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anatomy of a handbag - the materials and methods method

Today we're going to have a quick anatomy lesson - in the anatomy of a handbag.


Don’t worry.


There’s no test at the end.


It’s going to be fun!  We are going to look at general bag components, and what each of these components says about the bag’s style, sustainability and sturdiness.

(I am a compulsive alliterator. You’ll get to know this about me.)


Why ?


This seems weird.  Your last post was about sustainability.  Why are we switching gears?



Well, the materials and methods blog is about several things. We outlined those things in our first post (though not as succinctly as we would describe them now.) In a nutshell, we’re going to talk about: 


  • sustainability/slow fashion


  • supporting small business


  • our process/BTS


  • our products


  • other (specific right? Maybe more personal posts, or fun life projects, etc.)


So, starting with a series of general posts about each of those things seemed fun.  


This introductory post actually relates to three of the content categories – our products, our process and sustainability.


Alright let’s get into it!


Purses, and Pocketbooks, and Handbags…oh my!


Satchel, rucksack, clutch, tote bag….we could go on.


But we won’t.  This post is about anatomy, not bag types and naming conventions (another time maybe?).



There are many components to a handbag depending on the style and configuration (crossbody bag, backpack, etc), but there are three key elements that apply to most bags:


  • strap / handle


  • body / compartment


  • closure /opening


Let's look at each one. 


strap / handle


Bags generally have from 0 to 3 or 4 straps. 


(I love it when you’re specific, Anne.)


Small clutches or pouches might not have a handle.  There is something both comforting and empowering about the feel of holding a clutch in your hand.  You are in control of your treasures – they are tucked safely inside, and you can access them whenever you want.  It also feels sophisticated and grown up (at least it does to me, I don’t want to project 😊).  


anatomy of a handbag - Casey clutch in olive leatherTo add a bit of versatility and security, a clutch may have a wrist strap, either integral or detachable. We are always experimenting with strap placement and can’t wait to come up with a detachable option that fits our criteria.


Ok, back to bags that actually have straps and handles.


This is a critical element of a bag because it determines how you carry the handbag, and also, how MUCH you can (or should) carry. The weight of the bag and its contents are supported, by your body, wherever the strap/handle makes contact.


The load can be made more or less comfortable how it’s carried (in the hand, over one shoulder, across the body, around the waist), but ALSO by...


strap width. 


Wider straps distribute larger loads better than narrower ones of the same material. What this means is that a wider strap can be more comfortable under a heavy load.  Small bags don’t have the loading of big computer or crossbody bags, therefore straps can be quite narrow and delicate, while remaining comfortable.


Ok, this isn’t a lesson in the engineering or ergonomics of handbags, but I’m kinda thinking that’s a great topic for a future post! 🤓


strap length.

Length is primarily dictated by function, but style can definitely play into it. 


anatomy of a handbag - strap drop defined


One way to measure strap length is called Strap Drop.  It's the vertical distance between the bag opening and the top of your shoulder (where the strap would sit), and it's a really helpful measurement for shoulder bags and totes.  

How do you know what strap drop is best for you?

It comes down to personal preference.

Maybe you want the straps long enough that you can easily reach into the bag without taking it off your shoulder.

Maybe you want the straps short enough for a really secure carry, or so that you can reach all the way to the bottom of your bag without taking it off your shoulder.

Our Jenny and Charlie totes come in two standard strap drops - 11" and 13", with the option to customize.

Other tote designs (in the works!) might be best carried a bit higher, for comfort or to complement a horizontal bag shape.

Bags with a strap drop of more than 20" are generally worn across the body, and are best measured using strap length. (For more info on sizing both totes and crossbody bags, click here.)

In addition to sizing, there are other strappy elements that are bag defining: 


What are the straps made of?

Material choices for straps determine the strength and comfort of a bag.  Some textiles need to be doubled (or more) over and stitched in order to give enough strength to the strap, while leather or webbing is strong enough to be used as a single layer strap.  Material choices also factor into the sustainability of the bag.


Are the straps adjustable? 


Adjustable straps make it easy to change the length as needed, which adds convenience and flexibility. 


Are the straps removable?


Removable straps that can be attached in different ways, allow crossbody bags to be easily converted into belt bags, shoulder bags, or even backpacks.


Are the straps integral? 


Fixed straps that are integrated into the handbag itself (not attached with hardware) can be a striking design feature, and can give peace of mind with added security and fewer connections (AND less hardware. which is a sustainability consideration we’ll talk about in a future blog). This type of strap needs to be sized correctly for best fit.  For more information on sizing your fixed strap bag, click here.




A handle might be the main way to carry a small handbag – sophisticated, distinctive, cute – or all three (and if you don’t believe that it can be all three, just imagine Mary Poppins and her giant carpet bag for proof.) They can also be striking design elements when they’re made from a contrasting material (wood, acrylic, metal). anatomy of a handbag - norma handbag with plywood handle


Handles can also be one of several ways to carry one of those multi-strap bags I hinted at before  – adding convenience and versatility.  


body / compartment 


There are an infinite number of handbag shapes and sizes.  Function and form are both determining factors in this design decision.  If a bag is meant to hold a computer, it might not be round (Never say never, though! Dare me to design one!), but bags with unique shapes can be great ways to express your style.  


Similar to shape, the materials used for the bag (both exterior and interior) can be guided by both function and style. Materials used are also critical to the relative sustainability of a handbag (this will come up again in a future post!). 


Bag Bottoms


Some bags are narrow, without a defined bottom.  This can be done in a sleek and refined way, like dawn, or can simply be a pragmatic easy way to sew a bag – like a basic tote.  If the bag needs to hold more, or stand up on its own, the bag might have a boxed bottom or have a gusset on the bottom (and often the sides). Some handbags might have feet on their flat bottoms to protect the bag if it stands on the ground. 



anatomy of a handbag - boxed bottom and gusseted defined

Interior and exterior pockets add to the functionality, and also change the look of the bag – sometimes in an eye-catching way.


The method of construction influences a bag’s durability and its appearance.  The number of seams and their placement can impact the bags structural integrity. Pressure on the seams from overloading can make them prone to failure..


Ok wait.  I’m sorry. I’m putting you to sleep!  


You get the idea.  If you want to geek out more another time - we can. 


closure / opening


The final element that we’ll look at is the bag opening, and how it secures your belongings, makes access easier or harder depending on your needs, as well as how it impacts the look of a bag.


Closure options for bags are kinda limitless – drawstrings, carpet bag hardware (Mary!), snaps, magnets, turnbuckles, zippers …


A strap wrapped and tied around a pouch can act as a closure (my new-product-design mind is hard at work right now planning this, and also excited to come up with some really unique closure ideas!).



One hardware option that we are quite fond of using in our leather goods is the button stud.  It’s a small….well…stud, that acts as a ….button. If you attach it to one of the two elements you want to close, then punch a small keyhole shaped hole in the other element, they fit together like a sturdy little button in a buttonhole. 


(There was so much word repetition in that paragraph, but I’m not going to worry about it.)


A button stud is a closure that operates kinda like a button in a buttonhole.Totes are typically open at the top, but they might a snap or magnetic closure at the top.  Our jenny tote in felt is open at the top, but its boxed bottom (you know what that is!) and the stiffness of the felt, keeps the opening quite narrow.  


One note about zippers - they can be visible, fully exposed with tabs at the ends (like in our Jennifer convertible backpack), or recessed and not visible at the top (no examples of this yet, but it’s in development!)


anatomy of a handbag - Jennifer convertible backpack

This post was a bit longer than anticipated.


It’s ONLY because we love to take all of these elements, combine them, and come up with thoughtful designs just for you! Our favourite bags are the ones that integrate form and function really well - where the design is in the construction – the materials and methods, if you will.


Will you?

I can get corny, punny, and as you know, alliterative.  Hopefully you’re into it. 🙂 


What attracts you to a bag? What are your must-haves when looking for a bag? If you have any questions, please pop them in the comments!

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