Messenger Bag Process: From Sketch to Finished Product

This article was extremely popular among our readership when it was first published on July 7, 2014, and we are re-circulating an updated version for the benefit of our growing blog audience since then. For a daily digest of design, production, and business advice, join our blog mailing list!

About Ugmonk

Ugmonk has always been about making products that I wanted to exist. Yes, there are thousands of different bags on the market to choose from, but I wanted to design a bag completely from scratch based around my wants while incorporating the trademark Ugmonk aesthetic. The original idea for the bag started over 2 years ago but it was a long process to finally see the finished product through. Each new product is a learning process and brings on new challenges, but in the end it’s worth the work.

Concept Sketches

I started by sketching out a variety of concepts that incorporated the functionality that I wanted in a bag. I can’t emphasize enough how much it helps to start with pencil and paper rather than jumping right onto the computer. I also researched other bags, making notes of things I liked and didn’t like about each. The bag style that I eventually landed on is similar to a traditional postal messenger bag. One of the key things I noticed from those classic messenger bags is how the shoulder strap attached to the back of the bag instead of the ends. This allows it to lay flatter against the body instead of bumping up against your hip while walking. These sketches helped me think through the various practical details.

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Learn another designer’s approach:

Digital Mockup

I don’t have any sewing or pattern-making experience, but I knew it would be helpful to draw the bag digitally to get a more precise mockup to send to manufacturers. This also helped me figure out the dimensions and proportions for each part of the bag. Though some parts of the bag were altered during the actual prototyping process, my digital mockup gave me a solid idea to work from.

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Go the extra mile with your designs:


One of the hardest parts of the entire process was finding the right manufacturer to work with. I wanted to find a place in the USA that not only specialized in this type of high quality bag making but was also willing to accommodate low minimums for the first run. I could have easily ordered blank stock bags from a Chinese manufacturer and stamped on some Ugmonk branding, but I wanted to produce a completely custom bag showcasing the highest quality possible.

Since this was a completely different product than anything I had produced so far, I needed a place that would help guide me through the manufacturing process and give input based on their expertise. Many of the larger factories I contacted wanted a fully-designed bag to work from and didn’t seem to take a personal interest in helping me through the process. After contacting over 40 places I finally found a company in Portland, Oregon (with help from Maker’s Row) that specialized in making the type of bag that I was looking to produce. Moral of the story: don’t give up even when the search seems hopeless.

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Nervous about reaching out to factories?


When researching materials to build the bag from, I kept gravitating towards the combination of waxed canvas and leather. Waxed canvas is a rugged, water-resistant material originally developed for fisherman and navy sailors back in the 1800s to keep them dry and warm. Not only is it durable and functional, but it also ages beautifully with use and wear.

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I’ve released a number of other Ugmonk leather products over the past few years and have learned about the different types of leather in the process. Most bags produced overseas use cheap bonded leather or faux leather that breaks down quickly with use. If you’ve ever purchased a cheap wallet or belt and had the outer layer start to peel off and crack ,then you know exactly what I’m talking about. We chose to use full-grain vegetable tanned leather (similar to our other leather products) that is super durable and will hold up for many years of heavy use. The leather starts off a little stiff but softens over time and conforms to the individual use pattern. For example, if you tend to carry the bag on the same shoulder the strap will smooth out and form to that particular shape. Unlike most things, these materials actually get better with use and wear.

Overwhelmed by all the material options?

Early Prototypes

It’s hard to know exactly how the sketches will translate to physical form until you create the first physical prototype. After I had the first prototype bag in hand, I noticed a number of items that needed to be modified and improved. For example, the original canvas that I chose was too thin and didn’t have enough structure, making the bag feel too flimsy. Since I only had a sample swatch of the canvas, it was hard to know that it wouldn’t work well for a whole bag, which is why it was important to build out the whole product before proceeding with the full run. We also tweaked a number of other details like the length of the front flap, extension of the back leather strip to help cinch the sides closed, and more streamlined hardware.

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A breakdown of early prototypes:

Final Prototypes

After these revisions were made, some additional prototypes were produced to ensure the proposed changes and new materials fixed all of the outstanding issues. Each one of these prototypes takes time and costs money, but they are all part of the investment in creating a superior final product.

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I could have easily cut corners along the way and used cheaper materials or simplified parts of the bag, but it was important to me that these bags were the best they could be. This means that our final production costs were much higher than anticipated. If our main focus were selling wholesale, our retail price would have be double what it is now, but since we sell directly to the customer we are able to make an exceptional product and still keep the price as reasonable as possible.

Still confused about prototypes?

Product Photography

It was an amazing feeling to finally have the finished bags in hand. The bags looked and felt incredible in person but I wanted to make sure that the same quality and detail really came through in the product photography. Too many people overlook this part when selling online and skimp on photography. This is the only interaction a potential customer will have with the bag, so it’s vital that the photos reflect the quality of the product. I spent several days shooting the bags and designing the product page layout and flow. Scroll through the product page here to see all of the details.

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Some quick tips on photography:

Product Launch

After 2 years of work (on and off) it felt great to finally flip the switch and launch the bags in the shop. As with any product, I never know what the response will be, but I was thrilled when the first run of bags sold out in just two weeks! I’ve learned a lot through the process (including how to be patient) and am looking forward to applying this knowledge to future products. Hope this gives you some insight into what happens behind the scenes to make these bags reality. Thanks to all of you who continue to support Ugmonk, and help me bring new products to market!

Doing a product launch well:

Build Your Product

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  • Samuel William Barnett

    Thank you for sharing this information Jeff. We are in a startup situation for a line o mens trousers and are going through the same things. It is sometimes frustrating to find that right company, but persistence pays off. Your description of the process us
    clear and informative. And the bags are incredible! I will be purchasing one.
    Thanks….. Sam

    • Jeff Sheldon

      Thanks Sam, Glad it was helpful. Appreciate your support!

  • Karen Randal

    This was a wonderful step by step, blow by blow explanation of the process you patiently went through for your bags. The end result was worth the frustrations because it is a wonderful product. It is obvious you did not take any short cuts.

    • Jeff Sheldon

      Thanks Karen. Appreciate the kind words.

  • Micaela S. Coleman

    Thank you for the details regarding what it took to go from sketch to prototype. I am stuck at the Illustrator design phase of my bag line and have been trying to find a manufacturer that can prototype this for weeks!! The list on Maker’s Row resulted in very few makers that can actually accommodate my product. What other sources would you recommend for a list of makers that can prototype bags?

    • Jeff Sheldon

      Other than Maker’s Row, Etsy is also a good place to find people who might be able to make a prototype for you. There are so make makers out there, it’s just a matter of getting connected with them.

      • Micaela S. Coleman

        I’m grateful that you suggested Etsy, Jeff! I will look there and see if I can expedite things by working with one of the makers there. Thanks so much!!

  • Guest

    I’m grateful that you suggested Etsy, Jeff! I will look there and see if I can expedite things by working with one of the makers there.

  • Micaela S. Coleman

    What’s your take on working with manufacturers that refuse to sign a non-disclosure agreement? You indicated that you reached out to 40 before you landed on the right one. Did you have any legal protection before sharing the design? Of course, we’re protective of our designs, but it’s hard to know how trustworthy a manufacturer will be based on email/phone conversations.

    • Jeff Sheldon

      Just depends on how protective you want to be with your designs. I didn’t have them sign any NDAs since my bag designs were pretty straightforward and didn’t have anything too propriety or patentable. Trust can be a very tricky thing and a lot of it comes down to how well you personally connect with the manufacture before revealing too many specifics about your product. Start general and then get more specific once you’ve built that trust. Hope that helps.

    • Stephen Meyer

      To offer a manufacturer’s perspective, in case it helps, Jeff’s
      suggestion about starting general and then getting more specific as you
      get comfortable with a potential partner is spot on. While it doesn’t
      seem like there should really be any reason not to sign an NDA, just the potential for something to go wrong when there are legal strings attached can be a little daunting for small manufacturers. Having signed a few non-disclosure agreements ourselves, we haven’t found it hard to keep information on projects from disseminating to other designers. However, it can certainly be a cloud over your head if/when working with designers who have similar aesthetics. If one happens to suspect you of violating an agreement and decides to pursue legal action, it would, at the very least, saddle the small manufacturer with the financial burden of a legal battle, and probably no small amount of physical and mental strain as well. And however unlikely a scenario this is, it is something we have to consider and weigh against the potential business a designer might bring. Trust is definitely key, and it’s as important for manufacturers to be seen as trustworthy as it is for their potential clients to feel safe sharing their ideas. If it comes down to it, plan a visit to a manufacturer you are serious about working with, just to gauge how you communicate face to face. It’s a big investment up front on your part, but has the potential to save you immeasurably in the long term.

      • Micaela S. Coleman

        Your perspective is great to have, Stephen. Ultimately, for my prototype, I chose a maker who I had a good rapport with over the phone and whose own line of bags has the level of detail that I needed to see. He did not hesitate to protect my designs legally, and I suspect that’s because my project isn’t in conflict with any other designs he’s working with. We’re still working through the pattern revisions and such, and the process has taken longer than I thought it would. Still, his commitment to getting the pattern right and reworking is why I don’t mind being off according to initial time frame. The cost to visit his location next month will be well worth it. Thanks so much for chiming in!

        • Miranda Peyton

          May I ask who you worked with? I am currently scoping my options.

    • Camille Davis

      Great post, Jeff! As a fellow designer (I do jewelry) who also met with a ton of manufacturers before settling on one, I’ve often thought about NDAs. My designs are very intricate so manufacturers are unable to give me a price quote without me showing them my samples. Before actually showing them product, though, I ask what other types of designers they work with to ensure that none of their other clients are in my niche. But sometimes, that’s unavoidable and you just have to go with your gut. If something feels off, it usually is – the best way to get a sense of this is to meet in person first. When you become successful and famous (which you will), it’s inevitable that people will copy your designs. In a way, it’s constant motivation to create not just unique product, but a unique brand…someone can copy your designs, but no one can copy you.

    • Bernadette Sava

      you should at least have a provisional patent before you approach anyone which protects you better than an NDA will.

  • Hana Satta

    Why did this bag take two years to make? Were there setbacks or issues tied to production, is this a normal turnaround in designing a somewhat technical product? Anything you can share about that?

    • Jeff Sheldon

      Much of two years was finding the manufacturer and sourcing the best materials. There was quite a bit of back and forth going through different prototype revisions which can stretch out the timeline. If you work with someone local that prototyping process cut be trimmed down a little. I would say 1- 2 years is a typical timeline for a product this involved.

      • Sue Anne

        This information is good to know on how long it took your project. I am about to pick up generation two of my prototype, as I made the revisions and sent it to the manufacture two months ago and had started the beginning stages 9 months ago. There are less resources for the type of product I am making and so the available resources have longer wait times for project completions. I am in the search for a manufacture now and also using Maker’s Row.

      • kimmaly santhavi

        Your article is inspirational and very insightful! How did you decide to source whether in USA vs International or vice versa? If I wanted to source out of the country for cost purpose, what connection website would you recommend? It’s difficult to trust a company where there is a language barrier and you are not sure if their website if legit. I am new to design/sketch and am trying to design swimwear.

        • Jeff Sheldon

          I’ve never sourced product from overseas so I can’t offer much advice there. I’ve just used Maker’s Row to help find domestic manufacturers

  • MikeT

    What sort of budget would you recommend to get you to your first prototype bag, as an example?

    • Jeff Sheldon

      There’s a huge range in costs associated with prototyping depending on the company you’re working with, number of revisions, and complexity of the product. I say at around $1000-2000 is a good starting point.

      • MikeT

        Perfect, thanks!

        • kimmaly santhavi

          $1000-$2000 is your estimate for one prototype? Or more than one?

          • Jeff Sheldon

            That’s for several versions of a prototype.

          • Bernadette Sava

            it depends on what it is..I’ve paid $20 per prototype

  • Jan Maree Carmody

    I really enjoyed reading about your journey to make your perfect product. I am a manufacturer in Bali Indonesia, and I would be so happy if someone came to me with this much preparation on their product. Unfortunately many many people come to me with a “sample” they’ve pulled out of their closet or bought in a store and just want to copy it and pay next to nothing and have it ready in two days. Then they bang on about ‘their designs’ and how they should be protected from others copying them.
    In a meeting with one of my clients last week I mentioned that to make a sample perfect, with perfect fit, perfect finish and perfect materials, time was needed, in order to come up with the final perfect product. My client’s clothing line management replied brusquely “if you have to fix it more than once or work on it for more than a week, it’s not worth making.”

  • Anisak

    How many fabric companies have made in America fabric that is hard thing to find let alone source for specific types of items.

  • Chaquita Johnson-Moore

    Great piece Jeff. Reading this just convinced me to make my sketches much more detailed. A digital version is a great idea also.

  • Amber Ray

    This was great advice Jeff I’m taking notes as I read. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed I’m in the very beginning stages of my product so seeing your sketches and the many views and angles was important to me and allowed me to understand why this was important. I do have a question so once I finish my sketches what system on the computer do you recommend I use to get the digital visual of my product?

    • Jeff Sheldon

      I used Adobe Illustrator for the digital mockups, but a CAD program would probably create more precise measurements and detailed diagrams.

  • Essien Johnson

    this is makes an interesting read. i personally love messenger bags because of convenience and style it gives me.
    read my post on good messenger bags below $100