Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Designer Handbag factory

The last time I wrote about taking the step up in handbag making, from hand laced bags, to bags made using machines. This time I am going to show you how this is done in the factory.

The man above is Otis Anthony, shown in his factory in Framingham MA. in 2001. I learned a lot from Otis in the 70's when he developed and made the Frye Handbag line under license from the Frye Boot Co.

Otis passed away a few years ago but his legacy lives on with me and others he taught over the years. I was in the artist colony at the Greenbrier a few months ago and saw some of his styles made the way he did it so someone out there has his equipment and is still making bags the way he did.

I visited a designer handbag factory earlier this month and had permission to take photos as long as I didn't use their name on the Internet. Maybe you can tell who's factory this when you see some of their styles.

The man above is hand cutting handbags. Look and learn... He is cutting against sheet metal with a knife made from a hacksaw blade. They hand cut almost all of their handbags which allows them to be "up to the minute" and change styles without waiting for dies to be made. They custom make the handbags one at a time as orders come in.

After being cut the parts are put in plastic bags to keep all the parts together. The linings parts are in another bag with the same order number and are sent to be sewn. The external parts are sent to this department to be skived. They keep a sample bag of each style that they refer to in order to know where and how much to skive. It take a lot of experience to know how to do this and it must be accurately done so that the leather parts fold properly. This skiver has servo motors to adjust all the skive parameters. They read out on a digital screen. He uses this info to reproduce the adjustments for a particular skive.

The next step is to glue and fold the leather parts as needed for the style being made. This time consuming job requires a lot of skill to fold evenly and straight and to get the proper radius on corners .

After sewing, hardware is added, and the bag is inspected before adding the pigskin lining.

Here are some completed bags ready to be shipped.

This designer bag company uses expensive Italian leather and custom hardware. On some styles custom handles and fittings are made from a very hard and expensive tropical wood that is exclusive to them.

This modern factory sure is a lot cleaner and more well lit than the shop Otis had.

This is a view of part of my studio. It's a lot more comfortable than a factory setting and makes use of natural light. I custom make orders. You can see the work orders on the bench and stuck to the windows. The sewing and skiving machines are to the left and to the rear.

You can view my handbags on my website

and "How to make a leather handbag from a photo", on my .net site or from links on the home page.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Handbag Conversion #4

This time we are going to make the transition from making laced and hand stitched bags, using hand tools, to making them using a commercial sewing machine. It doesn't make much difference which machine you use as long as it has a "Compound Feed". It can be a Pfaff, Juki, Consew, Adler or any of the made in China knock offs. I also like a reverse lever like on my Consew 226.
I have to caution you about getting the 226 though. It has a design flaw which causes the thread to get caught under the hook all the time. It is quite aggravating and I have seen people abandon it's use because of this problem. It is easily corrected by soldering a wire from the needle guard on the hook to the heel of the hook, closing off that 1/4" opening below the hook. You will need to use a liquid flux like Duzall in order to make the solder stick to the chrome hook.

You probably don't know what I'm talking about, and probably wonder what that has to do with making leather goods. It sounds more like a mechanic thing. Well, that is why some people are never able to make the transition from hand sewn to machine sewn leather goods. You will have to know not only the proper way to install the needle, how to thread the machine properly, have a variety of needles for different size threads, and be able to adjust the thread tensions. You will also have to know how to adjust the timing or you are going to waste a lot of time and money trying to get someone else to do it. You are going to need a variety if presser feet and maybe even modify the stock ones for some operations.
I'm not going to spend much time explaining how to make bags using only a sewing machine because what you can do is limited. You can make soft simple "Turned" bags out of thin leather, like Hobos and drawstring bags. You can make some "Stitch out" bags of firmer leather with raw edges, and garments if that is the way you want to go. You will soon find that with more complicated bags the seams get really thick in some areas, the bags get lumpy and just don't work.
What you need along with the sewing machine is a skiver (sky-ver). I use Fortuna skivers but there is a good Italian make and a lot of made in china knock offs. The skiver is a strange looking machine.

It has a hollow circular blade called a Bell, a curved feed wheel under the sharpened edge, and a presser foot above.

The leather edge is fed through the machine which cuts off part of the back of the leather. The flat guide determines the width of the skive and the knob below the lamp on the top picture adjusts the depth of cut.
Besides learning what all the adjustment knobs on the machine do, you will also have to know the proper feed wheel and presser foot to use. This machine can make up to a 2" wide skive which with the proper presser foot, can be used as a splitter for making binding.
With these two machines you can make more complicated turned bags with pockets and turned edges like the tote handbag on my web site. You will probably have to have raw edges on the closure strap but you can make a wide piece of binding for the top edge and put it on using the "French" binding or "Stitch in the ditch" method.
To make bags at this level you have to be as much of a mechanic as you are a designer or leathercrafter. To even just be a designer, you should know what the machines are capable of doing.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

#3 Handbag Conversion

In #2 I said I would tell you what the designer needs to provide to the person who will be constructing the handbag. The more I thought about that the more confusing and out of context I thought that that would become. I decide that I had to do it the way I started out to do in #1. That is, start in the beginning with the basics, and learn it the way I did.

We are going to start the actual design and conversion of a handbag with a retro style, laced together with rawhide. You make your drawing of a basic handbag shape like the one shown below that I found at

Make a paper pattern for the front. Draw a line 1/2" in from the edge where the holes are going to be punched. This is your seam allowance.
Fold the pattern in half so that you determine where the center bottom is. This will also show you if your pattern is symmetrical or not. Put a mark on the seam allowance line 3/8" on either side of the center bottom. Those two marks will then be 3/4" apart. Continue making marks 3/4" apart up both sides of the seam allowance line. You will need to have an even number of holes so that when you lace it up, the lace will come out of the top hole on one side and go into the top hole on the other side. That's how it will work out since you started on the center bottom, if you have the same number of holes on each side.

You next make a pattern for the handbag, sides which I call the gusset. Draw a seam allowance line on each side. Mark off the same number of holes on that pattern as you made on the front pattern. That gives you the correct length for the gusset. Taper the ends of the gusset to make it narrower near the top on each side. If I made the gusset 4" wide, I would make it 3" wide on the ends. Start the taper about 3" from gusset ends.

Ok, now make the back and flap pattern. Draw a straight line on a piece of pattern paper. Lay your front pattern on the paper with the fold you made in it aligned with the line on the pattern paper. Trace the pattern and transfer the hole position marks. This is the back of the bag. Now we add an extension for the flap. Turn your front pattern over as if it were hinged to your pattern paper at the top. Now your front pattern top, is on the top line you traced on the pattern paper with the fold aligned with the line on the pattern paper. Move it 3" up the line... so that the two are 3" apart. This is to allow for the amount of flap you need to go over the top of the gusset. Trace the top pattern again along with 3" connecting lines on each side. Don't mark the holes this time because this is the flap and it doesn't get holes. This flap is actually marked too big, your tracing will show you how long the flap needs to be if you want it to cover the entire front of the bag. The tracing line represents the front of the bag. You can mark your flap shorter and narrower within the traced line and give it any shape you want. After you cut out your pattern fold it in half the same way you did with the front pattern. This will show you if your flap is symmetrical.

We know that this pattern will work because of the way we laid it out. The seam allowance lines are the same length and the holes are the same distance apart. I don't mark the fastener hardware location until I make the first bag. The thickness of the leather can change where the flap actually falls. This pattern was made assuming that a firm 5-6 oz leather similar to to that shown in the example above would be used.

You should now be able to make this type of bag and assemble it. The strap is just lashed to the top of the bag. You could instead, add a narrow extension to both tops of the gusset to fold around a ring, and either rivet it or lash it down through a couple holes. All you need is the leather and a few hand tools. You could add a pocket to the front or back and fasten the flap down any number of ways. Those are the kinds of changes you can make as the designer of this type of bag. Check out the other designs at the Old School link above to see some variations.

Next time we will make a soft bag using a sewing machine.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

#2 Handbag Conversion

Many people want to be designers because, at it's most basic, it's simply "Day Dreaming", which is something they think they are good at.

So, now that you have the image of what you want to make and can manipulate an image of it in your mind, what do you do with it? Well, unless you can convert that day dream into another format, that is what it will remain.
What you don't do is call me on the phone or send me an email that goes something like this actual email:

I love leather back packs! But as hard as I have looked, I have not been
able to find all the features I like in one back pack. So, I have a design
in my head, and I'm going to try to put it on paper. If I can do that, and
send it to you, can you make it for me? If so, how much would it cost me?
Please let me know. I am really, really looking forward to your response!

And this:

I'd like the exact same shape as the GUcci cruise hobo, but just a tad
rounded at the corners. Maybe cropped just where the flowers end at the
corners. The handles: I'd love a strap that is actually a double strap,
but attaches like a single strap. I'm trying to skecth something now.

This is where you get out your pencil and paper and describe what that picture in your mind is... but not in words, You draw it. How? Start in the bottom left of your paper with a straight on front view. Above it a top view a top view, as if you were looking down at it, the same size as the front view. To the right of the front view draw a side view. Other views of details are included as necessary. To learn the basics of this find a book like "French's Engineering Drawing".
The next is an Oblique view like the one below that was emailed to me by a customer. To start, learn to do this with a T square and 30/60/90 triangle.

This guy actually knows something about drawing and did a good job with the dimensions. What do you think it is? I think it's a case that slides onto a belt for something to do with his hearing aid or something, with a slot in the cover so he can raise or lower the volume instead of playing with it in his pocket (very distracting). Looks like all the info is there... Just a matter of making it, right?
All you have to do is find "That Guy" that I mentioned in the previous chapter. When you do find "That Guy" what is he going to think of this drawing?
Well, the first thing I thought was, "It ain't going to work". If it's going on a belt it has to curve around the waist. It is going to get twisted out of shape in use and the cover won't fit properly. Maybe you think that it isn't the business of the person making it, to explain practical considerations to the designer. What happens when the customer gets it and it doesn't work? In this designers mind it works just fine, who's problem is it when it doesn't?

When I lived in the West Indies there was a guy I knew who bought a property with a house on it. He wasn't satisfied with the house, so even though it was recently built, he hired a "Designer" to remodel it. She had them rip out the walls to modify it to her design. They remade the living room. On the other end of the house they remade the bedrooms. Then they called the designer with a small problem... it seems they only had 2 feet left in the middle for the kitchen.

The thing is, the design has to work. If you were actually going to make this case, how would you put it together? If it's made out of sheet metal, no problem, just bend the corners and weld the parts together. Out of wood, you could just glue it together. Out of fabric it probably wouldn't be to hard to sew, you could just fold the fabric down and fit it in the machine to sew it. Out of leather... How thick is the leather? How firm?
Even if you could make it out of metal, wood, or fabric, to do so you would still have to make a lot of design decisions, wouldn't you? For me, that drawing is missing so much information, it's little more than an idea of what the guy wants. The first thing I would have to do is design it as something that could actually be made with the equipment available.
The designer has to specify everything so that the people in the factory can make it. There isn't "That Guy" who knows everything, at least in most factories. There is the guy who uses the dies to cut it out. There are a lot of people who only know their operation (maybe), There is the person in the spray booth, the skiver, the splitter, the "Machine operators" who sew it up. The machine operators who only use one machine... the only one they know how to use... don't get me started on the problems I have had with machine operators...
More about what a designer needs to provide in #3

Saturday, March 29, 2008

#1 handbag conversion

I'm calling turning a handbag concept into a finished product, "Handbag Conversion". Where to start??? Well, I took an art course at UCONN years ago where the first assignment was to glue a black spot somewhere on a white piece of paper. The next day it was a white spot on a black piece of paper. I actually spent time pondering this placement...
I asked the instructor what the purpose of this assignment was. He said that the people in the class all had different skill levels and so to start, we have to start at the very beginning, so that everyone has the same basic understanding of the fundamentals.
I came to realize that the actual purpose was to create a grading system where Engineering students like myself, who were required to take the class, could be given a "C", and art majors could be given an "A" in a way where this bias could not be proved.
Still, it was an interesting answer that I have always remembered, and a method I am going to try to employ here.

So where do we start? Lets first copy and print the list at the bottom of this Handbag Design page and follow the instructions above it. Providing the info on this form is already way past where we need to start so lets backtrack.
You play chess one move at a time... making what you think is the best move each time it is your turn. You have no idea whether you will win or loose or what the board will look like on the last move. You can't operate that way if you are trying to create a particular product. You can't just start building.
Modern art is done that way though, you flick paint onto a canvas, make a brush stroke, flick some more paint... trying with each application to make the canvas look better than it did before and hope you end up with something that people will want to look at. If you do, it isn't because of design.
To make something by design what do you need first? If you are building a house what do you need first? If building a car what do you need first? How about a need for the product, a reason to make it. Where does it fit into your marketing efforts... already I feel I am way past the basics.
The designer thinks about those things, the maker only has to follow the designers instructions. The architect designs the house for his client and provides a plan for the builder. The builder hires people skilled enough to execute the plan. The architect has to watch the process to insure the correct materials and procedures are used.
In building construction the process is divided into fields of knowledge performed by different trades. There are the concrete people who make the foundation, the framers, the electricians, the heating and cooling people, the roofer, the painter.
In handbag construction what does the designer do? What does the maker do? My answer to the first is, not enough. The answer to the second is, everything else. Who is the designer? Anybody who thinks the title looks good on them... Who is the maker? It's, "That Guy", all designers are looking for.
Next time I'll try to cover what the Designer does, or should be able to provide the maker. In Italy last year I met a fashion design student and asked her what they teach in that expensive N.E. school.... She said, "They seem to put a lot of emphasis on drawing". That's about what I figured...
Homework assignment:
Take a handbag you have. One you are familiar with. Place it in front of you and look at it. Close your eyes and fix a picture of the handbag in your mind, suspended in air (the bag, not your mind). Keeping your eyes closed, take that picture of the bag and revolve it until you are looking at the back, turn it back to the front and open it and look inside. Close it and place it on the table. Open your eyes. Practice this over and over until you can see every detail.

See you next time

My wife read this and said, "It's fine up until the end. YOU are a VERY pragmatic guy... and it's fine if you really do it like that ... but all that opening and closing your eyes... people will wonder what you are smoking."
After 31 years of marriage she still doesn't know how I think... not a bad thing. Actually I do it without closing my eyes. The thing is that if you can't maneuver parts and assemblies in your mind like that, and I'm told some people can't, you will never be a designer. This is the most basic first step.

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