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Understanding Purse Straps and Handles



I am so thrilled that my blog tour week is finally here! My new book: Sew Bags: The Practical Guide to Making Purses, Totes, Clutches & More; 13 Skill-Building Projects is written as a guide, complete with patterns and step by step instructions ,to help you create the bag of your dreams. This week, a few gracious sewing friends from across the globe are generously giving us their time and sharing their thoughts and projects from my book. I just can’t wait to see what they have made.

I hope that you follow along to check out their take on the projects and enter to win a copy of Sew Bags at each stop! You can enter the C&T giveaway HERE.

Tuesday, 7/1: C&T Publishing

Wednesday, 7/2: Hilarie Wakefield Dayton of Little Stitch Studio Norfolk

Thursday, 7/3:
Katie Kortman

Julia of Old Spool Sewing

Friday, 7/4: Jessy of Needle, Ink and Thread

StitchlessTV (YouTube video)

Monday, 7/8: Sewing with Kate

This week on Instagram, look for TopStitch Atlantas Instagram story .

After a lovely introduction from my friends at C&T yesterday, I thought that I would follow up today by sharing my thoughts on creating a bag that suits you as the wearer. A purse is an opportunity to show the world your personal style and the silhouette that best represents you. Which means: any old bag just won’t do. Like it or not, your purse says a lot about you. Are you a mom that has to carry everything for everyone? Are you a just the basics and cut it to the essentials? Are you out for friends with the night and carrying a fun clutch? Besides toting the essentials, a purse is also an accessory-a blank canvases that can project your mood, your favorite trend, or your aesthetic of the moment.

Since everyone is different, there are also adjustments you can make to a sewing pattern that will customize the bag perfectly to your body and individual needs to ensure that your bag is useful as well as beautiful. I’m all about customization and straps and handles are a great way to both customize and accessorize.


Bag straps and handles are so much more than a mere function of convenience. They are exciting design features on their own. Not to mention, major considerations in determining the usefulness of any given bag.

We all have fallen in love with a bag that had handles that just weren’t right: Too thin and they cut into your arm or shoulder or too wide and they slide off. It is important to consider how you will carry your bag as well as what it can fit. Do you wear it on your shoulder? Over a coat? On the crook of your arm? In your hand? Keep in mind that smaller bags use thinner straps and larger bags use wider straps.

The most challenging part of sewing a bag is that you can't try it on until after it’s finished. And, if it doesn't fit right, you can't just exchange it for another size. Finding the right fit before you start sewing can solve this problem. I suggest that before you make any bag, stop and consider the strap length before cutting into your fabric. This is such an easy way to begin to customize the pattern and make the finished bag comfortable and fit you.

The Heidi Side Panel tote from my book, Sew Bags: The Practical Guide to Making Purses, Totes, Clutches and More, in two ways. The first, with leather straps set with rivets and extra handy D-ring detail, the second with cotton webbing strap detail and leather front patch pocket.

Strap Length and Drop

There are a couple of ways to determine the overall size and fit of a bag before you begin. One way is to measure a bag that you already own and know it fits just the way you like. (This is also a great trick when making someone else a bag as a surprise. You can simply borrow their bag for minute and take a quick measurement.) The second way is to make a paper mock-up of your bag and using a ribbon and clips or pins, play with the straps length and width until you find the one that is the most flattering and comfortable. Then measure that ribbon from end to end to determine the length. Write that number down- because it may need to be adjusted depending on the strap placement on the bag, the hardware used and what material the strap is made out of.

A tote mock-up made of oaktag. Handles are clipped to the top to test for fit.

In this drawstring backpack mock-up, I used tissue paper so that it would better hold a “cinched effect”. The cord is wrapped around the cinched opening and pulled to the bottom. Once I was happy with the way that it fit, I measured the cord and recorded that as my strap length.

Dress forms playing dress-up with the bags.

This is a good time to refer to the bag pattern. Where is the strap placed? It is aligned at the top of the bag or a few inches down, if you are making out of fabric, you’ll need to account for the seam allowance. Would you prefer the added polish and flexibility of a D-ring? If so, then you will need to consider the diameter of the ring to the overall length.

Here is a handy guide to use as a general rule of thumb in determining the appropriate strap length for each style of bag. Remember- this is just for reference, make the length that suits you.

1. Wristlet (6 to 10 inches)

2. Short Handle (12 to 20 inches)

3. Shoulder (30 inches)

4. Long Shoulder (40 inches)

5. Crossbody (50 inches)

6. Extra Long (60 inches)

7. Adjustable (22 to 60 inches)

Drop Length

After you determine the optimal length for your strap, we need to talk about the drop length. Drop length is defined as the distance between the top of the bag and the top of the handles.

The Wesley Shoulder Bag from my book, Sew Bags: The Practical Guide to Making Purses, Totes, Clutches and More. Compare the drop of the bag to the length of the arm. Would that be comfortable for you to carry?

How do you like to wear your bag? Some people like their tote to sit close to their body, while others want a little more room. Thinking about which one you'd prefer can help you decide on the perfect drop length. Choosing a longer drop length can make a big difference in giving you more space to maneuver. (Like when you are standing at the door holding onto a kid and reaching into the bag that is on your shoulder and trying not to break your wrist.)

If you're unsure about the right length, the easiest way to get an idea of which drop length would work best for you is again, measuring a bag that you already own and find comfortable to carry. Even if your current bag is a little snug for your taste, measuring the drop length of the handles can still give you an idea of what would work best for you.

The drop length of a bag strap may be altered by an adjustable slide. *blog post coming soon!

Fabric and Materials

Once you have the length, width and drop determined- now it is time to consider what fabric or material you are going to make your straps or handles out of. Lately designers are shedding a new light on handles as the primary design feature of a handbag. Take cotton webbing for example. It is the new design detail that’s been featured on bags of every price point. Inspired by the logo-mania trend of recent seasons, these woven wonders are giving our everyday bags a whole new lease on life, lending them a high-fashion feel. But the excitement doesn’t end there. You can also make the strap with a chain, leather (genuine or imitation), Kraft-tex, fabric or any combination of the bunch.

A recent visit to JoAnn’s Fabric confirmed the webbing strap trend!

See how a strap can change the entire look and function of a bag? This bag is the Morganne bag in my book. Made in quilting cotton with a contrast cross-body strap, it is the perfect bag for a child. In silk with a gold chain, you are ready to go out on the town.

Straps are such a fun way to introduce an individual approach to a handbag, distinguishing it as its own distinctive piece. I am so excited to see the bags that you are going to make. Please use the hashtag #sewbags on social media- and be sure to tag me @littlestitchstudio.

In my next post, I am going to explore some essential bag making hardware: swivel hooks, slide adjusters, and rings.

XO, Hilarie