Every master trimmer was at one time a rookie. While some cut their teeth working as shop apprentices, others enrolled in one of the few schools that teach the craft of auto upholstery.
McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas, is one of those schools. In fact, it’s the first school in the United States to offer a bachelor’s degree in automotive restoration. And to earn that degree, students have to study upholstery.
To be clear, auto upholstery is a craft that takes decades of hands-on experience to master. No one can enter a school program – at McPherson’s College or elsewhere – and expect to graduate a pro. In fact, many students go on to work entry-level positions at shops, where they further hone their skills.
Still, these programs are important because they provide aspiring trimmers with an introduction to the craft that they might not get elsewhere. It teaches them the basics, familiarizes them with the tools and techniques and helps them gain an appreciation for the work.
Interested in the program at McPherson College, we reached out to Michael Dudley, a former shop owner-turned-assistant professor of automotive restoration, who told us all about the upholstery courses he teaches.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
How old is McPherson College’s automotive restoration program?
From 1976 until 2003 it was a 2-year program. In 2003, it was changed to a 4-year program to offer a bachelor’s degree, which helped distinguish us from other schools.
How many instructors does the program have?
We have seven faculty members in the restoration program. I’m the [only] trim and upholstery instructor. We kind of all have our specialty that we teach.
What aspects of restoration are taught and how much time is dedicated to each one?
We focus on pre-1970 vehicles. Each student has to take 12 core courses, which consist of upholstery, metal shaping, woodworking, engine rebuilding, drivetrain/chassis, and machining [among others].
Then within the program, students can emphasize the different areas so it’s actually six different emphases you can choose from.
How many upholstery courses are there?
There’s intro and then there’s advanced. This semester I actually have three intro classes and one advanced class. Each class is a semester long, meaning 16 weeks.
What topics are covered in the intro upholstery course?
I start by having students do exercises with basics of measuring and cutting. … I talk to them about stitch lengths and getting their thread tension right. [Next] I go over how to do a blind seam and then the single reinforced seam. … Then I show them how to do a French seam. … [Later] they’ll work their way up to doing piping. Then I show them how to do roll and pleat and some variations with using scrim foam. Last thing I have them do is carpet binding.
I have rubrics for each one. It’s like: straightness of the stitching, tightness of the material, stitch lengths and thread tension.
After they have those aspects down, they each make their own 14″ by 12″ mini seat. I give them just a plywood base. They cut out a piece of foam to go on top if it. Then they can design their own mini seat.
We [also] have projects in the shop that I can assign to them and I let them bring in their own personal trim projects too, like simple seats to work on. That’s kind of the lab portion of the class.
During the classroom portion, I have a Power Point presentation, where I go over some aspects of interior upholstery. The first week is just a history of auto interior design. I go from the earliest days of button tufting and using horsehair to all the way up through the 1970s. I talk to them about how the styling changed over those years.
What topics are covered in the advanced course?
In the advanced course I talk about…what it takes to make a world-class trim shop. I just kind of dive more into depths of specific periods. I dive more into leather because the intro class is just the basics of leather, but in the advance course I get into more of how leather is made, what to look for when choosing leather, different processes for leather tanning.
I also have the students do an estimating project. This year we have a 1917 Willys-Knight that we’re restoring as a program, so I’m going to have them measure all of the interior…do drawings and then ultimately come up with what it would have cost to do the full trim work so they can kind of get a grasp of what it would take to estimate with materials and time for customers.
What about the lab portion of the advanced course?
The advanced class is more about school and shop projects [like the 1917 Willys-Knight], so I have a list of what needs to be done for shop projects and then the advanced class gets to work more on them.
What type of sewing machines does the program operate?
We have seven Consew 206rb’s — two are the older rb1 model and then we have five of the rb5’s. We also have one Yamata GC 5318. In August, we got two brand-new Juki machines. They’re all single needle so the students have to do their French seams one side at a time.
Do you teach convertible top installation?
Yeah. It really depends on what cars we have in the shop too. I do show videos of installations and if we have a car in the shop that needs a convertible top put on then we do that.
Speaking of classroom materials, what books do you instruct your students to read?
For the intro class, I have them read and do chapter summaries on “How to Restore Auto Upholstery” by John Martin Lee. It was published in 1994 but it’s really good. It gives a good overview of a lot of [upholstery] techniques and how to upholster seats.
In the advanced course, I have them look at one by Don Taylor, the “Automotive Upholstery Handbook.” … I think if they take both classes, they’ll get really good textbook reading from having both books.
Do you find that some of the students actually prefer doing upholstery over other aspects of automotive restoration?
Yeah. Trim work is a lot less noisy compared to grinders going and hammering on metal all day and getting dirty with body work. It’s cleaner, it’s less noisy and it’s healthier compared to painting and vehicular dust all over your body constantly.
How many of your students go on to pursue a career in auto upholstery?
I think a lot of them have the desire to. It’s just a matter of getting up and going. Probably the most surprising thing to see is a lot of them come in with a sea of notions about sewing and not really thinking they’ll enjoy it. But as time goes on they express that they really do enjoy it. That’s the most valuable thing that I see in them.
Does McPherson College offer internships or career placement opportunities to students?
Yeah, definitely. … Generally we have a lot of internships across the country for them in the summers, like in museums and workshops. I would like to hopefully get some more trim internships going here. That would be kind of nice to find shops around the country that would want to host students during the summer time.
Mike, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.
All right, thank you Naseem.
Photos: Below are some examples of the mini seats that students at McPherson College built and upholstered while taking the school’s introductory course to auto upholstery. The last photo is a 1947 Dodge Pickup that students in the advanced class trimmed.
To learn more about McPherson College’s auto restoration program, visit: McPherson.edu/autorestoration.