Boat interior and upholstery work runs the gamut from utilitarian deck cushions on recreational boats to high-fashion staterooms on yachts with round-the-clock climate control. Regardless, fabrics used inside any boat are still in the marine environment and benefit from having the performance characteristics found in exterior fabrics, such as resistance to UV exposure, mildew and stains.
Yet performance isn’t the only consideration for interior fabrics. Home décor fabrics, including cotton, linen and silk, offer an array of colors, textures and prints, and have a softer, more luxurious feel, which can reflect a customer’s tastes and preferences. (One caution about using these fabrics is that the marine environment will damage the structure of the fiber unless it’s protected with resistant treatments.)
Fabric choices range from solution-dyed acrylics and polyesters, vinyls (made from PVC or urethane), polyurethanes, silks, rayon, linen, and organic fabrics like cotton and bamboo. Traditional high-quality, upholstery-grade fabrics come with Teflon® coating that gives them high durability ratings. Linens, organics and other natural fabrics tend to hold moisture.
“We don’t use a lot of linens and organics,” says Krisha Plauché, principal designer for Onboard Interiors LLC, Marblehead, Mass., “except on that luxury mega-yacht that we know is climate controlled so the customer doesn’t have to worry about the moisture issues.”
Environmentally friendly fabrics are becoming more important in the marine market as customers become more sensitive to the effects their choices have on the environment. “Green fabrics tend to be at the high end because it costs extra to make a green product,” says Tom Koster, marine products manager for Tri Vantage. “But people who want these products will pay extra for them.” An option for concerned boat owners who are on a budget is to find textile manufacturers whose factory operations and processes minimize industrial waste and maximize energy efficiency.
Vinyl fabrics are easy to clean and maintain. Newer vinyls have been developed to look and feel like leather, with embossed textures and a soft hand. The physical structure of vinyl, especially knitting-backed vinyl, enables fabricators to stretch the fabric around unique settee, dinette and stateroom furniture structures found on many boats, creating a soft, rounded appearance.
Acrylic fabrics are highly stain resistant and can be cleaned with solvents when necessary. Recent innovations in woven acrylics include jacquards, boucles, chenille and tweeds. Accessories and embellishments, such as fringe, twisted cord, tassels and trims, made from acrylic fibers are designed to coordinate with the upholstery fabric. Woven fabrics create a more traditional upholstered atmosphere, reminiscent of home interiors.
Jacquard, woven or napped fabrics with a softer hand may be more difficult to clean. They are susceptible to stains from oily substances, like suntan oil. Any surface texture can capture and trap minute dirt particles, requiring more careful use and diligent cleaning and maintenance. The luxurious feel of these fabrics makes them especially attractive for use in staterooms and berths.
Industry experts agree that managing moisture and UV exposure are of utmost importance when considering fabric for boat interiors. Sunlight penetrates to the interior through open hatches, companionways, portholes and enclosure windows. Moisture gets into the boat as rain, humidity and dew, as well as via wet bathing suits and fishing gear.
UV exposure causes the color in untreated fabrics to fade and eventually weakens the fabric’s structure. A fabric’s UV rating is typically stated in hours. According to Michael Ens, vice president of merchandising, J. Ennis Fabrics, a rating of 1,000 hours is very good. But there are other factors to take into account in addition to this rating. The degree of UV intensity varies depending on the angle of the sun’s rays and the amount of humidity in the air. UV exposure is effectively intensified in areas with high temperatures that are combined with high humidity. According to industry documents provided by Ens, each increase of 10 degrees C (37.5 F) doubles the rate that the polymers in vinyl will break down, causing the vinyl to delaminate. Consequently, Ens says, “Florida has a different UV component than Arizona, or conversely what Michigan or Canada would have.” The fabric interiors in boats located in the Southeast U.S. deteriorate more quickly than those in northern locations.
In marine environments, it’s important to use a mildew-resistant product, whether it’s used inside or outside. Fresh water or sea water, rain or dew, interior fabrics are frequently exposed to moisture, creating perfect conditions for mildew growth. “Cotton-backed fabric, cotton-linen fabrics, perhaps even rayon fabrics, can actually be damaged, weakened and destroyed by mildew,” says Jeff Jimison, vice president of sales for Outdura Corp., Gastonia, N.C.
Even the type of fabric backing on vinyl needs to be taken into account in areas with warm, humid weather. Rob Bechtold, owner of Bristol Fashion Marine Canvas, Naples, Fla., has found that knitting-backed vinyl is best at resisting mildew growth in his area—all other things being equal. “Mildew growth can be controlled with careful fabrication techniques, including using different fabrics on the same cushion to facilitate air flow,” Bechtold says. “Breathing is a huge issue. In a cushion its better if you have it breathe on both sides.”
Mildew damage is such a prevalent threat that manufacturers of traditional upholstery-grade textiles not originally designed for marine applications have added mildew-resistant characteristics to some fabrics in their product lines. Ultra-leather® and Ultra-suede® are two examples of upholstery-grade fabrics that have been enhanced with UV protection and mold and mildew resistance.
Know your customer and their boat
Plauché works with the full range of boat sizes and types. She systematically and thoroughly interviews her customers to start her fabric selection process. The first piece of information Plauché gathers from her customers is the type of boat that is under consideration.
The type of boat and its intended use have a huge impact on her fabric recommendations. “Larger boats that may not be subject to close quarters have a better chance to utilize a luxury grade fabric,” she says. These boats may have climate-controlled cabins with a captain or climate equipment to maintain steady temperature and humidity levels. By contrast, cushions on smaller boats often multi-task as cockpit seating during the day and as bunks at night. They need to be covered in a more durable, marine-grade fabric.
Plauché then determines who the customer is. “Is it a young couple with kids, an older couple with two black dogs, an owner that’s going to be chartering out his vessel?” she says. “Knowing the customer and how they will use their boat determines the performance characteristics the fabric will need to have.”
Plauché then finds out where the fabric will go in the boat. “Is it going in a sunroom or is it going in a stateroom?” she says.
After learning about the customer, their boat and the place where the fabric will go, Plauché can present her customers with a manageable number of fabrics to choose from. Different types of fabric are used to meet a variety of needs on the same project.
From his experience, Ens says that at the higher end, boat owners will want vinyl to have a softer hand, a softer feel, and to be more comfortable to sit on. But the customer with the weekend recreation ski boat is likely going to want his fabric to be more durable and less expensive.
Making a decision
“You’re going to wind up with one or two things for interior work: a woven fabric or a coated fabric,” Koster says. “The coated fabrics are primarily vinyls. There are some urethane-based fabrics that have less UV degradation and less of an environmental impact.” The advantage to woven acrylic fabric is that there is no UV degradation, and you can spill anything on it and can use anything to clean it.
“In our area, we have a lot of issues with molding and mildew,” Bechtold says. “I choose to use an acrylic if the customer is looking for a pattern type of material. And if they’re looking for something that’s easier to clean, we’re going to suggest vinyl that doesn’t have backing sewn into it.”
Prior experience with various fabrics gives fabricators insight into which one is best suited to meet the customer’s unique set of circumstances. The fabricator knows how to work the fabric and shape it to fit the job, and knows which performance characteristics are most important.
Ultimately, close collaboration and communication between the fabricator and boat owner during the fabric selection process is fundamental to ensuring a good outcome and a happy customer.
“Lead your customers in the right direction because they are looking to be educated, too,” Plauché says. “They want the best fabric to suit their needs. And we want to help them fill that need. We really try to educate the customers and steer them in the right direction so they will have years of trouble-free use in this difficult marine environment.”
Mary Jo Morris previously owned and operated Berkeley Marine Canvas in Berkeley, Calif. She and her husband, Jim, live in Point Richmond, Calif., and sail on San Francisco Bay.