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Feeling Sheepish?

Sheepskin Seat Covers Are Tres Chic, but if You Don't Choose Correctly, You Might Get the Wool Pulled Over Your Eyes

July 30, 1996

A visitor's first impression upon entering the busy factory in West Los Angeles is the smell, a pleasant, earthy aroma. Then, one is struck by the colors, a rainbow of them from pure white to midnight black to reds and browns, in neat pieces stacked high toward the ceiling. Here, amid these bales of sheepskins, cardboard cutouts on which the skins are cut and sewing machines working madly, Americans' love affair with their automobile seats is consummated.

And with summer here, Comfy Interamerican Sheepskins and its half-dozen seamstresses is at the peak of its year. It was not always like this.

Some 20 years ago, sheepskin seat covers were sold mostly through mail-order catalogs such as Eddie Bauer. Then, the price of leather for seats in higher-end cars started climbing, while New Zealand and Australia, among the world's principal exporters of skins, looked to boost their exports.

Tom Plotkin, who was promoting New Zealand's exports to America for that country's consulate, recognized a good opportunity, and quit his job to set himself up as an independent sheepskin dealer. Nine years ago, he bought Comfy--and with more than $3 million in annual sales, is riding a boom that's shown no signs of ending.

Today, 90% of Plotkin's business involves shipping seat covers to high-end sheepskin stores nationwide, including Iowa-based Overland Outfitters and Tandy Leather Co. in Fort Worth, Texas. His factory also manufacturers for private automotive labels, the covers sold as options for the Ford Motor Co. and Suzuki.

The remainder of his business is walk-in trade, including pilots from nearby Santa Monica Airport who put sheepskin covers on their cockpit seats.

Initially, customers bought the seat covers to keep leather seats in good condition. This became an important consideration as they returned cars after long-term leases, only to find the leasing agencies penalizing them for damage to the seats. The covers, which are cooler in the summer than leather or vinyl seats, also became chic.

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Not surprisingly, car-rich, sense-conscious Southern California has emerged as the leading manufacturer of sheepskin seat covers, Plotkin said. Its four major independent factories are Blue Ribbon Sheepskin and Superlamb, both in San Diego, as well as Autoware Incorporated in Northridge and Comfy in Los Angeles.

Sheepskins are like hair, Plotkin explained. They may be denser and more tightly woven like curly hair, or softer, with fewer "straight hairs" per square inch. They also range from half-inch "crew cut" to full-inch-long hairs. The best way to determine which skin is best for you is to insist on touching the various skins, he said.

While checking how the skins feel, check also for incipient signs of peel (the fur coming off the skin). Check also for smell; a malodorous sheepskin may be infected with bacteria, and the smell will grow worse as the skin ages.

Cheaper seat covers at about $100 a pair may be made from patchworks sewn together in a visible collage. Or they may include animal skins sewn onto synthetic materials covering the back of the seat. Plotkin's firm makes both types.

Although the two parts may look the same in the store, over time the colors will no longer match. In addition, the synthetic materials do not last as long, often tearing while the sheepskin itself remains whole.

Finally, Plotkin said, cheaper skins are often unlined. In time, the unlined sheepskin will work its way into the car leather. The result: The seats will be dotted with piles resembling those on an old sweater and be just as hard to get rid of.

The most expensive covers--at $450 a pair--are those custom-tailored to nonstandard seats, such as those in Corvettes, Rolls-Royces, or Porsche and Mercedes sports cars. A buyer willing to bear the expense can even have the covers individualized to his or her tastes. A Corvette owner, for example, recently put in an order for a light sheepskin with sewn-on dark stripes, matching the decor of his car.

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