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Auto interior materials offer options for your customers

Markets, Upholstery | November 20, 2009 | By:

New options abound to offer customers the trendiest—or most traditional—auto interiors.

The interior of a car, you could argue, is more important to the overall experience of the car than the exterior. After all, the interior is where the driver and passengers spend their time. The customer’s choices in interior materials, colors and customization determine how it feels to be in the car.

Asking the right questions is key to meeting your customers’ auto interior needs, upselling auto interior options, and for building good relationships with your suppliers.

Many new and popular auto interior materials, including a few of the more unusual styles, provide more options for your customers. Purple ostrich leather, anyone?

It’s in the options

Typically, three basic materials are used in auto interiors: fabric (such as tweed, velvet, velour, and body cloth fabrics), leather and vinyl. Each offers unique advantages and drawbacks.

“Fabric manufacturers do a good job building body cloth,” says Larry Dennis, founder of Larry Dennis Company in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The fabrics out now,” says Tom Kosobayashi of Pyramid Trim Products in St. Paul, Minn., “whether they’re rayon or polyester blends, they wear well. They’re colorfast and UV-resistant.”

Velour is a common material option on high-end cars. Veteran upholsterer and Upholstery Journal contributor Marshall Spiegel in San Pedro, Calif., is not real crazy about velour. “Once it’s torn or burned, you have to replace larger areas.”

An affordable alternative to fabric is vinyl, which can be used for upholstery and convertible tops. It comes in many colors and textures. Available grains include pinpoint, sailcloth and pigskin.

“Wearwise, probably the vinyl materials are better,” says Rick Strauss of Electron Top in Jamaica, N.Y., referring to the difference between vinyl and canvas convertible tops. “It’s easier to keep clean, easier to wash, because it’s not a woven fabric. Also, it’s about half the price.”

Spiegel is a fan of vinyl upholstery. “Vinyl is about the best,” he says. “It’s easier to repair for burns and tears. When the backing foam dries up, we can repair vinyl easier than fabric. I find vinyl to be easier to work with.”

Two main drawbacks of vinyl: it can get very hot when exposed to sun, and some people dislike the feel of it.

Then there’s the classic auto interior choice: leather. Leather is often used to trim dashboards, door panels and little interior pieces, or to competely cover seats. The price of leather has dropped in recent years, making it more accessible than in the past.

“Leather is the least wear-resistant,” Dennis says, “but I like for my customers to use leather because they’ll have to replace it sooner.”

Spiegel has noticed steady growth in leather upholstery jobs. “People want to use real leather,” he says. “It’s more desirable, it’s easier to keep clean, and it has a great smell.”

Leather is more expensive than other interior upholstery options, and it tends to get hot in the summertime. But, Peter Bentley, president of Waterhouse Leathers in Littleton, Mass., says it’s worth it.

“It lends a certain amount of panache to the interior,” he says. “That’s why all the classic cars throughout the ages have been trimmed out in leather.”

Trends and traditions

While the majority of the auto upholstery market focuses on traditional colors and materials, the spectrum of materials, finishes and customization options available is constantly growing.

This year, two of Waterhouse Leather’s new products are a retro-style “smoothie look” leather—a fully-finished, aniline-dyed leather—and “pull-up” leather, which contains oils and dyes that migrate when stretched, giving it an antique look.

Other leather finishes available include naked (very little finish), semi-naked, embossed, printed, pearlized and antiqued.

“I would like to see more upholsterers try new available colors and textures,” says Bentley. “The price of leather has come down these days—there’s no reason not to give it a try.”

Headliner material supplier Heads Up Industries boasts several new products this year. Its carbon synthetic fabric is an expanded vinyl with the look of real carbon. Another is a full line of products, Optionz, that allows consumers to customize their car interiors with ultra-suede or stylized, designer-like prints. You can get ostrich leather, crocodile or even baby croc, if your customer has a hankering for exotic materials.

But when it comes to cars, it seems, most people still want to stick to the classics.

“Earth tones are still our most popular colors by ten-to-one,” says Bentley. “In the hot rod trade and in some of the snazzier cars, people are trimming it out with embossed alligator or embossed ostrich. They love the hot colors and some of the pearlized leathers, which have kind of a glassy, shiny look. Pearlized is very popular.

“But in general, people are very traditional. They want their upholstery to feel like a piece of living room furniture.”

More convertibles these days are sporting black canvas tops, asserts Strauss. “Why? Just think about seeing a yellow Corvette with a black canvas top compared to a white vinyl top. It’s all about the look.”

Keep it clean

Kosobayashi advocates common sense treatment of auto interiors.

“Don’t eat and spill food on them,” he says. “Don’t spill beverages. For fabric upholstery, use a general purpose fabric cleaner.”

Leather upholstery requires surprisingly little maintenance.

“In general,” Bentley says, “leather should be cleaned with just warm water and a very light detergent. Every other month or twice a year, it wouldn’t hurt to go over it with an automotive-grade leather cleaner. That’ll clear out any dirt and grime.”

Headliners are about as low-maintenance as it gets.

“They are generally maintenance-free,” says Scott Draizin of Heads Up Industries. He warns against using any kind of caustic cleaner. “The headliner is sponge-backed, so you won’t be able to get those cleaners out and they’ll deteriorate the headliner. The best thing to use is a damp cloth.”

Strauss recommends that people with canvas convertible tops avoid harsh detergents and apply a canvas-specific product. “Stay away from car washes,” he pleads. “I see people put their convertible top through car washes—it hurts me.”

Creative upselling

While Spiegel sees most customers as having preconceived notions of what they want, one upsell idea suggested by Draizin is the design and installation of custom headliner concepts. That is, emboss shapes of different colors into the headliner.

Another idea from Draizin: offer the upgrade of treating seats with an anti-bacterial, waterproofing, dirtproofing spray-on seat cover.

You can also treat customers’ fabric with it gratis. “It’s inexpensive, and it would be a good way of creating goodwill for your business,” Draizin says.

Meeting needs

If you want to help a customer choose an appropriate auto interior material, Spiegel says, ask lots of questions.

“Find out what kind of wear the vehicle is going to get. What kind of activity happens in the interior? For example, do you carry heavy materials? Do you have pets? Do you have a big family? How much distress is the interior going to take? Are you going to drive with the top down a lot?”

Spiegel also recommends determining what kind of care the car is going to get. “Are you going to wash it regularly? Is it going to be garage-kept?” Asking more questions will make sure your customers get what they want.

One way of meeting a customer’s needs is to anticipate them. Many people are bothered by the smell of interior adhesives. Heads Up has an interior adhesive that can help avoid that problem.

“Our Ultra Grip product microencapsulates the solvent molecule in the adhesive,” says Draizin, “so when you spray it doesn’t smell. The customer will be happier.”

What to do, what not to do

When dealing with your suppliers, Kosobayashi advises doing your homework before ordering. “Especially for custom jobs,” he says. “Measure things out and think them through. We cross our fingers when new people order from us and hope they know what they’re doing.”

If you run short of fabric three weeks into a project, he says, and call to order more, he may have moved on to a new bolt with different dye lots. “I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to match the fabric exactly.”

The number-one no-no for Bentley is using cheap upholstery leather—easy to identify because the hides tend to be thinner—in an attempt to keep costs low. “It breaks down sooner and makes the entire leather upholstery business look bad,” he says. “That drives me crazy.”

He is quick to add that most upholsterers are “really in tune” with using quality materials.

With auto interiors tending to be traditional, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. You can break out—even if your customers aren’t keen on the purple ostrich option—by experimenting with new products, services and upsells. Just make sure you keep quality and customer service as the foundation of your work. If you enjoy your work, it will show.

Shelby Gonzalez is a freelance writer. She welcomes comments and inquiries at

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