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John VanDerworp of Sew Unique (Smyrna, TN)

 

What does being an upholsterer mean to you?

Sew Unique has been my career for over 30 years. My business, my employees, my customers, and my suppliers have become a family to me over the years. I have put my heart and soul into building my reputation and business into what it is today.

The upholstery industry seems to be turning into a dying trade--shops are shutting down every day—as a result we continued to gain new customers every day. I feel a responsibility to keep growing in order to keep up with the demand for services.

 

How did you get started in upholstery?

I tore my first car apart when I was 17 years old and had to figure out how to put it back together without internet or YouTube! I taught myself how to sew and fix headliners out of an 8’ x 12’ storage shed behind my parent’s house – the rest is history.

 

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What types of upholstery do you do?

We specialize in automotive and marine upholstery and convertible tops.

 

How long have you been upholstering?

33 years!

 

What is your biggest consumer demand?

It changes over the years depending on what is failing due to poor design during the manufacturing process. We just ride the wave and conform to the demand. Currently, basic seat repairs and convertible tops are common. Next year, we might see certain vehicle models with falling headliners. Constantly changing, constantly learning.

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What is your favorite upholstery project you've done?

Too many to list! We’ve done everything from a bright yellow pontoon boat for Dolly Parton to custom vehicles for rappers and football stars. Each project has had its own story and memory.

 

What is the strangest item you've found in a restoration?

A seat riddled with bullets.

 

Have you noticed any up and coming trends?

We see the same things on a regular basis here. Our motto here is "You rip 'em, we stitch 'em."

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What changes would benefit the upholstery industry?

There is a lot that could and needs to be done.

I am concerned the industry may die out over the next 25 years as older upholsterers are retiring and shops are closing with no one to fill their shoes. I am struggling to keep up with the demand of a growing customer base and workload. It would help if I could find a skilled upholsterer to hire.

I would say we need to promote this industry to younger people and encourage their interest through trade schools or co-op programs in high schools.

It would also help to promote the industry to the public and let them know what services are available. A lot of people don’t realize that you can replace one section of your damaged seat or know that a sagging headliner can be replaced.

 

Have you ever been featured on television, online, or in another publication?

No, not online or TV, but I have been in the local paper throughout the years helping with different town projects. I give back to the community whenever I can.

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Some answers have been edited for clarity.