Making Patterns and Prototypes

Why is a Prototype Sometimes Needed?

Upholstery is a very specialized trade. We often take on a wide variety of projects. Sometimes those are one-of-kind projects that we create from scratch, or we might make a number of the same type of furniture items, such as cushions, church pews, or restaurant booths. Other times we may be altering the frame, the style, or the cushions on a piece of furniture.

We only ocassionally need to make a prototype, although we make patterns more frequently. If we cut the fabric before we have a clear understanding of the job, making mistakes can add a lot of cost to the job and waste a lot of the covering material.  Planning our jobs ahead will serve both us and the client much better.

Making the Prototype

There are numerous ways to make prototypes, depending upon what the project is. The type of prototype we make depends upon the complexity of the project and whether we have made something similar before. Any time I'm trying something new, that I'm unsure about, I'll make a pattern and/or a very simplified prototype first to make sure it will fit. Alternatively, sometimes I may need to make a complete sample of the finished project.

 Making a prototype is allowing oneself to make experiment using scrap fabric and then try out the results to see how it fits. From that first prototype you see how far off your first sample was, then, if necessary, make a corrected second prototype and see how that fits. Then, if necessary, make any adjustments to your 2nd prototype pattern. Now you have your pattern that you can use to cut the real fabric. 

Making a Pattern

While a prototype may be a copy of the full projece, a pattern is usually made for each part of the prototype or finished  project. As an example, think of a prototype as full six-sided block. Think of a pattern as only one side of the block. A pattern is used to cut the material for the job. One of the reasons for making prototypes is to make the patterns that are used to cut the individual pieces of material for the job.

We don't need to make a prototype to make a pattern. While patterns can be made for a prototype, a pattern is a separate component, which can be made independent of a prototype. Sometimes we only need to make a pattern, which has a special shape, for one piece of a project. The other pieces of material can be cut from measurements.

Prototype Materials

Whenever I'm doing an upholstery job, most of the time I just measure and cut the client's actual fabric. However, sometimes when I'm doing an unusual job, or if I'm uneasy about whether the job will work out as I imagine, I use some substitute fabric to test out my ideas. Sometimes I have cheap fabric on hand to experiment with. sometimes I have to purchase some material to use as a prototype.If I'm unsure about how to do something, I won't cut the job fabric, but will instead use the alternate fabric. Once I have my prototype the way I want it, I'll use the prototype as a pattern to make the client's job. This is why some unusual jobs may cost more than regular jobs.

Then the question would come up, "What type of material (fabric, vinyl, leather, etc.) should I use to make prototypes?". The answer would depend upon what type of projects you will be making. Ideally, we should use a type of material similar to what you will be actually using on the job. However almost any type of upholstery fabric or vinyl can be used. Since the prototype won't actually be used, I usually try to find an inexpensive material for the prototype. It can be any color, depending whatever I can find at a discount.

 The Cost of the Prototype

Before building hundreds or thousands of a product, manufacturers will create a prototype so they can see how everything fits together and to see if everything works as it is supposed to. The manufactures can spread the cost of the prototype over the entire production run, so that the cost of the prototype is very small on a "per piece" cost.

Upholsterers, on the other hand, usually can't spread the cost of a prototype over hundreds of furniture pieces. We make the prototype for that one job. Sometimes several patterns or prototypes may have to be made until we have a workable pattern to make the finished project. Therefore making a prototype can sometimes make the cost of the job double or triple or more of a similar job that has something we can copy. If we have to go out on location to do special fitting or measuring of a job, that will also add to the cost of the project.

For most of the work we do we try to let the client know the total charges in advance. However, for special or unusual projects we might (or might not) be able estimate the total cost in advance, but may bill by time, materials and other costs. In these cases the final charges won't be known until the job is completed.