Fashion purses and bags come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. The permutations are endless, but they have one thing in common. They begin in the form of a simple geometric shape, usually a derivative of a rectangle, square, circle, or cylinder. When you manipulate this shape by slashing and spreading, then adding gussets and darts, the magic begins. There are no reasons why anyone cannot draft their own patterns to make uniquely custom bag designs.

You only need to understand the various bag shapes, know how a bag is put together, and have the proper pattern-making tools and supplies on hand to get the job done. Once you are familiar with the basics, you will be able to analyze any style of bag and expand on and embellish it to suit your vision. The materials that your bag is made from can make or break its style and panache. Many newbies to bag design are intimidated by working with novel materials such as leather and plastics, but it is actually very simple to handle if you follow a few guidelines. The thought of painting leather edges may be daunting, but it’s a straightforward process when you are equipped with the right tools and have a comfortable, properly set up workspace. If you are just starting on your handbag-making journey, read through this post and gain an understanding of the basics and make sure you have a few essential tools to draft your patterns. If you already have experience and the necessary equipment, go ahead and pick a bag style and start creating.

When you take from one plane and add to another, the cubic area does not change, as shown in the three distinct silhouettes below: a cross-shape (1), an I – shape (2), and a T shape (3). When folded, they are all the same size. You can design a multitude of bag shapes using these three simple grid formations. Think of these as possible slopers, or master templates, for your bag and its shape. Each pattern has 6 planes: top, bottom, front, back, and 2 sides. In bag design-speak, we call them: top, base, front, back, and 2 gussets. The visible differences are in the seaming. You  can shift seams for simpler construction, ease of handling, or pure aesthetics. For instance, in the cross-shape bag style assembly, the seams are vertical in all four corners of the bag. For the I-shape bag style, the seams are one vertical one down the centre of each bag gusset and one across the gusset at the base of the bag. And for the T-shape bag style, the seams appear on the two vertical front corners and one horizontal seam along the bottom of each gusset at the base of the bag. Labour-wise, all require four passes under the sewing machine foot.




Once you establish your framework, the next step is to alter it to your design specifications. When you manipulate the edges of one or more surfaces by adding, subtracting, or shaping, you transform the box into the unique design of your handbag (see post on invisible grid).


For instance, you can add to the basic template as shown above to alter its shape (Note: The red lines represent the new style lines). The front and back planes of the cross-shape style (1) have more surface area by curving the sides. Due to that curved lines are longer than straight lines, additional length need to be added to each gusset so that top edges will match up when assembled. The same can be said for removing surface area. In the diagram, the basic I-shape style (2) is transformed by shaping each half-gusset inward toward the top edges, then cutting away the excess thus altering its shape. Each style represents the bag body or cavity once it is assembled. You can turn the top section into a flap; replace it with a metal frame, zipper, or draw cord; or eliminate it entirely.

Also when modifying a basic template keep in mind the Rule of Thirds (see post on Rule of Three) as bag details and embellishments that appear in odd numbers are more appealing, memorable, and effective than even-numbered pairings. While it is easier to create symmetry by balancing elements in pairs, odd numbers helps shape more interesting concepts, enhances user-functionality and establishes a smarter balance. For instance, below, is an example of how the basic I-shape style is altered into 3 parts to create its gussets and creates better visual appeal to the bag style. The resulting style produces clean lines where the bag pattern folds on all sides and the bag is shaped by sewing up the gusset seamlines.


The next step is to execute a draft so you can see your creation in three dimensions. You can also draw on detailing, such as pocket placement and additional seams. Be certain to ¨true¨ all matching points and lines in your draft.

When designing a practical bag, keep in mind that you want a reinforced bottom, a secure top, an opening large enough for its contents, and pockets to keep everything organized. If you are always on the go and reaching for your bag, you will want handles that are long enough to throw over your shoulder, or one strap handle so you can carry the bag across your body to keep hands free.

As mentioned earlier, having the proper pattern-making tools and supplies on hand is a must to get the job done. Basic pattern-making tools and supplies are easy to find. You will need paper, first of all. I use kraft paper aka parcel wrap but any type of large format paper from newsprint sheets to rolls of professional ‘dot’ graph paper will do. Next, you will need 3 basic drafting tools: a grid ruler for measuring and drawing straight lines, a set square to construct proper 45 and 90 degree angles, and a French curve to draw smooth curved lines. Choose either imperial (inches) or metric (centimeters) for your units of measure but be consistent. You cannot mix and match measuríng units. 


That is about all you will need to start pattern drafting, though you may want to add a tracing wheel to your kit for tracing off or copying many mirrored pattern pieces from the main pattern-draft. Paper scissors, a glue-stick, scotch tape, and sharpened pencils are office staples that you probably already have on-hand. All these tools and supplies can be purchased online or at any art supply store.



Filed under Bag'n-telle, Design Insight, pattern-making


  1. Toni Leggate

    Thank you – very useful information and many timely reminders.

  2. Great information, as always. I will save this info for reference. Thanks fir sharing your knowledge!!

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