We've all been there, cruising through photos on Instagram and admiring the amazing design and craftsmanship of a truly custom bike. Whether you are currently working on a project, seeking inspiration for an upcoming build, or just trying to spruce up a few of the major points of your bike, one aspect continues to jump out -- the seat. To most, it seems like black magic, or at least something that requires a significant blessing from the motorcycle gods. Motorcycle seat design and upholstery has undeniably become one of the most important parts of a build. It can be, though, one of the most elusive and difficult if your game isn't on point.
To help get a better handle on the situation, I spoke with Emma Thieme from Maven Seats and Upholstery. She graciously opened up about her business and her life in rural Maine.
Standard first question--What is something you want everyone to know about you, but perhaps doesn't know?
I know you can buy a mass-produced seat cover off eBay for 50 bucks. I don't care. I have more soul than a factory.
Dispel at least two myths about Maine.
I think people assume Maine is just a place where old people live, that Mainers are out-of-touch, that there's no opportunity here for young people. In my experience, this is a great time to be a young person in Maine. Because I've chosen to live in small-town Maine, I'm a landowner, a business owner, and I'm not weighed down by thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of bills every month. It's quiet and I'm alone in the woods a lot, but that's okay with me.
Another thing I love about small-town Maine is that cross-generational friendship is very common here. When I go to a party, all age groups are there having a good time. I'm doing an apprenticeship right now with a sheath maker in his 70s. I feel so lucky to be getting knowledge in a type of leather work that I know little about. And I know that if I were living anywhere else, I'd probably have to pay thousands of dollars or compete with hundreds of other people in order to get that one-on-one education. In Maine, passing knowledge down through the generations is just a part of our culture.
Confirm at least one myth about Maine.
Lobster is very good.
You live in Downeast, which isn't known for its ease of lifestyle or overflowing comforts. What about it for you makes it worth settling there?
What I love about this community is that it is very much out of the way. Before I lived here, I wasn't even exactly sure where it was, and I grew up just 70 miles away. It's debatable where it actually begins and ends but in general, "Downeast" is a moniker for Washington County. Situated along our jagged Bold Coast, it's one of Maine's most rural areas. It's beautiful, it's quiet, and it's rough.
The community that lives here is a mix of people who grew up here, people who migrated here for field or factory work and decided to stay, and people who are just misfits, looking for a place where life can be hard and real. So you can imagine that there are a lot of artists here, musicians, families -- and all of them are hard workers. I think that belief that usually applies to places like New York City, "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," applies to this place too. There really is nothing solid to fall back on. If you want to survive, if you want to make your business work, your art work, or just your life work -- you've got to jump into a lot of different sorts of industries in order to support yourself and most of them involve manual labor. That makes for a very unique and versatile community of people.
I stay here because this environment is just good for me. I know that if I can make a creative, handmade business survive in Downeast Maine, I'm beating some crazy odds. So that's what I hope sets my work apart -- it has struggle in it.
How would you describe your own style, not only with upholstery but life in general?
My style has always been very handmade. When I was in college my mom and I made all of my dresses for dances. We would take a sewing pattern and then alter it so it would be even more unique. I may have been the only one in the entire school who made her own clothes. That desire to stand out has followed me my whole life. Everything I do, I want to be the only one doing it that way. So I take every opportunity that I can to learn new techniques so I can push beyond the masses. And that's filtered into my lifestyle too. I guess I've put myself in some interesting living situations over the years -- I lived on a sailboat for a little while, an off-the-grid cabin, plenty of those situations where eight people are living in a two-bedroom apartment...I'm no stranger to discomfort and I think that informs the life I lead today.
Sewing? Maine? Girl on a motorcycle? Stereotypes abound, but how do you break them?
It's funny, sewing has always been considered this very feminine art form, but pretty much all the leaders in the automotive upholstery industry are men. When I got my vocational training in custom auto upholstery, I was the only woman in the entire school -- not just the course. And even though I've tried to make it pretty obvious on my website and social media pages that Maven is a "one-woman business," I still get emails every now and then addressed "Hey man" or even "Dear Sirs." And yeah, only a small percentage of riders are women, especially in Maine. But I've never really worried about breaking stereotypes. If I keep doing what I want and creating the best work that I can, they'll break themselves.
Upholstering anything is wildly difficult, as I've found out. What are some of the unique challenges when working on motorcycle seats?
Curves. Curves take a unique understanding. Upholstering a motorcycle seat can sometimes be like upholstering this mini mountain range. Pattern drafting is where you address that. Your upholstery can only be as good as your pattern is, and pattern drafting takes a lot of skill and foresight. Knowing your materials is another big one. A lot goes into a motorcycle seat -- foam, thread, leather, vinyl, rivets, staples, the correct needle for your sewing machine, the correct sewing machine... it all takes confidence, industry knowledge and a belief that your method and materials will hold up in the elements.
What would you say to someone who wanted to try to do their own motorcycle seat?
Go for it. I would never discourage anyone from trying to create something themselves. What I would discourage people from doing is buying some mass produced seat or seat cover instead of supporting a small shop like mine. So much love and care goes into these builds, people are literally creating their own parts, conjuring them up out of scrap metal in their garages, and then when everything's complete they slap a vinyl seat from Thailand on there. It's just like, what? Doesn't that seem a little sacrilegious?
Large-scale parts companies have figured out that people want their seat to look cool, so they're cranking them out in factories all over the world for cheap. But custom upholstery is an old art form that should be kept alive. If riders and small-scale builders don't support it, the art side of it -- the part where you work with a professional to create something specifically for you and your machine -- might just go away. Paying someone to build your seat correctly and with passion will make all the difference. And in the process, you'll be supporting someone like me and you'll have a better product.
And P.S., don't just assume custom work is going to be too expensive. If I like your project, I want to work with you, even if you're on a budget.
What are some of your favorite materials to work with? What are some of your least favorite?
Leather is my favorite material period. Unlike "genuine leather" which is the scrap of hundreds of animals glued together and dyed, the leather that I work with comes as a hide. It has range marks, fat wrinkles and it doesn't arrive as this neat and squared off piece of yardage. Before I cut into a hide, I always remind myself that this was once an animal -- I know that if I don't respect that from the very beginning, my project's going to come out like sh*t.
I guess by default that would make my least favorite material vinyl but it's really not. Vinyl is great too. It's easy to take care of and in many cases it looks very similar to leather. It gets the job done and it's affordable.
I'm trying to think of a material that I hate and it's actually difficult. When I was a kid I had this pair of polyester, synthetic jazz pants. Once a piece of ash got on them and the pant leg melted completely off. So that was nasty, I don't want to touch that material ever again.
What's the process for getting you started on a seat (asking for a friend)?
So the first step is having your pan. This is very important. No matter how many times you ask, I do not make seat pans. But the pan is all you need for me to take over -- whether it be already covered in foam or completely bare. Then you email me. Give me some details on what you're looking for: Do you need any modifications done to the shape of the foam? Do you want leather or vinyl? Do you want to add memory foam/gel? Do you have a specific color scheme in mind? If you're on a budget, what is it?
If all you know is that you want your seat recovered in black leather and you hate covered buttons, that's good for me. If you trust me, I can create a seat that is completely custom and that's made to flow with your bike. But if you have a specific design in mind, that's cool too. It's always helpful to send a reference image if there's a certain look you're going for. And I will always need to see a photo of your bike.
You have some favorite builders; who are they and what about them draws you in?
I love to keep up with Vintage Steele and Madhouse Motors. They're in New England like me, so I love to watch both of them blow up over the winter when they're working on their custom builds. We have such a short riding season in New England so it's cool to see people bringing it inside and nurturing their passion through the really rough months -- and in the case of Vintage Steele and Madhouse, making a living off of it. That's very encouraging.
I'm purely a seamstress, I don't have fabricating experience, so I'm always amazed by someone who can build a motorcycle almost completely from scratch. When they're finished, what they've come up with is a work of art. It can only be made by a certain set of hands. That just really defines handmade for me and it's something I can relate to. I know that when I make a seat it's never going to look like factory or like someone else's work. I made it with my hands, and they work in their own unique way. Motorcycle building seems similar in that respect.
What inspires you and gets you going on days that you maybe feel less inspired than others?
Just the reality that no one makes my schedule but me. I've been working for other people since I was 15 and I've always hated the feeling that someone else is in control of my time. With Maven, I have a shop to work out of, I have people who want to support my trade, and all of that keeps me going because I know I'm luckier than most. And honestly, the knowing that anything could happen and my business could fail if I slack off, that definitely keeps me going too. I get to challenge my skills and make something new every day, I can't take that for granted.
You've had some interesting rides in your life. What has been your favorite and what are you riding today?
At least this year, I didn't get to ride as often as I would have liked. But I did upgrade to a 2009 BMW F650GS this season and I got to go on some short trips around Maine. My favorite road that I found was Route 52 in Midcoast Maine, it's a really windy back road from Belfast to Camden that swirls around Megunticook Lake and through Lincolnville Center. I also operate Maven off of one of Maine's most iconic motorcycle roads, Route 182 or the Blackswoods Road, so I'm pretty lucky in that regard. Someday, I'd like to ride solo across the country. I don't know what route or even what country, but that trip is a big goal of mine.
Do you believe you are following your dreams? What more lies ahead for you in the coming year and even decade?
I do believe I'm following my dreams. It's always been a goal to work for myself and to work creatively, and Maven allows me to do both of those things.
In the coming years, I hope to develop some leather accessories. Before Maven, I made a lot of leather bags, wallets, cuffs, and earrings so I'd like to get back to that once I get some time.
And when I'm not working on upholstery, I'm writing, which has always been a large part of my identity as well. So I'm nurturing that part of myself too and I'm excited to see where both paths lead me in the coming years. I'd love to see if I can bridge them in some way.
For more information and to start the process of getting your seat done:
Photographs supplied by Emma Thieme and used with permission.