Simple Boat Cushions

We made our own cushions for Little Cruiser, which cost us practically nothing since we used 3" egg crate foam (the kind that you see in hospitals and nursing homes) that was given to us for free along with some surplus upholstery fabric that we bought for $2 a roll at the local Thrift Store.  The foam proved to be very comfortable, but the fabric got easily wet and stayed wet.  The upholstery covers were used for two trips, 1993 and 1994, and then we decided to make new ones out of some lightweight waterproof rip stop nylon that we had left over from an awning project.  These improved covers lasted for three winter Bahamas trips, but eventually the waterproof coating began peeling off badly and the white fabric became grey and unsightly.  Our most recent covers are made out of orange nylon pack cloth, and we've been fairly pleased with them.  These covers have survived two winter Bahamas trips, and they should be useable for our next voyage in 2006.   However, we recently noticed some mildew stains on the bottom along with some minor degradation of the waterproof coating.  Therefore, we may give some lightweight marine polyester a try in the future.  Fortunately, our boat and our cushions are relatively small, and all this experimentation has cost us very little over the years.   Finally, the foam for our cushions has started to bottom out after seven winter long trips (20 months); thus, we replaced the foam this year with some more free 3" egg crate.  The only complaint we have with this foam is that it is a bit bulky, and some might prefer using a thinner 2" foam substitute.  One good choice that's been recommended to us by several friends is Lux Foam, which is available by mail at the Foam Factory.

Original surplus upholstery fabric cushions and the newest set.

Making the cushions

1.  Fabric selection: Always buy extra.  We prefer water resistant materials since our boat cushions often get wet.  Our latest cushion covers employ coated packcloth because it is relatively inexpensive, tough, lightweight, water resistant and easy to sew.  Some people might want to try Sunbrella/marine polyester or even Naugahyde, which is longer lasting; however, it is more expensive and harder to sew on a home machine.  However, just about any sturdy fabric will do.

2. Making patterns: Go to your boat and figure out what cushions you want to make.  Bring along a roll of brown craft paper.  Tape this down over the berth or seat, and trim it to size. Double check it carefully.  This will be your pattern.  Next tape your patterns over some foam.  Trace it out over the foam, but do not cut it out yet.  Now add a 1/4" to the top and one side so that your cushions will be snug when they are in their covers.  A cushion cover will be made up of a top piece, a bottom/back piece and a side piece which we call a tabling.  The top and bottom piece will basically be copies of your patterns with a 1/2" margin added for sewing.  The tabling width will be equal to the width of the foam, plus an inch for the seams, minus 1/4" to allow for a snug fit. For example, if your foam is 3" thick, then the total width of the tablings will be 3 3/4" =  3"(foam) + 1"(seams)  - 1/4"(tight fit).

3.  Cutting the fabric:  Now roll out as much fabric as you can on a smooth floor, and tape it down securely every foot or so.  Make sure the good side is facing down since you want to write on the back side.  Next tape the patterns you made onto the fabric, making sure that it is properly orientated according to the thread pattern.  We like the weave to go up and down on our cushions.  Also don't forget that the top and bottom panels are mirror images of each other.  Trace the outline of the pattern with a pen.  This will be your sew line.  Then use a long ruler or a 1/2" wide stick to trace the 1/2" outside seam.  Do not cut this pattern out yet.  Go on to the next panel until there is no more room on this section of fabric.  Also, Don't forget to squeeze in some tablings around the margins of the fabric.  Using a long ruler, draw out your tablings including the sew line.  ( ie.  2 3/4" plus two 1/2" margins).   When all this is done, carefully cut everything out with a good pair of scissors. Remember to cut along the outside of the panels and the tablings and not along the sew lines!  Keep rolling out the fabric, tracing your patterns and cutting out the parts until you are done. 


4.  Preparing to sew:  We use an old commercial Singer sewing machine that we bought inexpensively years ago, but a home machine that is properly adjusted should work just fine on medium weight pack cloth.  Sunbrella will be harder on a home machine because it is heavier.  Next figure out where you are going to position the velcro opening.  This is where the foam will fit through when the cushion covers are complete.  Usually this will be in the least conspicuous spot, like up against a bulkhead or on the side of the boat.  The opening will be about six inches shorter than the side it is on, and it will be centered on that seam.   This works out to be 3" from the corners.

5. Assembly: Start with the TOP panel first since the opening will be on the bottom.  Also make sure beforehand that the tabling will reach all around the whole cushion.  Often times two pieces of tabling will need to be sewn together beforehand to finish the cushion.   To begin,  the tabling is stapled to a corner.  Remember to leave a minimum of a 1/2" extra for sewing to the other end.  Also note that the two pieces should have their "good sides" facing towards each other.  Next the tabling is matched with the seams and stapled along the entire side of the top panel.   Now you can begin carefully sewing using about 8 straight stitches per inch.  When you reach the next corner, make little triangular cuts about 1/4" -3/8" in depth to ease sewing in this area.  Be careful not to extend your cuts into the sew line. Continue sewing until you reach the starting point, at which time the two ends of the tabling are sewn together.  Finally the bottom pattern is matched and stapled onto the tabling.  This time, however, you will begin at the point where one side of  velcro opening begins.  This works out to be 3" from one corner.  You will then complete the sewing as before, and you will end at the other side of the velcro opening.


6. Finishing up:  With the cushions still inside out,  stick each half (one hook and one loop) of the 1/2" self adhesive velcro to the outside (good side) of the open seam.  Make sure to sew each side down individually with a zigzag stitch all around it's edges.  Then proceed to attach the two velcro strips together like they are suppose to go, and sew the two together only at their very ends.  Finally, place an extra row of straight stitches around all the original seams for good measure.  Now turn the cover right side out, stuff the foam in it,  and go try them out in the boat.

In 2008 we made a new set of cushions for Little Cruiser which you can see here.

Fabrics Sources:

1. Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics Inc  Before ordering any fabric, get the fabric samples so that you can pick exactly what you want.  We actually need to see and feel the sample before we are going to order a bunch of yards of the stuff.  Also look out for the "close out" specials where you can get some really good deals on some of the fabrics.

2. Seattle Fabrics   Another good source for fabrics.

3. Sailrite- A good source for marine fabrics like Sunbrella, Naugahyde and sailcloth.