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Upholstery 101: An armrest project without too much elbow grease

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A custom Chevrolet truck gets new armrests using fundamental template making and sewing techniques

■ By Brian Earnest

Chris Arendt of Fast Freddie’s Rod Shop in Eau Claire, Wis., never pictured himself sewing for a living. Not in a million years. “I thought sewing was for girls,” he jokes. “The last thing I sewed was a pillow case in junior high [home ec class].”

Nevertheless, when his shop needed someone to step forward and learn the auto upholstery business, Arendt went out and bought an industrial-strength sewing machine and turned his attention from metal to fabric. In less than a year, he has become Fast Freddie’s one-man upholstery shop, putting together everything from full-blown custom interiors to boat covers.

“We needed it. It was the one thing we couldn’t keep in house,” says Arendt. “You have to book a car [with an upholsterer], and you are at their mercy. You have to load it, you have to transport it. It’s out of your care, typically. Things can happen. You can get elbow dents, or paint chips. You hate to have something happen to it.”

Recently, he began work on a new interior for a customer’s 1949 Chevrolet custom pickup, which is almost done, but needs some upholstery. One of the first steps in the the project is taking a pair of new replacement armrests and recovering them with the correct darker gray vinyl that will match the rest of the pickup’s interior.

Compared to some of the start-from-scratch custom interior projects that upholsterers often face, fabricating new armrest covers for this truck is a fairly straightforward proposition that uses some basic techniques and the existing material as a pattern.


“We’re going to remove the material, steam it out to make it lay flat, make a simple template, cut it out and stitch it back together,” Arendt said. “This will be a simple project. Just essential template making. You basically use these simple steps throughout a whole upholstery job. It’s nice when you have an existing piece so you can make an accurate template.”

The armrest will be put together using a simple flat felled seem, which ties together multiple layers of fabric with a strong bond while leaving two visible stitch lines. Along with the fancier French seem, the flat felled seem is one of the basic stitching techniques used by upholsterers.

Following is a step-by-step look at the techniques and tools Arendt used for this armrest upholstery project.

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