Upholestry tests (Learning to Sew 101)

Last updated - 10/03/06.

Most builders end up buying their seats and interior trim from a professional that makes seats for RVs. I have seen the pictures on the web, and the seats look pretty good. However, with the minimum cost being something like $800, and leather going for $1200 to $2000, I just don't want to spend that kind of money.

The other reason is that, as I have said before, I plan to build the whole plane myself. I know, I know, I bought the pre-punched kit from Van's, and I'm not designing my own radios and EFIS, so why not buy the seats? Actually, I would like to design my own EFIS, but you have to set limits on what you do yourself, and what you buy from someone else. The EFIS project would be never ending, and probably not get finished. Seats can be sewn in a few days to a week, certainly less than a month.

There's a lot of guys who would not consider sewing their seats, because sewing is what girls did in home economics. However, it's just another skill that can be learned, just like riveting or wiring up a panel. The truth is that most people who sew upholstery are guys, not girls.

When it comes to sewing, I am not a total beginner. When I met my wife, she thought it was strange that I owned a sewing machine. But, you know, things need to be fixed, and using a needle and thread is just too primitive, so I bought a sewing machine something like 25 years ago. I haven't done any complex projects, just the occassional hemmed-up pants or hole that needed fixing. I guess I know enough to sew two pieces of material together in a straight line. Building a seat is another thing, so I have a few things to learn.

Whenever I go to Harbor Freight, my wife goes into Hancock Fabric. When I am done looking around HF, I go over to Hancock to get her, so I actually get to look at tools and fabrics in the same trip. Of course, Hancock has a lot of nick-nacks, so the trip usually costs me more than what I spend at HF (my wife is a foo foo adict).

Consequently, I have been looking at different fabrics and foams for the last two years or so. Every time I saw those pillows with the soft beads inside, I kept hoping they would be cheaper by the time that I wanted to make the seats for the RV. About a year ago (seems like early 2005), I started making test pieces. The pictures below show the progress of my sewing education, starting with my first attempts at sewing a simple box cushion, on up to my latest test pieces that fit the actual seat backs and seat floors. The first few pieces were done over a year ago, but I did not take the pictures until last week. I told you, I never throw anything away.

You gotta start somewhere. I bought some cheap vinyl and tried to sew a simple square seat cushion. This was my first attempt. As you can see it's nothing to write home about. Obviously, things are a little harder when you have multiple pieces and three dimensions to deal with. BTW, this vinyl was very heavy, I would never use it on an airplane.
Next, I found some fake leather at Hancock Fabric. This material is very light, and it feels real soft. I really liked this look and feel, but I am not sure how it would actually hold up in an airplane. This test piece came out pretty good, but I still need a little practice.
Same material, bigger cushion, looks pretty good.
I thought I should try making a test piece that had the cutout for a control stick. I did not have access to a finished fuselage, so I didn't know how big the notch needed to be. I just made a cushion with a little notch. Also, I put a few smaller pieces of foam in the top in an attempt to build a contoured seat. Obviously, this is not how it is done. Maybe I should get a book on upholstery.
This was a cloth seat, since my wife thought cloth would wear better than the fake leather (vinyl). I made this cushion for a chair that our dogs have taken over as their own. They ruined the original fabric, so it was a good piece to use for testing long term wear.

Actually, this is the second cushion that I sewed for the same chair. The first cushion used vinyl, and only lasted a few months before the dogs cut several holes in the fabric with their claws (big Labs). This is a picture of the second cushion after 6-8 months of use. There are no holes, so I guess my wife was right, the cloth holds up better than the cheap vinyl. BTW, I did a pretty crappy job sewing this, so I still have a few things to learn.

This is my tuck-and-roll test piece. Other than the fact that the lines are all cockeyed, I was pretty happy with how this looked. When I sewed it, I was more interested in making the rolls, and didn't think about doing a good job. That's one of the problems that I had with all of my test pieces. When I made a test piece I was working on an idea of how I though something needed to be sewn. Either the idea worked, or it didn't, but usually the whole piece looked pretty bad. If I am going to sew my own seats, I am going to have to concentrate on doing everything right. Maybe I should practice a little more.
Ok, we have the seat backs done, so we can start making real test pieces. Here, I have made a test seat back, and the blue cushion is the test cushion from above. There are two problems with the seat back. First, I cut the foam the same width as the seat backs. Unfortunately, you need to compress the foam a little or things don't look right. Consequently, the seat back cushion is too narrow. The other problem is that I did not sew the velcro to the back of the seat. Once the cushion is sewn, there is now way to sew the velcro attachment to the back, so that needs to be done first.

One thing that I did do with this seat back was to sew pleats in the middle. I was careful, and they came out straight, so all-in-all, I'm pretty happy with this test seat back cushion. Still needs a little improvement, but getting closer.

Here, we have some Walmart foam cut to fit the seat area. I thought this was about right. I cut the center notch for the stick back a little, so the cushion can be moved forward without hitting the control stick when the seat backs are moved forward. Patricia says the notch is too far back.
Front view.
Here's the top of the seat cushion with some batting sewn in. I used a few small pieces of thin fiber fill, since I did not have a piece big enough to do it as one piece. I didn't like the way the batting fit, so I sewed another top piece using rolled batting (next picture).
This is the "improved" top piece. I think the batting is a little too thick. Maybe the other piece was not that bad.
I went ahead and made a seat cushion using the second top piece. It's pulled out of shape a little, but functional.
Not quite right, but it works. BTW, Patricia was right, the notch is too far back. Need to bring it all the way up to the control stick hole.
Patricia wants the material to cover the whole seat back. I said that's a lot of work, and the pros charge extra for that, but she insisted, so that was my next project. It actually came out pretty good, but I had a few problems with it. First, the box was a little loose, so I took it in a little. It was still a little loose, so I took it in a lot. Then, it was way too tight. This made it really hard to get the foam inside. I'm still thinking about just how I want to do this.

Notice, no pleats in this seat back cushion. It's $4-$5 for the pad or batting everytime I practice this. It's a real pain to cut them out if you want to use the batting again.

Kelby says it's comfortable, but she only weighs 12 lbs. Actually, I have to agree, the seat back is pretty comfortable, and the cushion is not bad, either.

Here's the back of the seat. I forgot to sew a slot for the F-638 seat angle adjuster. Not a problem for the test piece, I just cut the slot where the hindges were on the seat back, and attached F-638. For the real upholstery, I need to sew the slot first.
I have not decided if I will sew a map case in the seat or not. I may want to sew a zipper all the way up the back, which would interfere with a map case. Besides it looks to be too hard to reach over the back of the seat to get a map, but it's always good to have extra pockets. I could sew the zipper along the side, or maybe not do a zipper. If the test cover was not quite as tight as it is, it would work ok without a zipper, plus, it would be lighter and cheaper.
I made another practice cushion with the same blue/gray material. I moved the cutout for the stick forward, so there is more butt support. This seems to be a little more comfortable. Also, the rear part of the cushion is a large block of the flame retardant foam from Hancock. I was able to cut the FWD angle using a serrated bread knife, which did a good job. The front legs have a single 1" layer of Walmart foam, which seems to be plenty. This cushion is much closer to the final product. I just need to select the right material. Maybe one more practice cushion.
I sewed another test seat cushion and seat back, using this material that we bought a few weeks ago. My wife chose the fabric. All I can say is it makes great test cushions. It feels pretty comfortable to me, and Emmie thinks so too. BTW, I have chosen my real fabric. I found the fabric in Hancock's sale bin, where all fabric was marked as reg $6.88, 50% off. I got 5 yards for $3.44 a yard. That's less than $18. I'll see if I can get a picture.
With Emmie out of the way, you can see that I tried a few different things with this seat back. I just put the batting along the sides of the seat. This makes it concave in the middle. This feels ok, but I think I will go with the batting in the middle, and maybe thicker batting along the sides. This time I sewed a zipper in the back of the seat back, which makes it a lot easier to get the foam inside. Also, I made this seat back a little bigger to fit more foam. My wife liked the thicker back, but I don't think it's needed.
Well, I finally sewed my first real seat cushion, so that ends this section on Learning to Sew 101. To follow the process of sewing the real seat cushions and seat backs, click on the Interior section of the log. BTW, it looks like the seat is sewn with the control stick cutout off center. That is correct, it is by design. We'll see if it is a good design or not.