Take one step into Emily Pittinos’s East Quad dorm room and it’s immediately apparent you’re stepping into a space used for more than study and sleep.
Trash bags packed with fluffy wool are crammed beneath the bed. Jars of fabric dye line the sink. Handmade headbands dangle brilliantly from a reading lamp. It may not be a layout worthy of an HGTV special, but for Pittinos, it doesn’t need to be: Ever since she started making yarn, her bedroom doubles as a makeshift yarn workshop, a place where raw materials stand beside twin beds and spinning supplies outnumber textbooks.
Pittinos’s habitations haven’t always been clogged up with spinning wheels and fibers, though. Working with yarn is an art form she has only known for a year — even if the tools and fantastically colored products piled on her floor suggest otherwise.
“It’s all super new to me,” she said. “I have a friend who I met in high school who lives in Maine. They have their own sheep farm, and when I went there in the summer, his mom taught me how to spin in a couple hours. I ended up doing that the entire time I was there, and when I got home, I bought my own spinning wheel.”
It didn’t take long for her craft to grow into something bigger, as the Arts and Ideas major designed her own fiber-focused independent study through the RC. From there, she taught herself to spin, dye and blend wool — dorm-room style.
“I had to create my own method for dyeing,” she said. “Usually, you have to boil the water, but I can’t really do that.”
This method involved glass jars, an electric heater and a tiny sink. It may be unconventional, but that’s exactly what sets her apart from the rest of the crafting pack. Twisting the materials into jars allows Pittinos to put her own spin on every product she creates, resulting in rich hues and eclectic designs typically unseen in the fiber fairs and Etsy.com networks she frequents.
It’s hard to say exactly where Pittinos’s woolen art will take her next, but with handmade purses and the Ann Arbor Art Fair already on her mind, it’s clear that she isn’t short on ideas.
Pittinos isn’t the only student balancing university life with design. Ryan Perkins, an Engineering senior and creator of the clothing line R. Perkins MFG, is also finding time to pursue his fashion interests — all while maintaining a student’s schedule.
The hectic workload began two years ago, when Perkins taught himself to sew, starting with a leather backpack and later graduating to jeans. While his first machine was outdated (he found it discarded on the side of the road) and not actually designed to withstand the thickness of denim, Perkins gave his find a chance and still uses it to sew his products.
“This is one of the best and strongest home sewing machines you can find,” he said. “Everything else is geared toward old ladies making finger puppets.”
One year later, R. Perkins MFG was born — a brand complete with a website and list of goods and services including pants, scarves and free men’s haircuts for his bravest customers. The line’s highlight, however, is its custom-made jeans — a passion that started when Perkins grew tired of paying too much money for designer denim he wasn’t entirely happy with.
“I kind of use other designers as inspiration, or ‘uninspiration,’ if that makes sense,” he said. “A lot of brands use different embellishments and colored threads … I like to keep it as simple as possible.”
But this minimalistic style isn’t executed simply. One pair of jeans takes Perkins at least 15 hours to make, a feat tackled with handmade patterns and vintage equipment in his Broadway Street apartment. The intricate process limits his production to one pair a week, but ensures customers (who pay in cash, paintings or beer) a quality of material and craftsmanship they can’t find in stores.
Because of his rigorous class schedule and interest in engineering-related jobs, Perkins plans on maintaining R. Perkins MFG as a side project for now. But with steady business on his website and possible deals with local vendors, there’s no telling when the project will transform into something more.
From self-taught sewing to jam jars bloated with yarn and dye, little about the artistic process is black and white for student designers Pittinos and Perkins. Their secret isn’t following the rules, but redefining them: It’s about setting down textbooks, grabbing their work by the needle and turning each stitch and splash of color into something more personal.