We marine fabricators love fabrics. In fact, most of the conversations I have with customers start like this, “We love fabric. We have fabrics in every color under the rainbow. But our fabrics are special because they are marine grade.” And let’s be honest, fabric is the fun part of our job, right? The big question is: How do you find the right ones for your customers?
Onboard Interiors LLC, located in Marblehead, Mass., is an award-winning full service interior design firm specializing in custom marine interiors for private and commercial powerboats and sailboats.
We have been cultivating our marine fabric library since 1984 and have spent years collecting fabrics from large mills and small boutique collections. We pull fabrics from all over the world. We meet with fabric reps all year (recently on Zoom), watch for new styles coming out, attend trade shows, boat shows and conferences, and we are lucky enough to have the Boston Design Center nearby. We collect fabrics for our library use in general, but if the project is large enough, we might conduct special online searches or go on outings with our clients to design centers.
A living library
Our library has a life of its own, and we update the collection at least once a year. We do this by going through all our fabric books and log in each fabric. It’s a tedious process but if you have ever had a customer search high and low for fabric and then you can’t get it—prepare yourself for the equivalent of a two-year-old having a tantrum!
Customers can’t “unsee” their hearts’ desire, and it becomes an uphill battle to find a fabric they like even second best. There have been times we’ve searched the depths of eBay for fabric. Because of this, we put a lot of time into keeping our collection updated and “clean.” Pre-COVID this was challenging, but now it’s a new level of difficulty. We used to tell clients to “pick three,” and now it’s, “Let’s find out what’s in stock if you want it this season.”
Client meeting savvy
Our client meetings begin by explaining the importance of our extensive fabric collection. We discuss how marine fabrics are made and talk about solution-dyed acrylics. We talk about pricing—how it varies and how to fit quality fabrics into every budget. We educate customers about why they might spend more on marine fabric, which establishes an initial understanding that benefits everyone and is more likely to result in a successful project.
By now, nearly all clients have heard of Sunbrella®—the company has done such a great job marketing and trademarking the brand—but we also discuss other brands of fabrics that compete in our market. Residential fabric suppliers have worked hard to drive more players into creating outdoor collections and the marine market has benefited.
Supply chain bingo
Our initial customer conversations might happen at the boatyard, a trade show, over the phone, via email or on the dock. We take notes on our customers’ needs and prepare customers for one, two or three meetings based on the scope of work.
The first meeting is a big one: We measure the boat. At the second meeting we need materials selected. On smaller projects, we try to be efficient by having the first and second meetings together—we measure the boat and select materials on board. Pre-COVID, we had a good chance of making this happen. We would stock up our van with books, brochures, memo samples [loose pieces of fabric that have mill specs on the back] and have our meeting on board.
Post-COVID supply chain issues have changed this process because there’s a very good chance the fabric isn’t available, or it will have a lengthy back order. Before COVID, it was unheard of to have fabric on a 30- or 40-week back order. I tell people that nailing fabric down is like playing bingo.
Post-COVID fabric reality
This new reality means that during meetings we are now on a computer logged into the mill’s website while also on the phone with someone who can check the stock to make sure the pieces we want are in the same dye lots to cut from.
We set up the second meeting in our library showroom to be able to pull enough fabric to work with. We use the actual books or memo samples and spread everything out on wider surfaces. Patience and flexibility really come into play here.
As an example, we are currently working on a Sigma 41, a Fairhaven Shipyard-based boat. The job list includes all new interior cushions using two kinds of foam with tapers and bevels, and the customer wants to use a few different fabrics. We had the initial meeting on board and brought several books of fabrics. The customer selected three fabrics, but two of the three are back-ordered.
Using the one available fabric as the base of the design, we asked the customer to visit the showroom. Finding fabric that is in stock is especially important for this project because the customer and her husband are signed up for the Newport Bermuda Race this spring, so they need everything on board by mid-May—a hard deadline.
We made call after call, until finally, Sattler/Outdura fabrics came through with the yardage we need. Hooray!
Matching customer to fabric
Finding the right fabric to complement a boat owner’s style is really important. How do we get there? As I mentioned, during our initial conversation with customers we take notes on needs and wants. We pull specs on the vessel and then ask customers for a wish list of colors and style. We ask them to show us styles they like on a sister ship or in residential design; these can be something big or small. For example, one customer loved the colors on a serving tray so much that we used that as the design inspiration.
Others draw inspiration from the boat’s name. “Serenity” lends itself to tranquil waterlike colors. A current vessel we are working on is named “Mary Poppins,” and we are having fun with an umbrella fabric. A boat named for the Lord of the Rings had us pulling forest and nature-inspired fabric. A repeat customer couldn’t part with a favorite sand dollar-themed pillow, so we used the colors again on board the new vessel in the design.
I encourage you to share your love of fabrics with your customers while keeping the new realities of our projects in mind. Fabric plays a starring role in our design process. Who would want to sit on foam without it?
Krisha Plauché is the owner of Onboard Interiors LLC located in Marblehead, Mass. She is a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, has a certification from Westlawn School of Marine Technology and was a yacht designer for many years. She is a past director of the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association and is a member of ASID, the American Society of Interior Designers.