Make : Sweet Joey’s
Film : Michael Boylan
In 25 words or less describe who you are, where you’re located and what you make.
My name is Ryan Perkins, and I make bespoke jeans, jackets, bags, neckties, scarves, and other menswear in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
What made you want to be a maker?
I think that like a lot of people who are makers, it was never a conscious goal of mine, rather it was something that I just did. Being a maker is part of who I am, and it has shaped just about every part of my life. There’s a home video of me from when I was about three years old, where I’m sitting on the floor of my parent’s bedroom and hacking apart some styrofoam with a wood saw and babbling about what I’m working on. In middle school I got interested in woodworking, which was convenient because my dad had a wood shop on our property. Rather than going over to a friend’s house after school to run around or play video games, I would go work in the shop and make little bits of furniture, science experiments. Or have my friends over to help me, though most of their parents weren’t very happy about that.
In high school what I made followed my interests. I played guitar, so I made an electric guitar. I loved biking everywhere, so I started building bicycles. I taught myself how to build websites and take photos so that I could share what I made with other people. When it came time to decide where to go and what to study in college, I knew that I wanted to learn how to make things better, so I decided to study mechanical engineering. What I didn’t know is that so much engineering happens on paper and in computers, that most engineers never have to personally make what they design. I think by my second year I was getting anxious to work with my hands, so I started working in machine shops and research labs.
One day I found a desk on the side of the road that had a sewing machine in it, and I took it home. I gradually taught myself how to sew at night, when I would come home from working in the shop and my hands would still itch to make things. I made a pair of jeans, then one for my friend, then a few more. I bought an industrial machine, and went to Los Angeles to find some fabric distributors. I started a brand so people could follow what I make, and named it R. Perkins MFG because at first I wanted it to encompass anything I made, but it’s mostly just been clothing so far.
By the time I graduated, it was a full time thing, so I let it grow naturally. I wanted to form an entirely idealistic business, where I have complete control, and it’s transparent how things are made and what they’re made of. No investors, ad copy, customer service department, business plans. I really just wanted to sew, I had no interest in running a business. But I had to do everything myself, either to save money or because I’m too particular to hire someone. I knew it was an unwise way to do things, but I wanted to try and see if I could make it work. I do all the branding, graphic design, web development, photography, social media, customer relations, sourcing, pattern development, design, cutting, sewing, quality control, maintenance, taxes, shipping, registration, etc. Somehow it’s worked out so far. I have no idea how, but I’m really, really grateful. It gives me so much hope for the modern human era that something like this is possible.
Why should people support your business/products?
I want people to support my business because the products are the best fit for them. But what’s best for an individual customer is difficult to determine, and even harder to articulate. So I try to keep all channels of communication open, and retain as much flexibility to make a product to someone’s specifications as possible. There are a lot of things I do as a brand that people love to support these days, like making everything by hand in America, using all natural materials, sourcing things domestically, but none of those is my explicit goal. My goal is to make items that look as good as possible for the longest time possible. That’s what I have in mind when I make design choices, select materials and components, and finally sit down and sew. I want my customers to know that, but also that they can ask me why I do something a certain way, and that I’m happy to explain the rational thought process behind it.
Favorite product that you make?
My favorite thing to make is still jeans. At the moment every pair I make is bespoke, made to each customer’s specifications. I get to develop a relationship with the person who will one day be wearing my jeans, and they get to choose among a number of denims, thread, and hardware options, and figure out the details and fit they want. Making a bespoke pair of jeans is different than making a bespoke suit, because jeans can’t be altered. Once they’re finished, I can’t go back and change anything. So I need to understand what the customer wants before getting started. Plus there’s something so intensely personal about jeans already, it’s just that more special to be wearing the only pair of its type in the world.
List five of your favorite tools.
1. Dressmakers pins: This box is something that people tend to gravitate towards when first visiting my shop. I think that’s because it’s so beautiful and classic. But it means something about how I make my clothes, which is that I don’t use factory production methods, I use old-world tailoring methods. For a factory to run efficiently, with minimally trained workers, there’s usually a machine for each stitch with a folder or guide that allows the operator to accurately repeat a seam with great rapidity and low effort. You can certainly make great clothes like this, but it’s not how I do it. I imagine it would be terribly dull for the operator. Rather, I line panels up by hand and pin them, and I sew without guides or folders, which takes a lot of time.
2. Hardware dies: These are an example of how I strive to do everything myself. Usually you buy dies from the same company you get your hardware from, and they fit a specific machine and work great every time. But they’re also extremely expensive, especially considering that they’re just hunks of metal. So I made those when I was working in a machine shop, and I use a cheap, everyday arbor press to attach the hardware
3. Head knife: This is a recent acquisition, something I got because I’m learning how to work with leather. It’s an all-purpose leather knife, good for skiving, trimming, cutting, etc. Plus I get to learn how to maintain a quality blade, which is something that appeals to me over using an endless stream of disposable razors blades.
4. Rotary knife + mat: This counts as one tool, right? When you make bespoke clothing without guides or folders, your panels need to be symmetric and precise, and accurate to the pattern you drew. Otherwise things won’t line up, or the measurements won’t work out, and you don’t have a chance to do it again without repeating the effort. The rotary knife and mat are the only way I know how to achieve this accuracy without cutting dozens of layers on a fabric saw.
5. Singer 211G155 Industrial Compound Feed Sewing Machine: This is my workhorse - it handles everything I throw at it. 16 layers of 16oz denim? 1/4” leather? No problem. It’s vintage, but that’s not why I like it. I like it because it was orders of magnitude cheaper than a new machine, and I know how to fix it. I repair sewing machines on the side, and lots of domestic brands are really into getting old machines because they are cheap and easy to get, and they look nice on their websites. But a poorly adjusted sewing machine is pretty much worthless, so unless you know how to fix them you’ll need to pay to maintain them.
(photographs from Ryan Perkins)