Christina Hankins began her career as a painter and pastel artist designing works for private and public clients that she exhibited throughout the Midwest. Fifteen years into her painting career, she began to think about art and function—joining two-dimensional ideas with utilitarian goals. That’s how her line of Urban Gypsy Design bags was born. Each creation is designed, hand cut and sewn in her studio using lino cut images and hand-felted fabric pieces, depending on the style of handbag. Hankins considers each one to be a piece of wearable art.
Urban Gypsy Design has produced hundreds of bags and stacks of patterns during the past nine years. “I can barely believe it’s been that long already,” Hankins says.
Her earliest designs were made from recycled sweaters and hand-felted pieces. “Each bag that I produced inspired a new design or a tweak to an existing pattern to improve the look or the functionality of the piece,” she explains. As her children grew older, she was able to travel to shows around the country, and that inspired the Sierra travel bag.
“This bag was created using a combination of needle felting—wet felting to produce what looked like a felted painting,” she says. The rest of the bag was made with leather, to add interest and durability for travel.
The Sierra bag reminded Hankins of a carpetbag, which led to the next idea: incorporating found needlepoint pieces into a Mary Poppins-like carpet bag. “The needlepoints I would find online, mostly from a vintage shop in France, but some from antique shops around the USA. My found object bags are some of my favorites because they are truly one of a kind,” Hankins says.
One of her favorite “found object” bags was originally a painting from an antique shop in southern California—an un-stretched floral canvas by an unknown artist. “I had to haggle with the shop owner on the price…I ended up transforming it into a tote bag. It sold right away and it was the first bag that I was sorry to let go of,” she remembers. That bag inspired the inclusion of Hankins’ own artwork into future creations.
Her artistic eye, bohemian style and travel experiences continued to inform the shape and use of each iteration of a bag. For a trip to Germany, Hankins fashioned a small clutch large enough to carry a passport and phone, “and a convertible backpack was created for a trip to London,” she says. “Both designs have been tweaked and are now part of my line.”
Beatnik or Bust
With success comes failure, and Hankins says she has quite a stack of “ugly Bettys” that never made the cut. She repurposes some pieces and donates others.
She’s also had a few things that took longer to sell or just plain wouldn’t find a home. Thinking that a lower price point would interest customers, she ventured smaller, but “wallets, surprisingly enough, can be a tough sell,” she says. “If a wallet also acted as a clutch and had a wrist strap and had a pocket for a phone, it would sell. Basically, it had to be a purse.”
Her next designs incorporate hand- carved block prints and were inspired by Japanese textiles, Chinese paper cuts and vintage florals, to name a few models. One of her favorites is a small bag with a built-in wallet, a place for a cell phone and a removable cross- body strap. “I actually came up with the final design because I was going on a trip to New Orleans and wanted a very small bag that I could put all of the essentials in when walking the streets with a cocktail in hand.” Hankins named it the NOLA mini and it’s been a hit at shows since. “Apparently, necessity is the mother of invention,” she quips.
Free Spirit Attached
Creating a bag is a three-step process. Hankins explains: “First, I block print or paint the design onto a piece of leather. Next, I choose from one of my original patterns and hand cut the design. Finally, I glue and sew the bag together and add the lining.” It can take up to two days to complete a bag. “I truly enjoy the process, but it can be hard on my hands and back at times,” she continues. “My husband was kind enough to build me an elevated work table...I highly recommend marrying an engineer!”
Her newest bag designs incorporate appliqué made from smaller carved blocks. Each floral piece is sewn on individually and stitch work adds to the overall interest of the full grain leather art piece.
“I enjoy meeting the customers who purchase my handbags,” Hankins says.
“It is always amazing to see someone wearing a piece that I created. It truly fills me with a great sense of accomplishment and joy.”