When it comes to enduring traditional upholstery styles, tuck 'n' roll is the popular favorite. Flip through the last 53 years' worth of R&Cs and that's the look you'll find more than any other. So it's an obvious choice for any traditionally built hot rod or custom car. But it's not the only choice.
In the last several years, top-stitch upholstery has been growing in acceptance among rodders looking for a style that matches a traditional car's appearance but stands out in the vast sea of tuck 'n' roll.
One advantage of top stitching is that it is a quicker and simpler procedure than the slightly more elaborate tuck 'n' roll stitching, which makes it a good way for a novice stitcher to get the hang of the craft. Another advantage is that since the stitching is visible, it becomes part of the design, either by forming some sort of pattern or, more commonly, by providing a contrasting color to the fabric.
We've noticed this stitching style inside several of the cars designed and built by Chip Foose, including Ken Reister's Ridler- and AMBR-winning '36 Ford roadster and many of the vehicles built for the TV program "Overhaulin'." Bill Dunn One Stop Shop has created the upholstery for many of Foose's "Overhaulin'" projects, typically done in different variations of top stitch. We dropped in at the Huntington Beach shop to talk to shop owner Hector Cisneros about it.
According to Hector, "Top stitch has been around as long as tuck 'n' roll, but the look really started becoming popular in the late '80s and early '90s. The big difference between the two styles is that tuck 'n' roll is a blind stitch, meaning the stitching is buried in between the rolls. With top stitch, the stitching is on the outside where it can be seen."
Stitching the seams on top may be simpler, but as Hector pointed out, "Since you can see the stitching, it's easier to tell whether it's been done right or wrong. Not only do you have to stitch the lines straight, but you have to keep them straight when the fabric is stretched over the seats. That's the real trick, because it can pull left or right when you stretch it."
To demonstrate the differences between top stitch and tuck 'n' roll, upholsterer Raul Villamar at Bill Dunn cut a couple of swatches of scrap leather, fired up his industrial stitching machine, and created an example of each.
Before leaving Bill Dunn One Stop Shop, we asked Hector for some general advice on creating a great hot rod interior.
"Your upholstery should be more than just the last stage of a buildup," he answered. "It should be at the top of the list, right up there with paint, in determining the look of the car. When you're beginning a project, you should already have an idea in mind about what that car is going to look like on the inside.
"If the outside is beautiful, then it has to be beautiful when you open the doors. When you're thinking about the body color, think about choosing colors for the inside to match something from the outside. You have to blend the entire car, inside and out.
"Don't make the mistake of underestimating the upholstery shop. Customers have told me that when they think of an upholstery job, they think of three or four inexperienced Mexicans working out of some old shop where the car will stay for months. A good interior shop will work with their customers to help them make the right design decisions and choose the right colors for the overall look of the car."
Since Chip Foose has used top stitch and French seams in many of his project cars, we asked Chip about his preference for this style of upholstery stitching.
"This is a very tailored look, which is why I've used it in a lot of my designs. How well it works depends on where you put it. The stitching may be a complementary color to the leather. It's where you use it that is going to bring some elegance into the design of the seat. It's all entertainment, what you're doing with leather and stitching, coming up with something that fits the theme of the vehicle and is in good taste. It's not about trying to be trendy. It's about trying to find something that's going to grab your eye and make you think, 'Wow! That's cool!'"