Making Upholstery Prototypes

(This article was written for upholstery professionals. To see a version of this article for clients, go here.)

Upholstery is a very specialized trade. We often take on a wide variety of projects. Sometimes those are one-of -kind projects that we are creating from scratch, or we might be making a number of the same type of furniture items, such as cushions, church pews, or restaurant booths. Other times we may be altering the frame, the style, or the cushions on a piece of furniture.

If we cut the fabric before we have a clear understanding of the job, making mistakes can cost us a lot of money. Planning our jobs ahead will serve both us and the client much better.

As an example of preplanning, before beginning building hundreds or thousands of a product, manufactures will create a prototype so they can see how everything fits together and to see if everything works as it is supposed to. The manufactures do have an advantage over an upholsterer though. They can spread the cost of the prototype over the entire production run, so that the cost of the prototype is very small on a "per piece" cost.

Upholsterers, on the other hand, can't usually spread the cost of a prototype over hundreds of furniture pieces. We can only apply the cost of the prototype to that one job, so we can't afford to spend very much time on making prototypes. However, we also can't afford to make very many mistakes with the client's fabric and/or furniture.

Whenever I'm doing an upholstery job, most of the time I just measure and cut the client's actual fabric. However, sometimes when I'm doing an unusual job, or if I'm uneasy about whether the job will work out as I imagine, I use some substitute fabric to test out my ideas. I keep cheap fabric around to experiment with. Any time I'm trying something new, that I'm unsure about, I'll make a pattern and/or a very simplified (no cording, etc.) prototype out of the cheap fabric to make sure it will fit. If I'm unsure about how to do something, I won't cut the job fabric, but will instead use the cheap fabric. Once I have my prototype the way I want it, I'll use the pattern to make the client's job.

Prototype Materials

Then the question would come up, "What type of material (fabric, vinyl, leather, etc.) should I use to make prototypes?". The answer would depend upon what type of projects you will be making. Ideally, you should use a type of material similar to what you will be actually using on the job. However almost any type of upholstery fabric or vinyl can be used. I even use drapery and clothing fabric, whatever I happen to have around. Lately, because I've had a roll of it around, I've been using some self-lined drapery fabric.

Ideas: Fabric stores (or even upholstery suppliers) often sell off undesirable fabric very cheaply. Watch for sales. Remember, when making prototypes, you don't care what color it is. The cheap fabric may be very ugly or undesirable - That's probably why they are selling it so inexpensively. But, for a prototype, it doesn't matter if it's an ugly color. You are making the prototype to make sure the project will work and that everything fits.

Making the Prototype

There are numerous ways to make prototypes, depending upon what the project is. Since we are not getting paid to make a prototype and we don't have a large run to divide out the cost, we need to make the prototype as simply as possible. So, much of the time I'll make a stripped-down version of whatever I'm making. I'm mainly checking size and how it fits, so I don't need any cording, special designs, etc. I'll also only sew it up enough to make sure it fits. Keep the fitting, cutting, and sewing as simple as possible.

Occasionally the project may require that you put more details and go to more work to make the prototype. That's just part of cost of doing business. Just accept it an go on with the project.

The Cost of the Prototype

Can you charge for the prototype? Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't. If a making a prototype is necessary or advisable, I will make one whether I get paid for it or not. Being paid for the prototype is not the most important factor. Turning out quality work will repay you for your efforts in the form or happy clients and positive word of mouth advertising.

Making a Pattern

One of the uses of making a prototype is in making a pattern for some furniture that has no original covering, or if you are changing the style of the furniture.

When you ask, "How do I make a pattern?", the unasked question I hear is "How do I make a pattern correctly the first time, without making a mistake?". I would direct you back to this article on making Prototypes. Making a prototype is allowing yourself to make a guess using scrap fabric and then try out the results to see how it fits. From that first prototype you see how far off your first guess was, then, if necessary, make a corrected second prototype and see how that fits. Then, if necessary, make any adjustments to your 2nd prototype pattern. Now you have your pattern that you can use to cut the real fabric. I doubt that even "high-tech" pattern makers make a perfect pattern every time.