according to a pattern with a certain number of stitches. A hole is left on top.
- The faceted styrene plastic beads are measured by volume, sometimes in a plastic jig. They are put in the footbag through the hole by hand.
- After the bag is filled, the whole on top is crocheted closed. It takes about 20 minutes to one hour to finish one bag.
- To create the panels, bolts of ultrasuede (or other fabric or leather) are loaded on to a machine with an automated, repetitive punch and die mechanism. The punch is lowered through the fabric to create the shaped panels. This process is often guided and supervised by a worker.
- Some of the panels are set aside and a logo or other stamp is silk-screened to them. This silk-screen process is done by hand.
- The panels are assembled for sewing by hand. They are sewed inside out, leaving the final four or five stitches loose. (While most panels are sewn by hand, a few companies sew paneled footbags on machine, especially those that will be filled with sand.)
- The footbag is turned inside out. About 1.1-1.8 oz (32-50 g) of plastic pellets (or other filling material) is measured and inserted by hand through the space created by the loose stitches.
- The final stitches are completed with an interior knot.
- Depending on the manufacturer, the finished product is packaged for retail sale, then boxed for shipping. Smaller manufacturers pack the footbags as is for shipping.
Crocheted footbags are dimension tested for size and tight crocheting. The beads must be the same size and right fill weight. Any rejected crocheted footbags are unraveled and redone.
Panel footbags are often sample checked at the end of the manufacturing process for the correct stitching, weight, and size.
There are no byproducts in the crocheted footbag process. Extraneous materials are reused.
Scraps from the panel creation process are thrown away, but the waste is minimal.
Paneled footbags will be improved as more new fabric materials are put on the market. More durable, washable ultrasuedes and other fabrics will mean better, longerlasting footbags. New designs will also be continually introduced. Different fillers for both crocheted and paneled footbags are regularly developed.
Where to Learn More
Cassidy, John. The Hacky-Sack Book. Palo Alto: Klutz Press, 1982.
Berg, Scott. "Footbag: Kickin' Up a Storm." Washington Post (August 6, 1999): N63.
Colton, Michael. "The Goodwill Game." Los Angeles Times (September 18, 1995): El.
Najarian, Ara. "Kicking It: For Simple Fun With Your Feet, Footbag is a Sport with Sole." Los Angeles Times (Orange County Edition) (May 28, 1999): 28.
World Footbag Association (1998). http://www.worldfootbag.com (December 27, 2000).