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Finding fabric for older boats

Resources | April 1, 2009 | By:

A customer recently brought in a boat from the early 1990s that still has the original fabric. Only one of the seats needs to be fixed, but it’s an odd color of green that isn’t around any more. Where I can get “old” boat fabric?

Typically, when a customer brings in an older boat with original materials, the best tactic is to contact the boat manufacturer. They sometimes have stock material on hand that they’ll sell for repair work, although the older the boat is, the less likely you are to find it. If they don’t have the fabric, the boat manufacturer may be willing to tell you who made it for them. Keep in mind, too, that some boat manufacturers have fabric made especially for them, which means when it’s gone, it’s gone. If they’re willing to tell you who made the fabric for them, it may be possible to have a special run of the material done, but that’s not practical if it’s only for a cushion or two. Boat manufacturers, however, don’t keep records forever, and if the fabric you’re looking for is five years old or more, don’t be surprised if they no longer have access to the information.

Sometimes, though, hearing that the fabric is no longer being made is not enough to satisfy your customer. We turned to the members of the Marine Fabricators Association for advice.

Explain the options

Many of the marine fabricators who responded to us indicated that the first step is to educate the customer. The boat user probably isn’t as knowledgeable as you are about the marine industry and isn’t aware of product cycles. Colors and fabric choices don’t change as much or as often for boats as they do for clothing, but there are some trends, and your customer probably hasn’t thought of it that way. If you explain the situation and have a reasonably similar fabric to offer, they may be satisfied.

Several marine shops pointed out that even if you found the exact fabric that was used originally, it probably still wouldn’t match. Not only do dye lots vary, but marine fabrics are exposed to the elements. After several years, their color will change, if only slightly. Similarly, after years of wear, the texture may also have changed.

Another tactic is to replace only part of the fabric, updating the look by keeping the feel of the original. This might be done by doing repairs in a contrasting fabric, or something with a tweed texture that picks up the original color. One fabricator mentioned that she’ll try to spread the replacement material around, so that all of the cushions look even. If she’s patching a corner and the material doesn’t precisely match, for example, she’ll do the corner on the other side too, so that the repaired cushion looks balanced. Several fabricators mentioned using a contrasting fabric for the repair, so that the end result looks two-toned. If nothing else can be done, and you end up replacing the cushion fabric, you can salvage the leftovers to make throw pillows so that the feeling of the original material isn’t completely lost.

Another manufacturer indicated that it’s important to know why your customer is requesting a match to the original fabric. If the customer wants the same fabric as the original because of the durability of the original fabric, or if they simply like the color or texture of it, then he directs them to current fabrics with similar performance characteristics or appearance.

Expand the search

Some fabricators know from experience that finding a 20-year-old fabric isn’t likely to happen. One shop told us that they try to match the color as closely as they can and, if the customer is absolutely determined to get the original, they suggest that the customer do Internet searches or contact the manufacturer. In most cases, the customer then comes back, willing to accept the similar fabric.

If none of the above suggestions work, you might need to get a little more creative. It was pointed out that you can sometimes find fabric for sale on Internet auction sites such as e-Bay. If the boat you’re working on is a show boat, there may be a club or association for it. Some of the members of these clubs may have suggestions, or even have some fabric themselves. Finally, one fabricator suggested taking the sample to a local fabric graphics business. It’s possible that they could custom-match the color using a print technique, although this would only be practical for very small jobs.

What it comes down to is that the customer has to live with the end result, and so it pays to do the utmost to keep them happy. Even if you’re unable to find the original fabric, it’s a good idea to let them know the lengths you went to in order to try and locate it for them. Many thanks to the members of the Marine Fabricators Association for their professional advice.

Juli Case is IFAI’s information and technical services manager.

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