"In this Special Series about the Custom BMW Performance style CS seats, I document the process to match my Genuine BMW Performance driver seat with a replica passenger seat in collaboration with David at Recovered Workshop.
In this entry, information is the solution.
It's a detailed chat about leathers, fabrics, suedes, threads and undersides. I provide rationale for our material selection for the Recaro CS and Pole Position custom seat program."
The illusion of choice.
Stemming from scarcity, we always want more, more everything - more, m-o-r-e! Yet when most of us are faced with infinite choices, we freeze, we overthink - we struggle.
We face the illusion of choice: a false sense of control that leads to making decisions based on incomplete information.
Thoughts first met paper with William James, an American philosopher in the early 1900s. A bit dry for most, the concept were often picked up by pop culture and was arguably best depicted in the legendary Matrix by the Wachowkis.
They opposed the views of a deterministic systems versus free will.
The Merovigian, a cynic, poses human existence as the result of causality: a series of causes and effects.
The Wachowkis embodied the human experience of free will, and choice in the scene with the Architect and the infinite TV screens.
Choice is not an illusion, it's a problem that can be solved if we have alternatives - it was legendary script writing.
The dark triad.
The upholstery world is part of the dark triad of the automotive world: engine building & tuning and paint & body complete the triangle.
Each is a world of its own, all with their twist and turns amounting to a body of knowledge acquired from untold experiences. There are most often untold, and misunderstood aspects of the process.
At the core, they all one thing in common: information asymmetry.
The upholstery equivalent.
The information asymmetry takes many forms, in the upholstery world - this script caricature embodies it.
Shop: Nappa, Dakota or Merino Leathers?
M. X: You mean the valley, North or South?
Shop: Synthetic or Natural?
M. X: Organic.
Shop: French seams?
M. X: Baguette? Keep it straight.
Shop: Foam or Fleece?
M. X: I don't like your tone man.
Shop: Dinamica or Alcantara?
M. X: Isn't it just fancy suede anyways?
Shop: Both are Italian!
M. X: Too long, don't care: can you do Fox Red or Cinnamon?
Shop: Yes, any color.
M. X: Wow, okay, will I get codes though?
Shop: It says upholstery on the door.
M. X: K, price?
M. X.: WHAT?! My cousin's nephew did my sofas for a quarter of that. Scam!
M. X: *furiously posts a 1 out of 5 Google review*
Shop: Back to making RVs it is then.
In an attempt to capture the problem in motion, I filmed and edited a trailer / reel on IG with the bazillion choices available to us.
Information is the solution.
Bringing this back down to the recreation project, our intention with this entry is to solve this information asymmetry problem. We provide most of the information we used to make the right decisions according to our goals.
Whether our take on a custom seat program suits you will be up to you to determine - my wish is for you to be equipped with upholstery knowledge that can spur interesting conversations and avoid common mistakes.
David, Louis and myself want OEM quality and beyond: there will be no compromise on quality.
Nomenclatures & morals.
Leathers are originally called "hides" within the upholstery industry. They are the complete skins taken from dead animals derived mostly from the meat industry. The skin is usually the most valuable component of the animals used.
I'm not going to comment on the animal cruelty side of this business. If you have moral concerns, skip to synthetic leather or fabrics.
The synthetic leather dilemma.
Natural leather is functionally better than synthetic leather. The skin's pores allow the material to stay pliable over time, whereas synthetic leather will wear, and unfortunately cannot be repaired.
You can visibly see the skin's pores where the animal's hair follicles were removed. This is a Nappa black leather.
This is synthetic leather up close. You'll notice the lack of pores and the added wrinkles.
These original Recaro CS were upholstered in synthetic leather. They don't look nor feel great - and aren't durable.
Recaro knows that, and upholsters the bolsters with natural Nappa leather. You can learn more about a standard CS in my entry "Examining a Classic".
Tanning & Dyes.
The combined processes to transform animal into into leather are called "tanning". Hides go through a series of chemical treatments before it is deemed suitable for upholstery work.
The processes alter the protein structure of the animal's dead skin, making it more durable. As one of the last steps in the final chemical treatment of each hides, they are dyed using a variety of water based, oil based or alcohol based products.
Sheep, cows and bulls don't actually come in Fox Red or Cinnamon.
The leathers used for this custom seat program are mostly vat-dyed with a top coat applied to seal in and protect the dye.
Each have their own chemical properties, I don't touch on those here as it's a step too far for what we're doing.
Grains pertain to the animals' skin layers from which the hides are made from. In short, the better leathers are the closest thing to natural animal skin [...] it's probably why we love them.
Leather types have mostly standardized names across the entire leather industry: handbags, shoes, whatever - there is some marketing at play but a little research will show they are similar.
I ordered the grains by quality.
- Full grain: upper layer, usually extremely smooth without any sanding required nor a top coat. It's pure skin: it's the smoothest grain available.
- Top grain: upper to middle layer sanded and coated to give a smooth appearance and pliable, soft texture. The sanding slightly takes away from the leather's strength.
- Genuine leather: lower layer that is usually corrected for imperfections before use.
- The underside of the natural leather is natural suede. I touch on this later in the entry.
BMW spec'ed Nappa full grain leather on the BMW Performance seats, and is what we will exclusively use in the custom seat program.
Each animals will have their own leather's visual and texture characteristics. Leather suppliers have developed standardized testing methods to offer homogenous quality.
What's used in M cars.
BMW M uses natural leathers in the overwhelming majority of their modern M cars.
I listed them below in order of perceived texture quality.
- Merino is a full grain leather taken from Merino sheep.
- Nevillo is a full grain leather taken from is adult cattle's calf skins or the complete skin of a cattle that's less than 3 years old.
- Nappa is a top grain leather taken from lambs and goats, and is distinguished by the visual hair cells.
- Dakota is a genuine leather that is heavily corrected, with visible creases and relatively rough texture, but is highly durable and requires little care.
My E60 M5 has Merino black leather with Alcantara headliner. Unfortunately it didn't have extended leather, the dash was soft plastic.
My Merino leather lacks care. It looks dry, but can easily be brought back to a smooth, matte appearance with proper cleaning and baum.
Counter intuitively, the better the leather, the more care it will require as less chemicals are used in the process to protect them.
A proper cleaning brought back my E60 M5's original steering wheel to its matte, smooth appearance.
My E92 M3 has speed cloth seats with Novillo bolsters and headrest.
My E46 M3 is M-Texture Alcantara fabric with Nappa black.
I'm getting to fabrics in a few sections :)
Every hide is unique.
Hides were once living animals: they each had their own lives, in their own part of the world. It leads to small, uncorrected variations across the top grain and full grain leathers such as Merino, Novilla, and Nappa.
The rolls of leathers aren't rectangular. They each have their own shape subtleties.
I've personally found a growing appreciation for leathers the further I dug into their technicalities. You better understand the care they need to retain their qualities over time.
Each hide will have a lot number.
Hans Reinke is a German provider of leather hides. This is their Dakota leather section.
Relicate sources their BMW leathers from Italy and Germany, along with more unique, BMW specific materials.
Kings, queens, and Suede.
In French, "Suède" sounds just like "Sweden". The perception of high quality comes from French's monarchy as they imported suede lined women gloves from Sweden into France in the late 1700s. That was right before 15,000 of them got beheaded during the French Revolution.
The perception of high quality of suede is mostly a marketing trick. Similar to forged carbon, we're closer to a recycled byproduct. Suede is in fact less expensive than full and top grain leather.
The reality is natural suede is made from the last layer of the animal's skin, right before its flesh. It is soft, pliable, comfortable but prone to staining and tears.
Alcantara isn't suede.
Alcantara is a synthetic microfiber made from polyester and polyurethane that feels extremely similar to natural suede while being lighter, and more durable.
While it sounds Italian, and it sort of is, Alcantara was first developed by Toray Industries in Japan during the 70s.
Toray partnered with ENI SpA to market and distribute the product.
Its BMW M story.
Alcantara started making its way into BMW M products with the E36 M3 with the signature Vader interiors and gained popularity with the high visibility of the E46 M3 CSL.
The steering wheel, seats and other small touches were done in what became the signature Anthracite 9002 grey Alcantara for BMW M cars.
Since then, Alcantara introduced variants: other colors and perforated variants were developed.
We've received the rolls of Alcantara 9040 that will be used on my seats.
BMW M didn't widely adopt Alcantara, the run-of-the-mill E92 production did not incorporate Alcantara anywhere, it was reserved for the M3 GTS and other special editions.
As an example, the GTS armrest delete was upholstered in 9002 Alcantara along with parts of the door cards.
My E92 M3's BMW Performance V2 electronic steering wheel also has the 9002 anthracite Alcantara. It was a catalog part rather than an option on the spec sheet.
Alcantara requires a lot of maintenance, ever more so on parts your body comes in contact with. Look at that fluff!
Alcantara v Dinamica.
The brand name Dinamica has been introduced to BMW M owners by Recaro with their upholstery options on the Recaro CS and Pole Positions.
Dinamica is a competing Italian brand to Alcantara. It's a lesser quality material in terms of feel yet a bit thicker by +/- 0.1mm. It is considered more durable and less expensive.
Are you seeing the pattern? The Genuine BMW seats have many little things that make it more quality, and more expensive.
In the Summer of '23, I imported a Eurospec Recaro CS in synthetic leather and black Dinamica to showcase the differences.
Looking at the Dinamica suede in a vacuum, you will be hard pressed to find visual differences with Alcantara.
Alcantara famously sued Dinamica and won over false claims of eco-friendliness by Dinamica.
Yet the texture difference is easily noticeable. The Alcantara feels more more natural, and softer to the touch.
Alcantara will be the suede material that will be exclusively offered in the custom seat program.
Alcantara v Leather
When spec'ing your seats in the custom program, it will be important for you to reflect on the aesthetics, usage and budget for your seats.
On average, Alcantara is 15% cheaper than Nappa hides. It also wears faster and will require more maintenance.
The BMW Performance seat had the bolsters partially upholstered in Nappa leather. Extending the section to cover the entire bolster is an option to consider for durability.
BMW M used to be known for its eccentric fabric patterns and interiors. BMW's only supercar ever produced, the M1, had a half leather, half fabric interior, and they later introduce the M-Tech fabric in the E30 M3 Evo.
These days, BMW M unique fabrics are mostly reserved for Individual program cars such as the 7 and 8 series.
BMW M interiors had a sense of "cool" back than that has only grown when comparing to modern M interiors.
Many colored variants of M-Tech will be available.
As seen in my E46 M3, the M-Texture is a unique Alcantara perforated fabric with a printed underside. They went wild. I covered the exact fabrication of M-Texture in my custom Pole Position series here.
The E36 signature fabric, "M Cross", will be available in a variety of colors.
Special edition fabrics will also be available, including the 20 Jahr pattern found in the prototype E31 M8 and E34 M5.
For those looking for a subtle throwback to cloth interiors, plain and plaid colored cloth can also be spec'ed.
Threads matter, the quality of the material has a direct impact on visual and material durability of the seats. The last thing you'd want is your white thread discolouring to yellow in the Arizona desert.
RCVR uses Amann's Serabond and Serafil thread for its durability and resistance to both untwisting and to UV Rays.
You will be able to customize the thread color for your seats.
The original BMW Performance seat uses an off white, grey'ish thread. Finding the matching one for my first seat was a challenge.
We've received the selected thread that will be used on my BMW Performance seats replica.
Last but not least, what you will never see about your seats has an impact on overall quality, feel and comfort. The undersides of your seats need to be covered with something.
Fleece backing is designed to prevent seat indentations and retain the leather's quality, shape, and improve comfort.
The process used at the factory usually involves heat lamination. For aftermarket work, self adhesive fleece backing is used.
There are 2x main options: foam, or wool.
Wool is a natural fiber taken from Merino sheeps. It is highly breathable, and acts as a cold and heat insulator. Foam is a synthetic fiber, it's a stiffer material and is best used on larger surfaces.
Recaro uses foam on all of their CS covers whereas BMW spec'ed wool. We'll use both.
Alcantara offers pre-applied foam backing with varying thickness and material.
There are various types of foams, in density and thickness to consider when making the seats. You won't have specific options to choose here, but we can discuss your comfort goals and the trade offs.
This was long winded, my bad - I deemed it necessary to present this in a single entry for future reference.
Up next: we stop looking back and move onwards.
We chat accessories and the options that will be available to you.