Photo by Josh Pepper on Unsplash

What is theme development like on the Big Cartel commerce platform?

We created a custom PDP for a client who uses the Big Cartel platform for their shop. The following is a brief summary of the good stuff and a few of the pain points.

What is Big Cartel?

Before I jump into the experience I feel like it’s important to explain what Big Cartel offers in terms of a service.

We believe in the Artist

… is the tagline you’ll find on the home page for Big Cartel. Their platform is aimed towards creators of products, both digital and physical, who just want to get started with their web shop. It’s not particularly fancy but it’s quick to setup.

The dashboard and admin system is easy to use with all of the features you’d need for a simple shop. You can create products with pricing options, create categories, show or hide products and a variety of other things. It ships with some decent themes to choose from too.

If you’re looking for a high level of product customisation then look elsewhere, if you’re looking for something that isn’t over complicated then Big Cartel is for you.

Now on with the development overview.

RTFM: Read the fluffing manual

The first place to start with any development project is the documentation. The docs are pretty decent compared to some. There are two parts to the docs:

RTFM: Theme Development

As you’d expect this details what you can customise with the Big Cartel templating system. The important bullet points are:

  • Templating Syntax: the language looks like Liquid by Shopify. It’s not clear if this is the case but the syntax, error messages I triggered and the documented functionality seems to match. Using Liquid is a very smart move because it’s industry standard and easy to pick up.
  • JavaScript API: by adding one line to your site you can easily utilise the Big Cartel JavaScript API. The JavaScript API makes it a lot easier to create dynamic pages by giving you full access to query products, the cart and do other things such as formatting numbers as currency.
  • Dugway: Big Cartel have their own tool to help you with local development called ‘Dugway’. Presumably after the US military testing grounds. More on Dugway later.


No modern web service would be complete without an API. It seems like Big Cartel have put a lot of effort into their API, it serves two main purposes:

  1. App development: any Big Cartel store can be augmented with Apps. There aren’t a lot of Big Cartel Apps at the moment so if you’re an App developer then this would be a good opportunity to make your mark.
    Note: you’ll need to apply to Big Cartel for OAuth access to use the API in this way.
  2. Personal use: if you’d like to access your own Big Cartel shop data then the API is also useful for that. It’s much easier to setup this way as you can use your credentials and hit their endpoints with your code.


To make it much easier to develop themes for Big Cartel they’ve created a local development tool to host your theme locally while you complete your masterpiece.

If you’re not already using Ruby then it might take a small amount of setting up. Once you’re all setup you can easily create new Big Cartel theme with dugway create theme-name and spin up the local server with dugway serve from the root of the new theme.

Dugway: the good

  • It’s easy to create a base for new themes
  • The local server works well
  • Supports LESS/SASS with compiling on the fly
  • You can connect Dugway to your live Big Cartel shop to use the same products as on the live shop
  • The build command creates all the content you need to setup your custom theme on production

Dugway: the not so good

  • To use products from your Big Cartel catalogue your site has to be live (not in maintenance mode)
  • It’s not possible to test the checkout payment page styling at moment
  • If you’re not very comfortable with the command line then you’ll have to learn


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I won’t lie, deploying your shiny new theme is a bit of a weird process. Each templated page needs copying and pasting into the control panel. Also I couldn’t see anywhere to add in JavaScript so all of your JavaScript needs inlining on the layout.

In addition you need to host your own images and assets that are not product images. For example we used custom fonts and some custom background images, both of which needed to be hosted externally. If you’re a fan of CDNs then this is not a problem but some will find this a bit of a strange process.


The process of developing a theme for Big Cartel was pretty smooth. There’s a but coming… but there were a few gotchas. For example:

  • The CSS your theme generates can affect the checkout pages fairly significantly. In our case it was hiding the ‘Next’ buttons because we’d accidentally not included some of the base CSS from Dugway
  • As mentioned in a previous section, hosting of non-product images, JavaScript and fonts must be done away from the Big Cartel platform
  • It’s not possible to test the checkout payment pages on Dugway so you need to make your site live and then test the checkout payment page styling
  • Customer support is very much within business hours

Final thoughts

Overall the process of developing a theme for Big Cartel was very good. I started the project thinking it would be awkward but Dugway and the documentation made the process as easy as could be expected.

I just hope the Big Cartel development team can find some time to work on the deployment process.

Big Cartel Links

Pricing & Sign up
Developer documentation