A Lot of people change their own oil or belts. Many can fix a stalled engine. Some can even smooth dents and eliminate rust holes. However, very few people can fix their own car seats. So, it seems that the most intimidating of all auto repairs is reupholstering the seats.
At least, that was the case for me. I didn't have a clue how to upholster a car seat. I didn't even know where to begin. All I knew was that my torn vinyl seats were ugly and uncomfortable. They needed new upholstery and I couldn't justify spending for a professional. So, I did a little research and found all the information I needed to reupholster the seats in my 1985 Toyota truck. And now, I am putting all that information into one convenient how-to article.
Where I learned it
The first thing you will need is professional reference on the subject. I recommend the book "Automotive Upholstery Handbook" by Don Taylor. It isn't the best textbook I have ever read but I learned everything I needed to know to reupholster my seats from this book. And, I doubt if you will find a better book - I couldn't. Anyhow, this book covers everything from sewing to seat stuffing. So, if you don't know how to sew (I didn't) or pick fabric or make pleats you will learn. If you're afraid to learn this - ignore the rest of this article and hire a professional or buy a set seat covers.
Okay, let's assume you got the book and read the first 7 chapters about 1,000 times. Good! You should have no problems reupholstering your seats. However, you probably want a beginner's perspective on auto trimming (that is the professional term so let's use it from now on) so you can see the mistakes you will make before you make them. Or, maybe you don't want to invest in the book until you feel confident that you can trim your own car (it is
car that your trimming, isn't it?). Whether you have the book or your on car, read on. I'll show you how I trimmed my Toyota!
What I did
Basically, I removed the seats from my truck and I disassembled them. The fabric upholstery was removed by cutting the hog rings that held it in place. Then, I carefully removed all the seems from the fabric. I used the old fabric as a pattern for the new fabric and sewed everything back together the same way that I took it apart. Then, I hog ringed everything back in place and put the seat back in my truck.
How I did it
I took one of the seats out of my '85 Toyota and found that they are fairly simply to reupholster. The back is like a pillow case that is hog ringed at the bottom. Likewise, the lower section is like a cap that is hog ringed to the frame of the seat. I figured the trickiest part will be get the listing (the wire which pulls the fabric snug to the inward curve of the padding)lined up correctly. And, since both seat are identical with respect to the upholstery, I was pretty confident that I could trim these seats.
At the fabric store, I picked out three yards of the nicest fabric that I could find. That ended up being a velvet upholstery fabric that had a narrow striped texture. Velvet is a good choice because it is comfortable, durable, looks awesome, and allows seams that are sewn incorrectly to be ripped out without a scar. Along with the velvet I picked up two yards of muslin and another two yards of 1/2 inch poly foam which are needed to create the pleats.
Next, I disassembled one seat and ripped out all the seams so that I could use the old vinyl pieces as patterns for my new seats. Don Taylor says not to do this in his book because any stretching or irregularities would be transferred to the new seat. However, these are my seats and I could live with variations. Further, I couldn't figure out a better way (Don's book doesn't cover bucket seat that thoroughly) and the finished seats look better than I expected.
Before tracing the patterns on the new fabric, the fabric that has pleats (those pretty grooves that run down the seat) needs to be prepped. To do this, poly foam is glued between the velvet and a muslin backing before the pattern is cut out. I used the cheapest can aerosol glue I could find. This works great because the fabric does not need to adhere strongly to the poly foam. Besides, contact cement will melt poly foam if applied to thick or if it is too strong. Also, sewing is extremely difficult when there is glue on the fabric. So, just enough glue was sprayed to hold the fabric in place.
I marked out all the patterns with chalk (now, I know a better method of patting flour around the pattern edges with a sponge). The sections which have pleats are traced over the poly foam modified velvet so that pleats can be sewn into them. I laid the rest of the sections accordingly. Note, that in the lower seat section, the grain of the fabric on the lower (vertical) face is perpendicular to that on the seats top surface. This is a nice contrast.
After tracing all the patterns, I cut them all out. I have an unused room in my house. So, I laid all the sections on the floor. Note the poly foam enhanced sections. They are key sections because they have pleats and listings. So, lets do them next.
Making the pleats is as simple as sewing a line down the foam modified fabric but there are a few things to consider. I designed my pleats as shown in the diagram to the left. Since, the vertical pleats run parallel with the striped texture, I had to be very careful to sew the pleats straight or it would be noticeable. In the lower section, the pleat that runs horizontally doubles as a seam to hold the listing.
Listing is a wire that pulls fabric into a concave surface. Without it, there would be a noticeable bubble. To make the listing on the lower section, all I needed to do was fold some old muslin in half and glue in place. Then, when the horizontal pleat is sewn, there is a sleeve to put wire in. Of course, I sewed the listing last. If the muslin was there when I sewn the other pleats, I might have sewn it closed!
For the upper sections, I wanted the pleats to run all the way up the back without the horizontal pleat. This made things a bit more complicated because now there was no seam to hold the listing. I think it looks better like that and is worth the extra work. Anyhow, in his book, Don show how to make a listing for this very case by sewing vinyl 'tabs' to the vertical pleats and running wire through the middle of them. However, I took a different approach. Like the lower section, I used a folded piece muslin only this time I sewed it down with vertical pleats. Now, you should be thinking "That's dumb, you have no sleeve to put the wire in". However, I actually folded the muslin twice before sewing it down. Then, after sewing the pleats, I cut the top fold free along the pleats. So, instead of one solid sleeve, I had three separate sleeve. But, it still holds the wire just as well.
The rest of the assembly is quiet easy. I sewed all the pieces together in the positions they were when I took them apart. I slid all listing wires into their respective sleeves and hog ringed the covers in place. The original seats had a head rests - cheap head rests, that is. I didn't like them enough to bother covering them. So, into the trash they went.
I haven't missed the head rests and the seats really look great! They look and feel so much better than vinyl. Best of all, it only cost $35 to trim both seats! I wish I did this four years ago!