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How to Re-create a Vintage Modernist Bag

Subtle details and asymmetry give this bag it's unique appeal

This is the bag I bought recently at a local vintage shop. I thought it was from the 1980s. My first impression was that this was a simple, handcrafted creation. It turned out to be a well-made, much more complex bag.

Vintage Modernist Bag

Since it appeared to be such a simple bag, I didn’t really get a good understanding of what I’d bought until I got it back to my studio.

Vintage Modernist Bag

Sadly, it was in rough condition. I cleaned the leather with saddle soap and conditioned it with mink oil, so it at least looks somewhat acceptable.

Back of Vintage Modernist Bag

I also restitched the saddle-stitched seams with new, waxed thread and replaced the handle with a new, longer one. This will be my new gym bag for the summer.

Side of Vintage Modernist Bag

It dawned on me that this wasn’t just an envelope bag with the flap pulled sideways. The shape had been carefully designed. This was a sophisticated piece of patternmaking.

Front of Vintage Modernist Bag

Inside the bag, there was a doeskin lining, the mark of a better-than-budget bag.

Flap of Vintage Modernist Bag

The zipper, and its installation, also marked this as a good bag. The hand-sewn saddle stitching and rough toggle closure contrast with the polished interior of the bag.


Inside Zipper of Vintage Modernist Bag Label of Milton Heffing, Inc., New York.

Then I found the label – Milton Heffing, Inc., New York.

The only reference I could find online was from a biography of a 1950s modernist jeweler, who apparently sold his jewelry to Bloomingdale’s and to Milton Heffing. So this bag probably dates to the mid-1950s. That’s an avante-garde design for the time.

If anyone out there has any more information about Milton Heffing, please let me know.

Replicating the Bag

To make a duplicate of this bag, I needed to rub off a pattern. This is when I gained a true appreciation for the sophisticated patternmaking for this…

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  1. hmacski | | #1

    what a great bag! You must have been so excited when you spotted it!

    I made a clutch bag based on a purse I saw in a Paris Vogue Design Collection publication. It's literally 2 rectangles with a twist: sew the long seams and the short bottom seam is sewed in one directions in relation to the side seams and the top seam with the zipper is oriented in the opposite direction vis-a-vis the side seams.

    Also, a friend of mine showed me the remains of a leather bag she bought at a craft fair when she was 16. It's a leather rectangle that folds into the coolest shape....almost like a triangle with a slightly droopy bottom. Sorry that my description doesn't do it justice. My re-version will have a zipper in the back and an adjustable strp so it's either a shoulder or cross-body bag.

    Kenneth, I would love to try and replicate this bag as well. WOuld you mind if I did?

    Thanks for considering.

  2. User avater
    kennethdking | | #2

    Please do, Helen, and post the results!

  3. blulotus2u | | #3

    Love this. Where do you order/buy leather for handbags? Thanks for sharing.

  4. [email protected] | | #4



    Milton Heffing was it appears client of first Afro-American jewellery designerArthur Smith. Please see above links.

    Nice to see your re-creations and your curiosity.

  5. Flanerie | | #5

    Love this - thanks for posting, Kenneth.

    I was lucky enough to visit your studio in San Francisco about 20 years ago (!!!) as part of a "Bernina University" tour group - I went for a weeklong sewing extravaganza vacation in SF with my mom (who taught me to sew) and whose birthday would have been this Friday, so... sweet memories. We were both very taken with the ideas you offered our group that day and your design skills and handwork, and loved seeing your creative lair.

    I've sewn bags but haven't tried to recreate one, although this post makes me want to try this one. My biggest learning experience with handbags was deciding to embellish a vintage fabric clutch with a large German-silver fan-shaped piece I made in a metalsmithing class I was taking.(We were learning how to create a surface pattern on metal using real lace - with enough pressure its design got transferred, actually embedded into the metal, and as it tarnished and turned black you could see the lace design as if it was black lace printed on silver.) Really pretty effect, so it inspired me to create a fan shape out of the embossed metal to attach to the bag, covering the entire front of it, but the whole thing was just ridiculously heavy to carry! forgot about the practical part...

  6. seniorslugger | | #6

    Will you be posting the pattern, I would so like to make it.

  7. KathleenSews | | #7

    From the photo of the label in the handbag, I think the name is "Hefling" not "Heffing." There was another handbag that was sold on etsy in Nov. 2010 listed as a "Milton Hefling New York Leather Creations" that looks like it might have been styled by the same designer.


  8. Piecemaker | | #8

    Kenneth, How do you "rub off a pattern"? The bag is a true find. Leather bags (tooled and stained as well as plain) were popular in the late 60s and into the 70s. I hope you are able to find out more information on its maker. If you do, please share it with us.

  9. miwts | | #9

    Hello Professor King!

    Is it possible that the bag was made by a Milton Hefling (not Heffing)? There are references online (New Yorker Digital Editions from the 1950's) to a Milton Hefling of 997 Lexington Avenue and 175 West 4th St in NY who "is the man for fur belts" and apparently made leather tote bags as well. Additionally, it appears that an Etsy shop had sold one bag from "Milton Hefling Leather Creations" here: http://www.etsy.com/nl/listing/60039099/vintage-black-handbag-by-milton-hefling

    Hope this helps :)

  10. User avater
    SansSouci572 | | #10

    I saw a bag I wish I had copied, but did not!
    I have also a very unusual necktie, it has odd pleats in it.
    I have been trying to figure out how to recreate it..am at a total loss, even though its just a tie!

  11. krngough | | #11

    Hi Kenneth,

    I found another reference online that might lead you somewhere useful in your search for the mysterious Mr Hefling:

    The New Yorker Digital Edition : Nov 10, 1956
    Milton Hefling, 997 Lexington Avenue (72nd) and 175 West 4th Street, contributes a well-proportioned new tote bag, which he will make in llama, calf, or suède, ...

    Hope it helps.


  12. passion | | #12

    Dear Kenneth
    Will you be at the Fall Creativ festival in Toronto this year? I have often enjoyed your classes/presentations there. It will be interesting to know if my skills are up to reproducing this bag as I know that Perfect Leather will have the perfect skins for a project like this.
    Will you be giving any more information about this bag such as size, dimensions?

    Thank you for your ongoing creative contributions


  13. Steffabrication | | #13

    Hi Kenneth

    I am just starting out sewing again as I have a very large stash and at last, the time after retiring to sew and have been panicking what to start with! this bag has been totally inspirational.

    Thank you for sharing

  14. User avater
    kennethdking | | #14

    It looks like it is Milton Hefling, and the tote bag you all mentioned looks to be the same style. This is what I like about our readers--I can always learn something!

    In regards to how to rub off a pattern: I used a piece of silk organza, and some low-tack masking tape(rolled up so I could stick the organza to the bag) and attached it to each piece. Then just took a pencil and drew the edges of the bag onto the organza. Traced these out onto paper, and--voila! A pattern.

    I'm not planning on downloading the pattern, as I prefer to respect the designer's intellectual property. I'll probably make one for myself, and play around with the proportions, and maybe for a client, but I don't feel good about broadcasting a pattern without the designer's consent.

    It's relatively easy, though, and if you want to print off the blog post and enlarge it on the photocopier, you'll have a good starting point. The size of the bag at its tallest point is 12", which will give an idea of scale.....

    As for where to get leather--I get my leather from Leather Impact, or Zodiac (when the customer has deep pockets). Both are here in New York.

    And sadly I won;'t be in Toronto this fall, but perhaps next year!

  15. KharminJ | | #15

    Dear Kenneth ~
    This is a *very* intriguing bag! I too would appreciate at some straight-down photos (or a reproducible pattern!) of the pieces. (Not to mention a follow-up on your reproduction project :) )
    Also, since it's probably far more valuable than you first thought, may I urge you to get a professional restoration of the leather? ~ I know of a fellow in Minneapolis who does a-Mazing work for people whose "leather" is vital to their self-identity.

    Happy August to you! Kharmin

  16. KharminJ | | #16

    Hah! You were clearly typing at the same time I was, and you Won!
    I completely respect your answer about the pattern and intellectual property! Thank you.
    Thanks also for the size reference - that will be a big help in re-creating this. :) K

  17. Carolebarrel | | #17


    Although the vintage bag is leather, perhaps for toting damp things from the gym some of the wonderful vinyls would serve best? I believe I will try to find some exquisite textured vinyl and apply a clear lining and a zippered patterned fabric pouch attached to keep my cosmetics, comb and dry things between the two, giving some umph to the inside of the bag. Larger size too to accommodate suit, towel and water shoes. Thanks for the great tips.

  18. Josefly | | #18

    Mr. King, thank you so much for sharing this bag with us. I'd love to try a quilted fabric version. I once copied a bag, a sort of carry-all with flap, that belonged to my daughter, and gave the copy as a gift. I've since wished I had kept a pattern of the bag since it was a very functional and adaptable one.

    user574200: Thanks so much for the links to the Arthur Smith bio. I wonder, though, if the Heffing (double f) mentioned there is the same as the Hefling (single f followed by l) named in the label of Mr. King's bag. Do you think the name is misspelled in the bio?

  19. User avater
    kennethdking | | #19

    To Josefly: I read that mention on the internet, and believe that it was a misspelling, like I did. The reference was that the jewelry was carried by Bloomingdale's and Milton Heffing, which implies that Milton Heffing was a shop, which Milton Hefling turns out to be.

  20. User avater
    LuvThreadsMagazine | | #20

    Senor King,


    You have a keen eye for BOTH style and design. "Perpetual awe", is the state you keep me in.

    Now being a bit rough, and seeking to become somewhat acceptable, I'm off to saddle soap and mink oil my person.

    Sign me,
    Better for your every blog

  21. User avater
    kennethdking | | #21

    To LuvThreadsMagazine: You're too kind!

    And funny!

  22. BRosser | | #22

    As always, you have totally inspired me because of your ability to find the perfect thing. Oh yes, I will join the others who will be making this very special bag.

    Thanks for the go ahead on copying and pasting the pattern from your blog post. And,thanks for sharing your ideas and knowledge.


  23. jnjackie | | #23

    Hi Kenneth, your work is exquisite and one of the main reasons that I get Threads magazine. I would like to know if you have plans to give your readers a pattern with measures on this neat vintage modernist bag? I have trouble getting an accurate shape to the pieces in the pictures.. Please consider!!! JB

  24. bubbie | | #24

    drool, drool..........would love the pattern! Any chance????????

  25. User avater
    kennethdking | | #25

    In regards to making the pattern available: As I said before, I don't feel comfortable broadcasting a pattern without the designer's consent. He may be gone, but I know how I'd feel if someone was doing this to one of my designs. It's my respect to him.

    Dear Readers, do as Hmacski is doing--experiment and see if you can figure it out--like a puzzle. I've already given scale--the bag is 12" at its highest point. Using that dimension, you can figure out all the others by studying the photos from the different angles.

    The way I experiment with handbag shapes is to cut the from oak tag (the paper they use for manila folders) and tape the pieces together to make a model. That way I can see if the proportions, capacity, and design is what I intend. This bag is an easy experiment in using that technique.

    Threads has the smartest readers! I know you all can do it, so I challenge you to figure it out! And do post the results....

  26. HarmonyQ | | #26

    If my memory serves me correctly, in a past article, you explained how you stitched large plastic wire ties into a bag as a substitute for stays to help give your bag more structure. This was the second of two bags you had made. The first bag gaped due to no reinforcement along its edges. You had said that the first bag was your original Gym Bag and the second bag was going to take its place as your new Gym Bag. Now with this gorgeous leather satchel, you have said that THIS will be your new Gym Bag. Three Gym Bags, Mr. King? Wow! I would love to see your muscles! :-)

  27. User avater
    kennethdking | | #27

    To HarmonyQ: You're funny!

    I go to the gym every day just so I don't have to decide which days to go. But I'm not looking like a Chippendale model, that's for sure. But I do look stylish while walking to the gym!

  28. User avater
    Marie_S_G | | #28

    Yes, interesting asymmetric design of an flap over bag. What actually caught my eye is the closing solution with a bone through the eyelet. Interesting to me as I have a large bunch of reindeer crown parts that can be used, like in the bag you have. A good idea for parts that are hard to find other use for.
    I made a flap-over bag but found the flap itself rather long when actually used as a flap. On the other hand it is valuable to be able to handle long/high items in a usaually low (folded) bag. I understand that it is a good idea to have a pocket in the line of the flap bend as in a previous article in this fine magazine.
    Thanks for this bag view. It is easy to replicate the design.

  29. hmacski | | #29

    Hi Kenneth and everyone: I have a prototype in cloth to show. Can anyone tell me how to post a photo to comments? Is that possible?

    thanks everyone,

  30. User avater
    kennethdking | | #30

    Hmacski, I don't know how to answer that. I'll get the answer, though...

  31. sewluv2quilt | | #31

    Here is another one of his bags. It was on Etsy and has sold but you can still see it. It's gorgeous.


    Also, if you look at New Yorker Digital Edition magazines there are references to him.
    Look at Nov 22, 1958, Nov 14, 1953 and Nov 10, 1956
    I did not pay to see the magazines but thought there might be some info in them.

    Keep showing us fun things...we all love to see them.

  32. pursonalissues | | #32

    I recreated a leather purse I've had since the 70s, it probably dates to the 60s though. It was a bucket shaped bag with a drawstring closure which also served as the short straps. There were 6 pockets ingeniously placed around the bottom outside edge. The pockets were about 3" high and the purse was about 9" deep. Nothing on the inside but the beautiful suede side of the navy blue leather. My recreation was much bigger, fancier and much more complex. I gave it to my teenage daughter who absolutely loved it. If there was a place to post photos, I would proudly show off my work.

  33. User avater
    kennethdking | | #33

    To Hmacski and the others who want to take up this challenge: Email your photos to me at: [email protected]

    I'll do a separate post on the results of the challenge to re-create this bag!

  34. Evamarie | | #34

    Dear hmacski,

    Although you cannot post photos in the comments section, you can share your project in our Reader's Closet gallery here http://www.threadsmagazine.com/readers-closet.

    Best Regards,
    Evamarie Gomez
    Web Producer

  35. User avater
    thedudesews | | #35

    I'm a bit new to sewing, and I think that gives me the freedom to say "Hey that looks fun! I think I'll try it. And I will.

  36. kathpoole | | #36

    This is an amazing bag! Thanks for sharing.
    I'll make it up in felt after finishing the oak tag pattern.

  37. User avater
    kennethdking | | #37

    To thedudesews: Are you indeed a "dude"? If so, this is great news--I wish more men sewed, as it's a skill I liken to woodworking (not to say women don't do woodworking), so I think more men might take an interest if presented in the right way (whatever that looks like)....

    Breaking down the barriers of what is considered "men's work" and "women's work"--I think we're in exciting times that way. All good.

  38. Velma62 | | #38

    Hi Mr. King...I was just introduced to this challenge. Is there a deadline to submit my duplication?

  39. Velma62 | | #39

    Sorry...I meant submit my re-creation.

  40. User avater
    kennethdking | | #40

    To Velma: I'm keeping it open for a couple months, and posting the results in October, so please, do submit!

  41. Velma62 | | #41

    Okay, thank you!! (EXCITED!!!!) LOL!!!

  42. nancye79 | | #42

    Not sure if this article is still open for comments. Milton Hefling had a leather design store in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. He is referenced in this recent obituary: http://thevillager.com/2013/09/19/estelle-johnson-89-leading-leather-clothes-maker/
    By the 1960s, he had a clothing store in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The summer I turned 15, I had a job walking around Provincetown handing out flyers for the store!

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