He’ll upholster anything but furniture, says Mitch Watts, including a custom chicken holster. Yep, you read that right. In the four decades he’s been in the custom auto upholstering business, Watts has done it all. So when customer Craig Vetter asked him to design and make a holster for some rubber chickens he planned to use in a wedding as a joke, Mitch was all in. And it’s that creativity and willingness to please that have made Mitch’s Stitches such a success.
“I’ve always been very creative,” said Watts. “I learned to play guitar [for example] when I was nine.”
In 1973, just out of high school, Watts got his first job in a local shop called Keith’s Auto Trim. “I found out fast that the work we were doing allowed me to express my creativity and to work with my hands. It just clicked.” So after working all day, he’d go home, have a bite to eat, and go back to the shop for another few hours, teaching himself the tools of the trade and the rules of the business. Soon, he was managing the other employees, and by 1978, he’d opened his own shop.
Three items set him apart then, and now: the quality of his work, his respect for his customer, and continuous customer service (even after the job is done). Before long, his clientele included not just private vehicle owners but car dealerships, Cal Trans, Cal Poly, and California Men’s Colony. And since his creativity was in full flower, Watts started several “offshoot” businesses, including the design and manufacture of an auto sunshield, auto chaps (protective car seat covers), and a tent for the back of pickup trucks called We Be Campin’—all of which were patented.
A visit to his website at www.mitchsstitches.com reveals a photo gallery full of rare old vehicles lovingly and authentically restored with Mitch’s help. Take the 1953 Hudson Italia, for example. Only 26 of these handmade cars were produced and great pains were taken to use authentic materials (Italian leather) and methods (hand-sewn, wrap-around seats) to restore the exotic red-and-cream interior. Check out the 1955 candy-apple red Chevy 2-door, the gleaming black 1934 Custom Ford Coupe, the classic Woody with two-tone interior, and the ’57 T-Bird convertible with its classy new (Watts-restored) top. And then there was the horse-drawn buggy seat they made for Kenny Rogers back in 1979.
But none of these were quite as challenging, says Watts, as the hand- pleated black leather sidecar he made for a 1900s vintage Harley Davidson. Using just one piece of leather, it took time and effort, and painstaking attention to detail to get it just right.
Today (as Mitch’s Stitches turns 40), you can still find Mitch himself at the shop, wielding his glue gun and his creativity with just as much expertise and enthusiasm as he has always done. Except now, he works for his two sons, Kevin and David, who bought their Dad out two years ago.
In 40 years, not much has changed in the auto upholstery business, except perhaps the cars themselves. In addition to the ever-changing styles, the new technology and all the electronics make it trickier than ever to make repairs or custom jobs without “tripping the codes” or setting off airbags. What remains constant, however, is the need for the skills that all three of the Watts men have cultivated.
“I’m really proud of my sons,” he says. “They’re better at some things now than I am. And they always go the extra mile to solve problems and please the customer.”
Plus cars aren’t going anywhere, Mitch explains. And with fewer and fewer real craftsmen around, it’s likely the Watts family business will continue to thrive. It may be kind of corny, but their tagline—now as old as the business—says it all. “If your auto interior isn’t becoming to you, it better be coming to us!”
But wait: What about those custom rubber chicken holsters and the wedding joke they were used for? Well, you’ll have to ask Mitch. I’m guessing it’s a great story!