Worth The Wait

How to source upholstery using the customer’s own materials

It requires fanatical attention to detail and documentation and relentless follow-through. It can take months to receive a finished piece, even when supply chains are humming. But for many designers and their clients, there is nothing else like it, which is precisely the point.

We’re talking about those upholstery orders where the material that covers the frame is supplied by the customer, not the manufacturer. Known as a customer's own material (COM) order, it involves ordering the frame from one supplier, the fabric from another, and making sure the finished piece gets delivered on time.

Adding the extra supplier adds new opportunities for something to go wrong. As a guide to how to avoid the most common COM mishaps, we asked designers and manufacturers to give us a few of the tips to ensure a good outcome. Here is their advice.

Theodore Alexander

Kindel Factory


CFAs can save the day

“I think it’s hugely important to request Cuttings For Approval (CFAs)”, said Michelle Castagna, founder of Muse Design Studio and IFDA, Florida Chapter President. “It has saved me many times, not just because dye lot issues have increased, but sometimes, we have ordered the right thing but the memo was accidentally labeled with the wrong item code. When they sent the CFA, we noticed it was the wrong fabric color, and we were able to identify that the label was wrong. That extra delay on the front end is well worth it, because it saves you from having to work out a much bigger problem on the back end. CFAs are my words of wisdom!”

Michelle Blemel of Amberleaf Inc agrees, “A simple but too often overlooked issue with COM is not attaching a cutting to the purchase order (PO) you send to your workroom, or not attaching it in the correct direction. The side you want to show on the piece should be the side that’s face up on the PO. This helps them identify your fabric when it comes in, if it's not sidemarked correctly. Plus, if the bolt dye lot varies greatly from the cutting, you should get a call letting you know there is an issue. This has saved me several times when the dye lot sent to the workroom was not what we approved.”


Theodore Alexander

Theodore Alexander

Some designers, however, don’t like to leave anything to chance. They take delivery of the fabric themselves, and then send it to the manufacturer.

Nicole Baxter of Nicole Baxter Designs explains, “Have the fabric sent to you first, so you can stop any problems before you see the sofa. This will add an extra 2-3 weeks to your lead time estimates, but you can send an ugly purple fabric back for a 25% upcharge. Once it’s on the sofa, though, you have a much bigger problem. Also, if you love the look of a fabric you receive but notice that it’s too thin for your use, don’t be afraid to get it backed!”

Yaron Linett of Formal Traditional follows the same practice. “First we make sure to secure CFA's,” he said. “We order two, one for our files and one for the client's final binder. We make sure these are actual cuttings of the exact dye-lot, not memos.

“We prefer to take delivery of the fabric roll first and inspect it ourselves rather than having it shipped directly from the mill to the manufacturer. It’s inconvenient, but best practice.

“Once the fabric arrives, we inspect it to ensure that it is the correct fabric, matches the dye-lot of the CFA, and is free from flaws. Then, we mark the face and the direction to be used. We once received a piece that was printed upside down (opposite of the arrows printed on the selvedge), so you have to be very clear.”



Communication prevents miscalculation

Improperly calculating yardage is another pain point. This can be avoided by communicating with the manufacturer to determine exactly what you need, especially with prints or solids that have a directional nap. With large prints and patterns, it’s critical to establish how you want it centered and how it needs to flow in order to figure out the yardage, but small repeats can be just as tricky.

Vanessa Helmick of Fiore Interiors said, “It’s extremely important to understand each vendor's approach to pattern matching, backing, and etc.” Working from that understanding, you have to be explicit in your instructions, and leave nothing unspecified. It only takes one time to learn this expensive lesson!

Bessie Christian, Relationship Manager at Kindel Grand Rapids told us, “The most common error customers make is forgetting to add for repeats or smaller widths.” A small print, plaid, or check – no matter how small – always takes more yardage.

Document, document, document

Manufacturers who offer COM typically have a form with the information they require.

Vicky Serany of Southern Studio Interior Design stresses the importance of clear labeling and documentation. “We use COM regularly,” she said, “and the key is to make sure all of the documentation is clear, information is easy to understand, and yardage is calculated properly. We often use images and drawings to make sure the design is executed correctly. It's also important to make sure the fabric is properly labeled when shipping to the manufacturer, including labeling the face of the fabric.”

Amy Woolf of Amy Woolf Color & Design tells us that a good COM team can walk you through every step. “I really lean into COM as a way to give my clients something they won’t see anywhere else,” she said. “I think it’s particularly important to work closely with the production folks on the factory floor when you’re placing a large scale pattern. I had a wonderful experience last year, doing some chairs with Designmasters. I wanted the left and right facing chairs to be different, and we worked very closely to place the pattern just so. I don’t know if that is normal with other manufacturers, but their production manager said they really love these fussy projects! I sent drawings, we had phone calls, and the chairs turned out wonderfully!”

Make it easy to match

You also want to be sure the factory can match your fabric to your order. Without proper labeling or documentation on the roll, the COM team has no way of knowing who ordered it. To keep your fabric from languishing for weeks as an unclaimed “Jane Doe” in the factory storeroom, make sure it doesn’t get to the factory before your order does, and make sure it arrives with its documentation attached.

Barbara Calcagne, Director of Interior Design Sales at Craftmaster, says it’s astonishing how often an unmarked roll will come in from a mill. There is no corresponding COM form or PO because the designer hasn’t sent one yet, or depended on the mill to take care of the paperwork.

Sydney Wells, Director of Marketing at Theodore Alexander, says their custom upholstery division can have hundreds of orders in the system at one time. When fabric comes in, she said, “Just having a PO, sidemark, or shipping label is not enough to make sure the final piece will fit the designer’s vision.”

Theodore Alexander


Wells also suggests making sure the desired face is rolled inward. Since fabrics are stored as received, ask for mohair, velvet, and other delicate materials to be shipped in a box. Don’t rely on a tracking number for identification, when a shipment is received from carriers and loaded on a cart, packaging is removed and you’re left with no way to match. Tracking numbers are good, however, for time and location of delivery. If there is no packing list or paperwork, it can take some detective work to locate the correct customer order, so ask your shipper to include the paperwork inside the roll rather than in the tube or sleeve.

Even the best crews can have slip-ups, and sometimes things get misdelivered or buried under other fabrics. That’s why Yaron Linett alerts the workroom when the tracking number indicates it has been delivered, and asks them to verify receipt.

Manage the process – and the expectations

To sum it all up, when you’re dealing with COM, leave nothing to chance. Check progress every step of the way, identify delays or missteps quickly, and be proactive in preventing them.

On the customer side, your client is going to experience longer lead times. Manage their expectations, and assure them it’s worth the wait to get the one-of-a-kind pieces that COM makes possible.

As Michelle Castagna says, “I explain that in the big picture the pain, agony, and frustration of waiting a few extra weeks will be forgotten over the years spent in a home they love so much!”

About Steelyard

Developed to simplify the way designers source, Steelyard puts a panoply of furnishings resources at its members’ fingertips. One password-protected login provides access to trade pricing and the ability to send and track direct inquiries to the vendor with one click. As all Steelyard members are vetted professional architects or designers, suppliers respond quickly, confident that they are dealing with a qualified lead.