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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Craftsy Class Review: Design Your Own Handbag

image courtesy of BrettBara.com...
DISCLOSURE: I am a Craftsy Affiliate and receive commissions from them via ads on my blog. This post is a review of a course that I received at no cost to me for enrolling in their affiliate program. I have not, however, been compensated in any way for writing this.

As I mentioned several posts ago, Craftsy.com is a great venue to turn to if you're looking to sell PDF patterns. Today's post — in conjunction with Craftsy's BIG Fall Course Sale — is about the other side of Craftsy: the online class learning experience, via the Design Your Own Handbag course (see ad above) to be precise.

Get ready — this is going to be a long one!

Check out Craftsy's latest promos...

Overall Summary

The video course consists of ten lessons, each one divided up into discrete chapters so that you can easily go back and reference any topic for which you might need a refresher. As you take each lesson, however, the material is presented seamlessly; that is, you don't get any jarring transitions that take you away from what you are learning as each "chapter" moves forward. You'll also have access to printed materials that you can download (pattern pieces, etc.). Normal price for this course is about $42; it goes on sale on a pretty regular basis, like maybe now.

My general thoughts? The course was — oddly enough — not organized in a way that's conducive to students actually learning by doing as they watch. (I was an instructor in a past life and I know how important it is for someone to be able to "do" as they go.) Unless the student was interested in wasting a lot of fabric, it would have been difficult to follow along and do what the instructor was doing — at the time that she was doing it — because the efforts would not have led to a finished product.

Put another way, the topics were organized in "sampler" fashion; i.e., this is how you make this particular component, this is how you would make that component, and this is how you might make yet another component. But one would never do those things, in that order, to make an actual bag.

For the fact that the title of this class implies that the end result should be a handbag of the student's own design, I'm not quite sure what level of expertise is required to achieve that. It's not really suitable for a beginner simply because even an experienced beginner is likely to be overwhelmed by how the "design your own bag" concept is offered up. I'm thinking that some intermediate level sewers might even be less than satisfied with how well this class prepares them to design their own bag. (I won't bother to talk about advanced sewers because they would already know way more than what is covered here.) For sure, individual skill sets will be improved after taking this course. Whether that translates into everyone being successful at even recreating the bags that Ms. Barra uses as examples is debatable.

That said, the course has received a lot of 5 star feedback ratings.

Finally, I truly don't know how to classify my own level of sewing expertise, but I will say this as a caveat: I am not normally a course taking individual (whether online or in person). I much prefer to tackle something on my own by diving right into it or by researching on my own terms and taking bits and pieces from various sources. By all means take that into consideration as I comment on each individual lesson below.

Lesson 1: Introduction

(Overview, About Brett, About Craftsy)
Lesson Running Time: 3:53

This is all just general stuff about how easy it is to take courses offered by Craftsy... your ability to ask questions of the instructor (Brett Barra in this case) and how you can review the lessons over and over again if you need to do so.

And I must say that if you are the "quintessential course taking type" — which I again freely admit that I am not — this is really a great setup. You can take your classes whenever you want and however many times you want, after paying just once. And you essentially have unlimited [email] access to your instructor as well as support from others who are taking or have taken the same course.

By the way, you can take your training "off line" via Craftsy's mobile apps.

About Ms. Barra... she's pleasant, well-spoken and engaging, but I was repeatedly distracted by her hand waving. ;-)

Lesson 2: Planning Your Design

(Overview, Shape, Fabric, Color, Stabilizers & Interfacing, Other Details, Inspiration, Scale & Dimension)
Lesson Running Time: 16:11

I found this lesson rather disappointing in the sense that it made me realize early on that this course wasn't going to be as "inspirational" as I had hoped it might be.

The design part of this class revolves around one main bag shape with boxed corners like a tote. (That is, no gussets. Virtually every substantial handbag/purse that I have made has had a gusset.) And while Ms. Barra does show you how four different bags can be created from this main shape right from the start, I have to say — with somewhat brutal honesty — that they are not the most enthralling bags I have ever seen. (They're the same ones shown in the ad at the top of this post.) She indicates that she prefers bold coloured, non-patterned fabrics. (And has a thing against quilting cottons...!) It's her course and she's entitled to her preferences, but something with a little more "pop" than a hot pink twill may have raised the wow factor on a couple of those bags.

Lesson 3: Reinforcing Your Fabric

(Overview, Woven vs. Nonwoven, Fusible vs. Nonfusible, Lightweight vs. Heavyweight, Interfacing and Fabrics, Examples)
Lesson Running Time: 17:51

The chapter titles are self-explanatory in this lesson. Everything you ever wanted to know about interfacing. If you have never seen any of the great blog posts about interfacing provided by some of the major sewing bloggers, then this is for you. Excellent information, but not new or different from what is readily available on the internet.

Lesson 4: Constructing the Basic Exterior

(Overview, Lining up the Pieces, Sewing the Side Seams, Sewing the Bottom and Corners, Shaping the Bag, Adding the Feet)
Lesson Running Time: 18:24

Here is the first time where I sort of went, "Huh?"

We are learning how to sew up the exterior of our plain jane bag. And I'm really talking plain jane because it is just two panels of interfaced and interlined fabric.

One "plus" here for people who have always had difficulty with the concept of boxed corners: you can see very clearly how easy it actually is when it's demonstrated for you. (Virtually impossible to describe with words!)

Your completed basket, er, bag??

Lesson 5: Constructing the Basic Lining

(Overview, Lining up the Lining, Assembling the Lining, Inserting the Lining, Sewing the Top Edge, Right Side Out, Topstitch)
Lesson Running Time: 25:00

Naturally following up on the previous lesson — but unnaturally winding up with a "basket" masquerading as a bag in the process — this lesson covers the making of a plain jane lining and inserting it into the plain jane exterior from before.

Yes, the topics covered are very well explained and completely relevant to bag making. The problem is, the way they are presented here does not mimic the actual tricky process of finishing up an actual bag, where you will most likely deal with unwieldy seams and awkward handling caused by pockets and straps and hardware getting in your way.

I can guarantee that when you get around to topstitching the top of a real bag, it will be much more of a chore than what Ms. Barra has to deal with here.

Lesson 6: Pockets

(Overview, Zipper Pocket, Flap Pocket, Slot Pocket, Patch Pocket)
Lesson Running Time: 44:35

If you are afraid of zippers, this lesson (and the upcoming Lesson 8) will be worth what you pay for this course. There is nothing like seeing someone doing it in front of you and making it look easy! (Although she uses something called Stitch Witchery tape to secure her zippers before sewing them... just handling that stuff seems like a headache and the fact that it needs to be fused with an iron means that you can only use it with a metal zipper.)

Overall, this is an excellent lesson on how to make various types of pockets. Again, it's just oddly placed in terms of continuity for making a bag when the previous two lessons already covered the completion of the bag's exterior and lining, which is where these pockets would normally be attached.

By the way, in case you were wondering if you would be learning about a new kind of pocket, the "Slot Pocket" referred to here is essentially a slip pocket.

Lesson 7: Handles & Straps

(Overview, Basic Strap, Fabric Covered Cord, Attaching Handles with Tabs, Attaching Handles with Grommets)
Lesson Running Time: 39:20

This lesson offers excellent instruction on making various types of straps. I actually got some new information here that will be of value to me personally. Content sort of requires Lesson 9 (since all of the straps require some sort of hardware to attach them to the bag) but then again, that goes back to my main beef about the organization of this course.

Lesson 8: Zippers

(Overview, Sewing a Recessed Zipper, Installing a Recessed Zipper, Top Zipper, Top Zipper Part 2)
Lesson Running Time: 37:13

The instruction involving the recessed zipper is done with a separating zipper, which (arguably) is easier to accomplish than with a regular zipper. Otherwise, this lesson is a good summary of everything you ever need to know about installing a zipper closure on a bag.

Check out Craftsy's latest promos...

Lesson 9: Closures & Hardware

(Overview, Magnetic Snaps, Twist Locks, Tab Hardware, Clasps, Feet)
Lesson Running Time: 24:02

The problem with showing concepts like these separately and individually (as is done for everything throughout this course) is that — for many people — when it comes time to do it on an actual bag, there may be other things to consider apart from the actual raw technique. Magnetic snaps, for instance, require some pre-planning because they have to be installed early in the game, so to speak. And they have to be located in such a way that they are not going to be too close for seams and topstitching. To her credit, Ms. Barra does mention some of these considerations.

As an additional heads-up, the hardware she uses is extremely high end stuff. For instance, her D ring of choice has a removable post, thereby allowing her to avoid the nastiness of trying to sew on a strap or a tab with a bulky D ring attached to it. And instead of rivets that need to be set (and pounded on), she introduces you to studs that just screw on. It all looks great, I must say, but definitely out of my budget range.

Oh, and I should mention that I got a great tip about how (else) to use purse feet that I hadn't thought of before.

Lesson 10: Shape Variations

(Overview, Reviewing the Steps, The Tote, The Slouchy Hobo Bag, The Curved Top Bag)
Lesson Running Time: 21:18

So should this lesson have been offered at the beginning of the course? I'm sure there are varying opinions, but at least some of the discussion here (perhaps the part about sketching your design and pre-planning) should have been provided at the beginning, to offer a road map of where we are going. It almost seems as though we have been taken on a trip without knowing what significance each stop along the way had in relation to our final destination.

I was satisfied with how the variations on the basic bag were explained except for one: the Curved Top Bag. This is arguably the most challenging design and the part about installing the strap tabs within the top facing was glossed over. (Trust me, installing those tabs is not something that comes naturally if you've never done it before.)

Final Assessment

If this course had been named "Bag Making Techniques", I would give it a 3.5/5 (with the deductions given for its focus on the tote bag structure and for its overall disjointed presentation). Given that the objective was to teach students how to design their own handbags, well... I'll have to be harsher and give it a 2.5/5. Because I honestly think that it's a 50/50 chance that anyone taking this course will wind up being able to design their own bag at any time in the future. (As opposed to making a variation of what they saw; there is a significant difference.)

So what would I change if I could?

I'd guide the student through actually making a bag, any bag. Give them a couple of similar body variations to choose from at the beginning. Instruct them to lay out a drawing of what the bag might look like in terms of pockets, straps and closures based on the bags that are being used as examples. You want to make a bag that is this big? Do this. You want to make a bag with this feature? Do that. At specific junctures, I would then introduce the different concepts that come into play, such as pockets (and allow the student to make whichever one(s) they want) and the different types of straps and closures. At these points, it would be important to remind students that their choices for straps and closures might affect how they lay out their pockets, or vice versa.

The point would be to offer students an appreciation of what they need to consider when making a bag that's not "by the book". Once they make it through the "customize this design" exercise, they would be more prepared to go back and give it a try with a design that's truly their own.

One of the feedback/reviews on Crafty's site for this class responded to similar criticism (about not being able to follow along to make a bag) by stating — and I'm paraphrasing to the best of my memory — that this was a "design your own handbag" class and not a "make your own handbag" class. My response would be that, taking that train of thought to its literal and logical conclusion, this class might be deemed an epic failure because my guess is that very few people coming directly off the completion of these lessons would have designed their own handbag in the process.

Still others say that you need to watch this whole class first before taking any "sewing action". Can you imagine taking any class anywhere and being told that you should attend the whole series of lectures before doing anything? (Apart from maybe nuclear physics and surgery?) Don't do any yoga during this yoga class, just watch me...

All of this is very unfortunate because each piece of instruction offered by Brett Bara is very, very good. Like I said at the beginning, she's engaging, you'll find yourself liking her, and she seems to be very accessible. The problem with this class is that it doesn't really deliver what the title implies you should be able to do upon completion. And the entire fault lies in the sequencing of topics.

Having said all of the above, if you approach it with the right expectations, this class could be for you. (And if it isn't, why not take a look at the current course offerings that are on sale to see what other class might be for you?)

Anyway, that's my two cents.

If you've found this long-winded review helpful, please leave me a comment below. :-)


  1. Thank you for this review, I was considering this course but I want to be able to create more than one type of bag so I think maybe this isn't the course for me. However I've purchased another couple of classes while the sale's on so Craftsy isn't missing out ��

    1. Glad to be of help. Enjoy your classes and thanks for stopping by.

  2. Hi! I'm reading through your review...and I purchased the class earlier today and am already through Lesson 4. I'm really enjoying it. I've already made a variety of bags and would not consider myself to be a beginner, so some of the concepts are a review to me. I understand what you're saying about going through a course in sequential order; but I have not found that to be off-putting. When I sew a bag, especially one with lots of components, I tend to focus on each component individually and not necessarily in the order the pattern gives. Maybe that's why this class works for me! :)

    I think, too, as you have alluded to, that this isn't a course for learning how to make a bag--that's assumed. It's a course for designing a bag so each of the components have their own focus. When you're designing, it's different than just sewing up someone else's design (as you know already!).

    I agree with you, though--I use quilting cottons a lot for bag exteriors, and I love 'em! :) I'm going to keep using them, too, LOL! Another point I agree with you on is that you definitely should watch the entire class before starting and not try to design "as you go". That approach actually works well for me.

    I think you have a really thought-provoking review here. It's definitely helpful to hear a variety of perspectives. I believe that there is room for another Craftsy handbag class!! Perhaps someone will produce one soon.

    Thanks for the review!

    1. And thank you very much, Krista, for your thoughtfully considered and articulate comments. I very much appreciate an intelligent swap of perspectives and feedback also! It's why I wrote the review in the first place. Additional input like yours will help others even further.

      Bottom line is, this course will still work for some people despite its "quirks" (as you say it is working well for you). That's a good thing, because I did find value in it. And maybe if a similar class is produced in future, the teacher will introduce the "purse with a gusset" structure! ;-)

  3. An extremely thoughtful and detailed review.


You have the power to brighten my day. Leave me a comment; I'd love to hear your thoughts... you can even remain ANONYMOUS! And rest assured that I acknowledge all comments, either here or via email. (That is, if you don't see a response from me here, I would have responded privately to the person. Spam, however, is promptly removed.) Thanks for reading! :-)