For more than 30 years, Wendy Stevens has built an illustrious career and business designing and producing metal handbags by hand. A devastating fire changed everything when her entire workshop—and years of templates she created—were destroyed. Stevens decided to learn AutoCAD LT and quickly realized the advantages of digital design with increased speed and accuracy for her handbags.
Thirty years ago, the East Village in New York City was a decidedly grittier and more industrial place. With the combination of living there, hanging out with artists, and working in a nightclub, Wendy Stevens had an artistic inspiration: to create handbags made of sheet metal.
With no experience in metalworking, Stevens set out learning the craft—acquiring equipment and even asking plumbers in her building for tips. Over time, she refined her handmade bags into, quite literally, works of art featured in museums and in Vogue.
Butterfly handbag designed and made by Wendy Stevens. Courtesy of Wendy Stevens.
After leaving New York City, Stevens moved to rural Pennsylvania, setting up her business and studio in a converted barn. She stayed “low-tech” until a devastating fire. It wiped out her entire workshop and all the metal templates she had created over the years; she had never done any drawings. As she looked to rebuild her business, she met the owner and operator of a photochemical-machining company that etches sheet metal. He gave her a big reality check.
“He took one look at my work and said, ‘I know for a fact you’re going to have to do your own drawings—I'm not doing them for you.’ He was super clear about that,” Stevens says. “It was a big wake-up call. My husband said, ‘He’s totally right. Your designs are so particular. You’ve got to do the drawings.’”
Handbag designed and made by Wendy Stevens. Courtesy of Wendy Stevens.
It became readily apparent that it was time to embrace technology. Stevens enrolled in an AutoCAD LT online training class and went on to find other resources and help at a local university to learn the software. Within a year, she went from destroyed templates to completely digitized resources—and an entirely new approach to her business.
Stevens continues to form every bag by hand with the help of a press brake, a series of slip rolls, a hand brake, and an assortment of small hand tools. But AutoCAD LT freed her to explore new design opportunities she simply couldn’t do before. The photoetching possibilities with metal have completely transformed how she works. Today she has more than 170 handbag designs created using AutoCAD LT.
Stevens' workshop. Courtesy of Wendy Stevens.
“I was hand cutting the profiles of all these bags and then punching every single hole for rivets. I work in millimeters to get everything so precise. Before, the amount of time it punch every hole was immense. Now, once the design is created in AutoCAD LT and the photo tooling is made from the drawing, I can order the material from the etcher and receive the parts ready for fabrication. It is an incredibly efficient process.”
—Wendy Stevens, Founder and Designer
Currently, Stevens is primarily selling direct to consumers and exhibiting at shows nationwide. With the large retail collapse due to the pandemic, she’s now focused on what she wants to design and make herself—and not necessarily for wholesalers. For her, it’s a fulfilling approach and the handbags are selling out.
Stevens is particularly proud of a stunning, new bag with an incredibly, intricate etched leopard print. Recently, she created a new monarch butterfly handbag with a portion of the proceeds going to conservation efforts for the species. With AutoCAD LT, she’s been able to build an entire workflow that supports her creative vision.
Butterfly handbag design in AutoCAD LT. Courtesy of Wendy Stevens.
“It’s amazing how much detail you can get with AutoCAD LT. I have a template for all the layers that go into each drawing. It’s like a rhythm that I’ve established. I can’t imagine how I could design and make my bags without it.”
—Wendy Stevens, Founder and Designer