Cooke Custom Sewing: Handsewn outdoors gear for the harshest elements

Dan Cooke at his sewing machine in his basement workshop // Photo by Harrison Barden

It just works.”

That’s Dan Cooke’s response when asked why the hand-sewn camping gear he’s been making for 38 years continues to have such an enthusiastic and dedicated following. “When you have a car, it’s the little things that start to fail. By the end, you just have four wheels to take you from A to B,” he elaborates. “Simplicity and functionality, not bells and whistles.” 

Dan Cooke // Photo by Harrsion Barden

Cooke Custom Sewing got its start while Dan and his then-soon-to-be wife, Karen, were working at Adventurous Christians, a camp in Grand Marais. The camp needed packs, and, to save money, Dan decided to make them himself. It wasn’t a big leap; Dan has always had a D.I.Y. attitude, from learning to sew a simple shelter in high school to reupholstering the interior of his car. For the packs, he borrowed tools from Midwest Mountaineering and went to work. He made four packs for the camp over the course of a week, then one for himself, and, after a neighbor saw them, one for him too. Soon, word of mouth brought a line of customers to Dan’s door.

It was on their honeymoon in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that Dan and Karen decided to make a go at producing gear professionally. The early business plan was mostly ad-libbed. “We really were naive,” Dan recalls. “We would invest $800 in fabric, webbing, and buckles, and if the pack sold and the money came back, we would continue to produce packs. No business plan.” Their early product line was entirely pack-based: internal frame packs, rucksacks, canoe packs. During their first year in business, they sold about 100 packs total. 

Those early orders were laboriously sewn on a foot-powered treadle machine the Cookes purchased from the Mankato shoe repair shop where Dan’s mother worked. Marketing was mostly word-of-mouth and they focused on selling locally to stores like Midwest Mountaineering (who still carries CCS gear), Hoigaard’s, and Lob Pine, which eventually became Eastern Mountain Sports and gave CCS their first big order of 72 packs. Later, they marketed canoe packs to BWCA outfitters.

At the same time that he was making gear, Dan and Karen raised four children and Dan worked as a full-time engineer. For 38 years, he designed automated inspection equipment—machines that monitor the quality of pop cans, engine cylinders, car frames, and other manufactured goods. The job took him to China, Vietnam, and myriad other countries. “Engineering was my daily profession; sewing was my nightly obsession,” Dan quips. 

Down in the basement workshop are countless rolls of nylon cordura fabric, most of which are made in the United States to keep in line with Dan’s mission to keep things local rather than outsource overseas. Along the wall are shelves with partially completed packs and other gear in various stages of production. In storage boxes are foam, cording, buckles, snaps, grommets, D-rings, and all manner of fasteners. Hanging on the wall, tucked among adventure photographs Dan has taken over the years, is a faded sky-blue rucksack—the first Dan ever made. It doesn’t look all that different from the current iteration, which is CCS’s top seller and sized to qualify as an airline carry-on.

To watch Dan work is to observe a master at his craft. At a large table, he overlays a piece of red and black fabric with a Mylar template and quickly makes several marks along its length with a silver marking pencil. Within seconds he has an industrial sewing machine zipping along, securing the rings where the laces of this future mukluk will go. He does it all with a Zen-like calm and precision, as if crafting mukluks were written into his DNA. The boot takes about four hours to complete, from cutting, sewing, and gluing to waterproofing and lacing.

Packs and tarps are the biggest sellers of CCS custom gear, which also includes canoe spray covers, screen houses, winter tents, barrel harnesses, mukluks, and more. The majority of it is designed specifically for canoe camping, and all of it is overseen by CCS’s small team. Dan does most of the fabric cutting and prep himself, while two sewists help with the construction. One employee has worked for Dan for 12 years; the other for 20. During extra-busy times—particularly winter and spring, when demands for the upcoming camping season begin to mount—Dan’s son pitches in. This is also when the team must prepare for Canoecopia, the largest paddlesports consumer event in the world. The three-day show takes place annually in the spring in Madison, Wisconsin, and is Cooke Custom Sewing’s biggest retail affair; they consistently sell over 100 items there. 

More than events or having a store presence, CCS has mostly thrived on word of mouth.  In the early days, a mention in a book or article by an esteemed camping author like Cliff Jacobson would boost their market reach. These days, it’s shout-outs on YouTube and online discussion boards. Really, though, the gear speaks for itself. Often, people who use Dan’s packs or tarps as a scout, or rent them from an outfitter end up seeking out Cooke Custom Sewing for their own personal gear. They remember the label and they remember how well it performed.

In addition to designing and producing the gear, Dan personally field tests all of it to ensure it functions in the most demanding of situations. He has an extensive travel resume; one of his favorite trips to date was a 26-day river excursion in the Nunavat Territory of Canada, near the Arctic Circle. Last year, he spent nearly a month in Yellowstone National Park, including a 10-day pack-horse trip through the backcountry and an eight-day paddle down the Yellowstone River. He casually embellishes his travelogue with descriptions of the numerous ways he’s nearly been killed—by a falling tree, bison, grizzly bears—then moves on to the anticipation of trips to come. Next up is dog sledding followed by a canoe trip down the Rio Grande.

 

In June 2018, Karen died from complications due to cancer. Since then, Dan has quit his job as an engineer to focus on sewing. He currently spends 12 to 14 hours a day preparing for Canoecopia and the busy season, and plans to begin taking a weekly photography class to nurture his life-long love of taking pictures. While he enjoys his work, Dan concedes the need to feed his wanderlust, noting that he may have to scale back sewing to travel more.

There’s something else Dan wants to do, too. “Save the Boundary Waters. Put an end to sulfide mining,” he says without hesitation when asked about his other interests. He explains that his wife wanted her memorial to go to nonprofits fighting to keep mining out of Northern Minnesota and that it’s a passion close to his heart, too: to protect the place that spawned Cooke Custom Sewing nearly 40 years ago, and to help people explore it with customized gear. Gear that, simply put, just works.

Dan Cooke’s canoe topper seated on a canoe in his basement workshop // Photo by Harrison Barden

 

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