Making an upholstery pattern

Published On: March 1, 2010Categories: Features, How-To Articles

You got the upholstery job on the customer’s boat, and the new material is in the shop. All you have to do now is make the patterns.



You may be doing a restoration of an older boat, and your customer wants it to look like it did in its glory days. This can be the most time consuming. You may have to do a lot of research to find out what the original upholstery looked like if it is missing, or if it has been reupholstered before it got to you.

Sometimes you get lucky and the old skins can be removed, taken apart and the pieces lay down flat and make great patterns—and then you wake up from your dream.

Generally speaking, the old upholstery is dry and cracking, stretched out of shape, missing pieces, or so far gone that it resembles lace.

Make sure that you mark the pieces with all the information you will need to put it back together. It’s frustrating to sit down at the machine with a pile of freshly cut material and not remember how they are supposed to be sewn together.



If the old fabric is stretched out of shape, how do you know how to cut it? You don’t want to distort the new piece because it won’t line up with the next piece you have to sew it to.

The seams are the answer to the question. When the original pieces were cut out, they were also flat.

Have you ever had a boat come to your shop that the owner started to take apart but can’t finish? They didn’t bother to take pictures or document how anything came apart. The customer will remind you that, as the professional, you ought to know how it is supposed to go back together. That’s when we have to explain that the job is now going to cost more because we have to start from ground zero.

In some respects the job may be easier. I prefer to make my own patterns from scratch because if a mistake was made on the original skin, and you use it for the pattern, you are simply going to duplicate the same mistake. When making a pattern, remember to add seam allowance, but subtract for foam compression.

Perhaps you get a job in which the fabric is ruined but the foam is salvageable. The cushions don’t require intricate patterns; and the foam itself can be the pattern. This is also true of new foam that you cut.

Using the existing foam is a judgment call. Explain to your customer that it will ultimately depend on the quality of the existing foam and how much life is left in it.

When using existing foam, always steam it back to its original size before you start making patterns.

If you have cushions on boards, you can use the boards to make the patterns. Remember that the board generally is the finished size of the cushion, and that you will add for the seam allowance but do not subtract for foam compression.

When making a pattern for a helm seat, make a pattern that you could use over again. That same style of seat can come into your shop in the future. Aside from some color or graphic changes, the basic dimensions haven’t changed. You have just saved yourself a couple hours of labor.

Keep in mind that fabrics with a distinct pattern or grain are easier on the eyes if you keep the grain going in the same direction. Mark the orientation on the pattern pieces.

Ink from markers will easily transfer from pattern plastic to upholstery vinyl, so be careful to keep patterns right side up.

Always trust your pattern.

Carol Racine is owner of Racine Design in Jacksonville, Fla.