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The History of the Tea Bag

by Kriszti Nagy on March 18, 2017
Reading time: 6 minutes

The tea bag is a modern convenience, but is it that clever? 

The "problematic" tea leaves

"Heretofore it has been common to prepare tea ... by putting a quantity of tea leaves in a pot and pouring hot water thereon ... This practice involves the use of a considerable quantity of tea leaves to prepare the desired supply of tea, and the tea, if not used directly, soon becomes stale or wanting in freshness, and therefore unsatisfactory, and frequently a large portion of the tea thus prepared and not used directly has to be thrown away, thus involving much waste and corresponding expense."

Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren  


What is a tea bag?

A tea bag is a single-use, porous and sealed sachet used to brew tea or infusions. It contains tea leaves, flowers, leaves of herbs and spices.

Until the early 20th century very little changed about making a cup of tea. Steep tea leaves in a pot, then pour the liquor into cups - but that all changed in 1901.

Packing tea in paper was not a modern invention. In 8th century China - during the Tang Dynasty - folded and sewn square paper bags preserved the qualities of tea. 

When were tea bags invented - and how?

Many filed patent applications for convenient tea infusers in America starting from 1897. Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin filed for a patent for a 'Tea Leaf Holder' in 1901.

The aim was simple. Brew a single cup of fresh tea while no leaves were floating around the cup to spoil the experience.

"Our novel tea-holding pocket is constructed of open-mesh woven fabric, inexpensively made of cotton thread."

Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren

Roberta Lawson Mary McLaren tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag patent loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea
Roberta Lawson Mary McLaren tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag patent loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea

Were the first tea bags made of silk? 

What material were the first tea bags made from? Sources claim that Thomas Sullivan invented the tea bag in 1908. He was an American tea and coffee importer who shipped out samples of tea packed in silk pouches. Brewing tea using these bags became very popular among his customers. This invention was accidental. His customers were not supposed to put the bags in the hot water, but to remove the leaves first. 

This happened 7 years after the 'Tea Leaf Holder' was patented. Sullivan's customers may have already been familiar with the concept. They assumed that the silk pouches had the same function. 

tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea

Where were modern tea bags invented?

Filter paper replaced fabric in the USA during the 1930's. Loose leaf tea began to disappear from the American store shelves. Tetley brought the idea of the tea bag to the UK first in 1939. Yet, only Lipton introduced it to the UK market in 1952 when they patented their “flo-thru” teabag.

tea leaf holder teafilter filter history of the teabag loose leaf tea london uk tea shirt tailored refreshments award winning zero waste tea

This new way of consuming tea didn't take on in Britain as in the United States. While in 1968 only 3% of all tea brewed in the UK using a teabag, by the end of the century this number rose to 96%.


The tea bag changed the tea industry: the invention of the CTC method

The first tea bags only allowed the use of small particles of tea. The tea industry was not able to produce enough small grade teas to fill the growing demand for these bags. Producing large quantities of tea packed this way required a new manufacturing method.

Some Assam tea estates introduced the CTC (short for 'cut, tear and curl') manufacturing in the 1930's. Black teas produced with this method have a strong liquor and are perfect with milk and sugar.

The tea leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the tea into small, hard pellets. This replaces the final stage of orthodox tea manufacture, in which the leaves are rolled into strips. The image below shows our Breakfast Tea, a high quality CTC Assam loose tea from Doomur Dullung - which is the base tea of our beloved Choco Assam blend

CTC assam loose leaf tea

CTC (or mamri) black teas from Assam are traditionally used in Masala Chai. They make a great strong base tea that is not overpowered by the spices and sweeteners. Check out and try our award-winning CTC teas here!


When were pyramid tea bags invented? 

Brooke Bond (parent company of PG Tips) invented the pyramid tea bag. After lots of experiments, the tetrahedron - branded as "Pyramid Bag" - launched in 1996.

Traditional and pyramid tea bags


What makes pyramid tea bags special?

Pyramid tea bags act like a floating 'mini teapot'. By providing extra room for the tea leaves compared to flat tea bags, they make a better infusion.

Pyramid tea bags are becoming popular as they make flavours of loose leaf tea are more conveniently available. Their distinct shape and shiny finish is elegant, too. But, let's not forget, they are all made of plastics or bioplastics.

How to use a tea bag?

You can use tea bags for hot and cold brews, using the same brewing times and water temperatures recommended for loose tea. However, there can be big differences in the resulting quality and taste. 

Portion sized tea bags generally contain fannings (small pieces of tea that are left over after higher grades of leaf teas are gathered - normally these were treated as the rejects) or dust (fannings with very small particles). Traditionally, CTC teas steep very quickly, therefore you will not be able to steep CTC tea bags several times. You will never be able to extract the flavours and colours you can experience with loose leaf tea. Using a tea bag can be seen as quicker and cleaner, thus more convenient.

Never squeeze your tea bag!

Trying to cut brewing time by squeezing your tea bag can completely ruin your experience. Releasing concentrated tannins can result in a bitter cup! Always wait until your tea is as dark as you like it. Then remove the bag with your spoon and hold it over the cup so it can drain, then place it on your saucer.


Do tea bags expire? Storing tips!

Yes! Tea's enemies are light, moisture and odours. Use airtight and opaque containers to maintain freshness and flavours. Store in cool, well-ventilated environments far from spices. We do not recommend storing tea bags in the fridge - condensation might affect the flavour. Store your teas as described above until their expiry date.


Are tea bags plastic free and compostable?

Not all. Tea bags are made of materials strong enough to hold the tea in, but light enough to allow the tea to be released into the water. Unfortunately, materials used for traditional tea bags might seem to be 100% paper but they can still contain microplastics. Pyramid tea bags are made of plastics or bioplastics, therefore paper filters or reusable solutions are always a better choice. While the tea leaves themselves are compostable, you always have to check how to dispose of your tea bags with the manufacturer. 

Recycled tea bag art: tea bag folding

Tea bag folding is also known as miniature kaleidoscopic origami. The artform is credited to Dutch artist Tiny van der Plas, who developed the technique in 1992. She was in need of a unique and decorative birthday card and folded 8 tea bag wrapper envelopes. Folding and interlocking identical envelopes in symmetrical designs, she created three-dimensional ornaments.

Attaching these to cards make a hand-made personal gift. Making these have become so popular, you can even buy pre-printed sheets of 'tea bag folding' paper. Any patterned paper works, but assembled tea bag wrappers are the coolest! Check out some examples below by Uta at Paperwoolyarn:

tea bag wrapper folding art


Used tea bags turned into miniature canvases: Tea Shirts

We love all the tea bag art created by visual artist and graphic designer Ruby Silvious. Of course, we had to highlight her Tea Shirts! <3

Tea Shirts by Ruby Silvious - tea bag art watercolour

Solution - or a new problem? 

The sad consequence of teabag use is not only unnecessary waste. Do you worry that due to convenience eating you have no connection with the food you eat? Do you worry about losing your immediate connection with the beverages you drink, too? Be aware of the origin of the leaf and its appearance. Buy loose leaf tea and always know what you're steeping! 

Our fill-your-own tea bags have been very popular with many of you trying loose leaf tea for the first time. These are tea-bag-like paper infusers you can dispose of with food waste. Fill them with the leaves of your choice!

Do you prefer loose leaf tea or tea bags? Let us know in the comments! 


by Peter on March 17, 2021

I have always been biased in favour of loose leaf tea and even open up tea bags to use the contents. My father always claimed teabags only contained floor scrapings and the leftover dust from tea chests. He certainly influenced my preferences from an early age. I do however claim that most (not all) teabags impart a paper taste to the drink.
My gran used to read few leaves and I always liked the little tea ‘log’ that sometimes floated in the cup and believed it to bring luck. Sadly, most loose tea these days is too fine and consistent and the ‘log’ has been lost. I am one of those who likes to see a certain amount of leaf in my cup.

by shay habel on January 29, 2021

if only I could find decent loose leaf decaff tea I would rush to buy it! I would prefer caffeine tea but can no longer drink it.I have wasted £s on niche company decaf teas all of which taste of straw. Only Taylors of Harrogate make half way decent decaff bags which I make in a teapot. If anybody knows of a loose lease decaff decent tea please let me know!

by Kriszti @ Tea Shirt on May 18, 2020

Yes, I understand why it might seem difficult! To us, it seems tea-lovers often switch to loose-leaf once they smell and/or taste proper teas or blends: the experience is so much better, their senses don’t let them go back! The act of making and serving tea is an important part of the experience – using a teabag in a teacup becomes boring :)

by Leexxxx on May 18, 2020

I find it difficult to persuade people that tea made in a pot with boiling water and tea leaves is immeasurably better than a tea bag dunked in a cup of hot water! Recently, a well-known quiz host stated that the proper way to make tea was with a teabag in a cup. Very sad.


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