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. Even the most highly skilled of craftspeople need a plan of attack before starting a new type of project. Making the prototype in advance will give you both the knowledge and experience to work out a better plan.

If at all possible, the prototype should be made before we touch the furniture, not to take any of the furniture apart until we have made the prototype. In addition, it is recommended that you have the client look at your prototype before you proceed. You want to make sure that they will be happy with what you are able to do. If the client is not happy with the prototype, you need to decide if you are capable with doing this job. OR, make another prototype. In any event, do not proceed with the job until the client is happy with the prototype AND you re confident that you can duplicate the structure of the prototype on their furniture.

Occassionally we may take on a job that it way above us, that we just aren't capable of doing. Making the prototype in advance of tearing apart the furniture lets us know if we made a mistake in taking on the project. If the prototype fails or we are unable to please the client with the prototye, then it gives a graceful way to get out of it before we make a big costly mistake AND have the client uphappy with us. All we would have to do is give back the client their money and their furniture. Yes, we would be out a little money here, but not nearly as much if we put a lot of time and money into the project and have it all fall apart.

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 dozens or 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.

Planning a Way Out


The main idea of making the prototype is (before starting the job) to plan both the job and to plan a way out of a potential disaster (that of wrecking the client's furniture or other project) and then not being able to satisfactorily complete the project. The prototype would help you gain the knowledge and experience needed to make the plan or to proceed without a written plan.

Planning the Prototype Process

By doing this (and before you have damaged the chair) you should get a pretty good sense of whether or not the job is doable by you using the chosen material. Yes, it is a lot of extra work, but sometimes it may save a disaster OR give you the extra assurance and knowledge that you may need before starting the 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 in many cases almost any type of upholstery fabric or vinyl can be used. Depending upon the project I have even used drapery and clothing fabric, whatever I happen to have around. For a while I had a roll of some self-lined drapery fabric, which I used until it was gone.

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.

If none of those fabric ideas are workable, you either purchase some extra of the chosen fabric or you can have the client purchase enough extra for the prototype.

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.

Should You Charge for Making a 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. With that being said, I will often just include the cost of making a prototype as another line item in the work order so that it is assumed to be part of the cost of the job. 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.

Whether you can or choose to charge to make a prototype is often a judgement call. Part of the determining factor depends on your skill level and the type of project you are asked to do. If you have beginning skill level AND the project is a common type of upholstery, and you are just trying to figure out how to do it, then I would not recommending charging. It is all part of your learning process, and it is not good to charge the client for your learning process.

However, if the project is an unusual or complicated project and is a normal part of either redesigning something or creating a new style, then it seems appropriate to include the cost of the prototype in the cost of the job. OR you can choose to do the job on a time and materials basis. In either case, it seems advisable to tell the client about the extra costs involved......

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.