Tricks of the Trade for Upholsterers and Canvas Workers

Hands using professional industrial sewing machine for upholstery

Intro to Sewing

Whether you’re sewing upholstery fabric or working with marine canvas or vinyl, the thick fabrics require a unique and flexible skillset, as well as a slew of specific tools. With over 9,000 products available and nationwide distribution, Trivantage has everything upholsterers and canvas workers need, all in one place. Still, we realize that having what you need to do a project doesn’t cover everything you need to know to do it well.

That’s why we’ve compiled a list of both common and lesser known sewing tips for seasoned upholsterers and beginners alike. Whether you’re new to upholstering, or you routinely design and craft bimini tops, and reupholster ottomans, you’ll find plenty here that’s useful.

For additional video guidance, check out our full Sewing Machine Series featuring key tips & tricks in partnership with Bill’s Sewing Machine Company.

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Starting with the Right Tools

Masculine hands threading white juki industrial sewing machine
  • Use the Right Sewing Machine

    • Heavy-duty sewing machines

        A regular sewing machine—the kind of machine that used to exist in home economic rooms in high schools across the country—can accommodate many different types of upholstery and marine projects, so long as the material (or the layers of material) don’t get too thick, and the sewist has made good choices regarding needle, thread, and stitch length.

        That being said, if you’re working with a lot of layers of already thick material, or, if you’re working with a lot of length that needs to be fed through the sewing machine, you’ll need a machine better suited to upholstery work. There are a number of different upholstery sewing machines on the market, and they all offer different features and limitations. For a video guide, reference the 4th Episode of our Sewing Series.

        The most common sewing machines upholsterers use are:

        Heavy-duty or industrial sewing machines are able to accommodate thick material like denim and leather more easily, which means they can also usually handle vinyl, specialty acrylic fabrics like Sunbrella, and marine fabric better than a home sewing machine. Heavy duty machines can be large and can take up a lot of space.

    • Portable walking foot sewing machines

        In general, having a walking foot is advantageous when working with thicker materials, because it feeds layers of fabric through the machine evenly. Most heavy-duty sewing machines feature a walking foot. However, if you need portability or if you’re working in a smaller space, a portable walking foot sewing machine is a good option.

    • Long-arm sewing machines

        Long-arm sewing machines offer a lot more throat space which allows for greater ease when working with wide or bulky material. Long-arm sewing machines offer between 18 and 24 inches space.

  • Use the Right Thread

      Group of different colored gore tenara sewing thread bobbins for upholstery sewing machines

      There’s a lot to consider when selecting thread for an upholstery, awning, tent, or marine sewing project. Beyond more common considerations like color and material, anyone working with heavier fabrics needs to also consider strength-to-weight ratio, resistance to UV rays and moisture, and cost. Without a doubt, the right type of heavy duty thread is not going to be the same for every project. For a visual guide on this topic, check out our Trivantage Thread video.

      Most upholstery, vinyl, leather, and marine fabric manufacturers will have specific recommendations regarding what type of thread works best with their product. That being said, here are some tips to keep front of mind to make sure you’re using the right upholstery thread for your project:

    • Be careful when choosing thread weight

        Generally speaking, V-69 thread will be the heaviest thread weight your home machine can handle. Heavier/thicker thread weights require a larger needle, which most likely can’t be accommodated by a home machine.

    • Threads for indoor versus outdoor applications

        Here are some examples of thread types and their applications:

        • Polyester (Outdoor). Polyester is a popular choice for outdoor applications, especially canvas and sail work due to its UV resistance and stability, its high strength, and its resistance to saltwater, mildew, abrasion, and needle heat when stitching at high speeds.Nylon (Indoor). Nylon is a common choice for indoor upholstery, canvas, leather, and vinyl applications thanks to its impressive strength-to-weight ratio and its elasticity.
        • Fluoropolymer or PTFE (Outdoor). Fluoropolymer threads are the strongest available for outdoor applications. Impervious to UV rays, pollution, weather, cleaning products, saltwater, etc., they are ideal for harsh environments.
          • One particularly good option here is GORE® TENARA® thread. It’s made from an exclusive ePTFE fiber that not only increases life and durability but also improves sewability.
        • Monofilament (Indoor). This single-ply, clear, non-twisted nylon thread is reminiscent of fishing line. It offers a high resistance to abrasion but lacks nylon’s elasticity. Its best use is for applications where you don’t want the stitching to be visible and don’t need the elasticity of nylon.
    • Thread twist matters

        Thread is spun in different ways and with different “twists”, which affect its behavior. Left Twist thread, also called Standard Twist and Z-Twist thread, is standard for single-needle machines. Right Twist thread, also called Reverse Twist or S-Twist thread, twists to the right and is used for embellishment and decoration in double-needle machines.

    • Be careful when choosing thread weight

        Generally speaking, V-69 thread will be the heaviest thread weight your home machine can handle. Heavier/thicker thread weights require a larger needle, which most likely can’t be accommodated by a home machine.

    • Avoid Thread Degradation

        Different fabrics require different thread materials to avoid degradation. Using cotton thread with outdoor acrylic fabric can lead to premature deterioration due to varying resistance to environmental factors. Choosing a thread material that's compatible with the fabric's characteristics ensures the longevity of your project.

    • Prioritize Colorfastness

        If your project requires vibrant and long-lasting colors, consider threads designed to resist fading caused by UV exposure. These threads retain their color integrity over time, maintaining the visual appeal of your work.

    • Desired Stitch Appearance

        Threads with different levels of sheen or texture can impact the visual appeal of your stitching. For decorative projects, such as upholstery with visible stitching, choosing a thread that complements the fabric's aesthetics is crucial for achieving the desired final look.

    • Reducing Thread Friction

        Some fabrics are more delicate and prone to fraying than others. Choosing threads with a smoother texture can reduce friction during sewing, minimizing the chances of fabric damage.

  • Use the Right Needle

      It’s hard to overstate how important it is to use the right needle size and type—not just in your home, industrial, or quilting sewing machine—but for any handwork as well. For the most part, it’s essential to follow all manufacturer instructions related to sewing machine needle sizes. Yes, the needle that came with your 20-year-old Juki will likely work on your new Janome, but do your research first to make sure. Similarly, it’s important to choose a needle size that corresponds to the weight of the thread you’re using and the type of fabric you’re sewing.

      For hand sewing, high quality curved needles, straight needles, and automatic sewing awls are essential. Some tricks for hand sewing, include:

    • Use needle nose pliers

        Pushing and pulling a needle by hand through thick and hearty fabric can be extremely difficult. A pair of needle nose pliers will aid in pulling a curved or straight needle through.

    • Use an overstitching wheel

        Whether you’re using a lock stitch, a saddle stitch, or a straight stitch, an overstitch wheel can ensure stitch length is consistent.

  • Use Clips, Not Pins

      Pinning fabric has its place, but oftentimes, when you’re working with heavy, stiff fabric, regular sewing pins can’t even be worked into the fabric, let alone hold it in place. For this reason and others—such as when you’re working with fabric for outside applications and need to avoid extra and unnecessary holes that will compromise a project’s water resistant or waterproof qualities—clips are preferable.

      Not only can clips keep layers tight, but when working fabric beneath a sewing machine needle and walking foot or presser foot, the clips can help ensure the bulk of an already-bulky fabric’s layers can pass beneath the machine’s throat.

      Clip options can run the gamut, but some of the most popular options are: clothes pins, wonder clips, and pony clips.

The thread you choose is as vital as the fabric itself and plays a significant role in the project's durability, appearance, and overall performance. By understanding the characteristics of different threads and their compatibility with various fabrics, you can ensure that your sewing work stands the test of time and meets your project's specific requirements.

Cutting Tools and Hotknives

Masculine hands demonstrating a professional hotknife cutting blue fabric
  • Use the Right Cutting Tool

    • Hotknife

        A hotknife works well on just about any synthetic fabric (with the exception of vinyl). Watch our Engel Hotknife Tutorial Video to see the tool in action. Not only does it “cut” the fabric, but it leaves a finished edge that will not unravel. A hotknife works best on:

        • polyester fabric
        • acrylic fabric
        • Dacron sailcloth
        • nylon fabric
        • zippers
        • rope
        • webbing
    • Shears

        Not all scissors work well for upholstery cutting. Choose a pair of high-quality, heavy duty shears. Use shears to cut fabric in a traditional manner or employ a rip cut. Keep in mind that fabric cut with shears will not have a finished edge and will still need to be hemmed to keep it from unraveling.

    • Pinking shears

        Pinking shears do a better job than traditional shears of cutting fabric and leaving an edge that is less likely to unravel—a big benefit depending on the type of edge or seam you’re going for.

    • Rotary Cutter

        A rotary fabric cutter makes it easier for the upholsterer to cut through very thick fabric or multiple layers of fabric accurately. A rotary cutter is also much easier on hands and wrists.

  • Stay Safe Around Hotknifed Edges

      Hotknifed edges, especially the hotknifed edges of Sunbrella fabric, can be sharp. Be careful when working with the material after using a hotknife. It’s even a good idea to wear gardening gloves or leather gloves when turning fabric that’s been cut with a hotknife to avoid getting a cut or abrasion.

Measuring, Cutting, & Sewing

Feminine hands next to shears using industrial sewing machine for marine fabric upholstery
  • Measure Twice, Cut Once

      Whether or not you’ve been upholstering or working with canvas or sailcloth your whole life, the old adage holds true: Measure twice and cut once to save yourself a whole lot of hassle.

  • Avoid Needle Pucker

      Needle pucker is a common problem when sewing with upholstery fabric or canvas. While impossible to solve completely, especially when working with a lot of length, here are a few tips to help you lessen it:

    • Tips for Avoiding Needle Pucker

        • Sew with a longer stitch length. In addition to reducing the amount of times fabric is punctured, using a longer stitch length—at least 6mm, but 8mm or 10mm is fine, too—will help with reducing needle pucker.
        • Ensure layers are feeding into your sewing machine at the same rate. Feeding multiple layers of fabric through a sewing machine can cause needle pucker when different layers move at different rates. To combat this cause of fabric or needle pucker, use Seamstick to hold down layers or use a walking foot sewing machine.
        • Use the right thread and needle size. As was mentioned above, using the right type of thread and needle is essential when working with heavier fabrics. If you use too large a needle or thread, puckering will increase. Be careful though—too small a needle and thread strength can yield weak seams.
        • Use bonded thread. Bonded thread is resin coated, and this extra bit of lubrication can reduce friction and abrasion, which will also reduce needle pucker.
        • When possible, sew on the weft. It’s not usually possible to sew on the weft due to the added labor costs and waste, but whenever it is possible, do it. Sewing on the warp always causes more pucker.
        • Reduce thread tension. Too much thread tension leads to puckering. To counter this, reduce your thread tension to where your machine just barely pulls the bottom knot into the fabric.
        • Slow down. Fast sewing results in more fabric pucker. Slow down the speed at which you’re working fabric through your machine, and you’ll find less pucker as a result.
        • Use Scotch Tape. Placing a small rectangle of scotch tape along the bottom of your presser foot can assist the foot in moving more smoothly over the top of some fabrics, like marine canvas. Of course, if you use a walking foot sewing machine, this tip won’t work.
        • Plan for it. Sewing with heavy fabric will result in some needle pucker, so be sure you plan for it. Sewists working with upholstery, canvas, and other heavy fabrics should expect to lose 1 to 2 percent of their fabric’s length to needle pucker.
  • Create Better Seams and Hems

      Close up detailed view of textured marine fabric upholstery seam

      Seams and hems can be tricky for the upholsterer and canvas worker because thick fabric and layers of fabric don’t always want to submit to folds. Here’s how to succeed in getting folded material to lie flat when creating a seam or hem, plus a few other tricks related to seams and hems.

    • How to Get Folded Fabric to Lie Flat for Sewing

        To get your folded fabric to lie flat for folding, first mark where your folds will lie on your fabric. (Be careful to use the right marking tool.

        For example, use soapstone on Sunbrella and other synthetic fabrics. It can be removed with relative ease with a little water.) Use Seamstick or another basting tape to adhere the fold to itself so sewing is easier. Another way to get fabric to lie flat is to strike a line with an awl where the fold will be.

    • How to Use Basting Tap

        When using basting tape, tear it at the length you desire rather than cutting it. A tear’s ragged edge makes it easier to get the release paper off for quicker and less frustrating use.

        Another tip for using basting tape or Seamstick is to sew right through it when it’s inside a hem or seam fold to aid in water tightness. That being said, if you don’t need your seam to be waterproof, don’t sew through your basting tape. Sew alongside it.

  • Layer Up for Fasteners

      Close up view of a pile of different colored metal grommet fasteners for upholstery

      Adding fasteners of any kind to your project necessitates creating more stability and durability. To achieve that, you’ll need to use at least three layers of fabric for smaller grommets, standard fasteners, and twist lock fasteners. For projects that will need even more durability, use four fabric layers.

  • How to Sew in Straight Lines

      Everyone wants to sew straight lines, but when working with heavy or finicky upholstery material, it’s easier said than done. Still, there are a few tricks of the trade that can yield better results.

    • Sew in Segments

        There’s no need to sew long lines, and when it comes sewing straight with heavy material, a long line can make straight sewing nearly impossible. So sew in segments. Then, readjust your hands on the fabric and continue sewing. Sewing this way ensures the sewist has better control over fabric positioning as it moves under the presser foot.

    • Bury the Needle

        Anytime you need to make an adjustment with the fabric assembly, whether you’re rolling material so it fits under the sewing machine arm or you’re striking a new angle with the same seam, bury the needle in the fabric before making the adjustment. With the needle buried, you can shift the fabric, move it around, and make all the adjustments you need without losing your place. When you’re ready to start sewing again, simply start up again and continue on.

    • Avoid the Temptation to Steer the Fabric

        There’s no need to steer the fabric. Simply keep a steady foot pressure and let the sewing machine do the work. Pushing the material toward the needle or pulling it from the back side of the machine will just result in messy stitches and puckered fabric.

Tips for Working with Binding

Close up textured view of different colors of binding for professional upholstery and industrial sewing
  • Plan Ahead When Working with Binding

      When working with binding, plan ahead for the amount you will need. Unroll more binding than you think you’ll use to ensure it doesn’t get caught on the spool or shipping cardboard. Planning ahead in this way will keep you from having to stop sewing at an inconvenient time to unwind more or do some frustrating untangling.

      Additionally, make sure you’ve laid your binding out so it’s out of the way of your chair legs. Binding that gets caught beneath a chair leg will lead to feeding problems that will then lead to bad stitches and puckering.

  • Prevent Needle Gumming when Using Basting Tape

      Basting tape can make a sewist’s life 1000X easier, but using it comes with its own set of headaches. Namely, it gums up your needle. To reduce the effects of needle gumming, try the following techniques:

    • How to Reduce the Effects of Needle Gumming

        • Run your needle through a bar of Ivory soap before install. The residue from the soap will aid in keeping the tape from sticking to the needle.
        • Change your needle frequently
        • Clean your basting tape-gummed needles with adhesive remover or rubbling alcohol.
  • Choosing the Right Fabric

    Different applications require different fabrics, just like certain materials need special tools in order to fabricate a high-quality product. Learn more about heavy vinyl fabric, double rub ratings, and recycling excess fabric below.

    • Sewing with Heavy Vinyl Fabric

        When sewing heavy vinyl fabric, feeding it through a sewing machine can be difficult due to its weight and stickiness. To aid in sewing, use polyester batting underneath the fabric. It will make it easier to feed the vinyl through.

    • Why is a Double Rub Rating Important?

        Always mind your double rubs when choosing fabric for your desired application & use expectations. Double rubs is a fabric wear rating or abrasion resistance measurement taken from the Wyzenbeek Test. The test is designed to simulate people sitting on furniture to determine how quickly a fabric will wear and tear. A cotton duck is rubbed back and forth across a fabric. Each back and forth pass equals one double rub.

        For upholstering furniture in high-use rooms, such as family rooms, you’ll want to use a fabric with a rating of at least 15,000 double rubs.

    • Recycle Excess Fabric

        Recycling both synthetic and natural upholstery fabric scraps is becoming easier, and it’s never been more important. Recycling unused and excess fabric helps to:

        • Keep scraps out of landfills
        • Reduce pollution
        • Reduce water and energy consumption in manufacturing new fabrics
        • Reduce demand for dyes

        Both Sunbrella® and FIRESIST® fabrics can be recycled through Glen Raven’s Recycle My Sunbrella program.

    Maintaining Your Machine

    From a Singer heavy duty sewing machine to a serger, all sewing machines perform at their best when regularly maintained and cleaned. What does it mean to clean and maintain your machine regularly? Here are some standard maintenance and cleaning tips that apply to all sewing machine types:

    • Regular Cleaning for Optimal Performance

        In addition to routine maintenance, keeping your sewing machine clean is crucial for its optimal performance. Dust, lint, and debris can accumulate in various parts of the machine, affecting its functionality and stitch quality. Regular cleaning not only prevents these issues but also extends the life of your machine.

      • Basic Sewing Machine Maintenance Tips

          • Keep Parts oiled and lubricated as directed by your sewing manual
          • Clean out dust that settles into your machine’s many nooks and crannies
          • Using a lint brush or canned air, remove dust that accumulates in the bobbin area beneath the needle plate
          • Clean area between the tension disks where thread lint can gather and build up
    • Key Focus Areas When Cleaning

      • Bobbin Area

          Remove the bobbin case and clean out any lint or thread remnants. A buildup of debris here can affect the bobbin's smooth rotation and lead to thread tension issues.

      • Feed Dogs

          Use a small brush or a vacuum attachment to clean the feed dogs. These metal teeth move the fabric through the machine and can get clogged with lint.

      • Tension Disks

          Lint and thread fragments can accumulate between the tension disks, affecting thread tension. Gently floss between the disks to remove any buildup.

      • Needle Plate

          Regularly remove the needle plate and clean underneath it. This area can accumulate lint and debris, impacting stitch quality.

      • Thread Path

          Follow the thread path from the spool to the needle, ensuring there are no tangles or obstructions that could cause the thread to break or skip stitches.

    • Signs of Wear and Mechanical Issues

        While regular maintenance and cleaning can prevent many issues, sewing machines can still experience wear and mechanical problems over time. Here are some signs to watch out for:

      • Unusual Noises

          Grinding, squeaking, or knocking sounds may indicate a mechanical issue. If you notice unusual noises, it's best to have your machine inspected by a professional.

      • Uneven Stitches

          If your stitches are consistently uneven or loose, it could be a sign of tension problems, worn parts, or a need for calibration.

      • Thread Breakage

          Frequent thread breakage can result from a variety of issues, including blunt needles, incorrect tension, or burrs on the machine's components.

      • Skipped Stitches

          Skipped stitches may occur due to a bent needle, improper threading, or timing issues.

      • Loss of Power

          If your machine suddenly loses power or stops working altogether, it could be an electrical issue that requires professional attention.

      • Needle Jamming

          If the needle repeatedly jams or gets stuck, there may be a problem with the needle, bobbin, or timing mechanism.

    More Trivantage Resources

    So there you have it: A treasure trove of advice that should make sewing upholstery and working with heavy fabric and canvas easier and more predictable. If you’d like more tips and tricks, check out the many tutorials and explainers in our Video Library today.

    Final Note

    The purpose of this guide is to give fabricators some general guidelines and product information. Read all our Product Guides.

    This guide should not be considered as the sole source of information on sewing. This guide is strictly informational.

    Please reach out to your local customer care team for more guidance.