Packets of hairpin-shaped vortices and streamwise counter-rotating vortex pairs (CVPs) appear to be key structures during the late stages of the transition process as well as in low-Reynolds-number turbulence in wall-bounded flows. In this work we propose a robust model consisting of minimal flow elements that can produce packets of hairpins. Its three components are: simple shear, a CVP having finite streamwise vorticity magnitude and a two-dimensional (2D) wavy (in the streamwise direction) spanwise vortex sheet. This combination is inherently unstable: the CVP modifies the base flow due to the induced velocity forming an inflection point in the base-flow velocity profile. Consequently, the 2D wavy vortex sheet is amplified, causing undulation of the CVP. The undulation is further enhanced as the wave continues to be amplified and eventually the CVP breaks down into several segments. The induced velocity generates highly localized patches of spanwise vorticity above the regions connecting two consecutive streamwise elements of the CVP. These patches widen with time and join with the streamwise vortical elements situated beneath them forming a packet of hairpins. The results of the unbounded (having no walls) model are compared with pipe and channel flow experiments and with a direct numerical simulation of a transition process in Couette flow. The good agreement in all cases demonstrates the universality and robustness of the model.