Artistic talent with an engineering mind

Tammy Hampton calls herself “the canvas lady,” a title she’s earned after 29 years in the business—most of them running her own shop, Cover Girl Marine Canvas & Upholstery, in Buford, Ga. But it wasn’t the kind of work she had expected to be doing.

“Basically, I got into it in Florida, living aboard,” Hampton says. “It was a whole ‘nother life.” A visit to the Miami Boat Show turned out to be a revelation; besides admiring all the beautiful boats, she noticed the covers and thought, “I could do that!” She soon landed a job as an apprentice in a marine canvas fabrication shop in Florida, “for $4.64 an hour,” she adds.

“I discovered I had a gift,” she says. “I never went to school for it; I was just a natural at it. I already knew I was artistic, but I didn’t know I had this ability to see things three-dimensionally.”

It’s a blend of artistic talent and an engineering mind, she says. “You either get it or you don’t. There’s something in the brain that clicks with certain people. Even some of the people I have had who sew; some are good at sewing, but they just don’t see it.”

The elite canvas shops that have this ability and do fabrication really well, work for a clientele who expect perfection. “This is a skill that’s a dying art,” she says. “There are not that many craftsmen around that create it in the mind. Fabricator craftsmen in marine are among the last.”

She’s never considered expanding into a larger operation. Rather, she’s found her relatively high-end niche and is comfortable staying that way. “I decided a long time ago, the more people I have, the more stress for me,” she says. “I’m real happy with a two-to-three-person shop.”

The mother of invention

Although Hampton started by doing marine fabrication projects exclusively, she also worked in a shop, at one time, that did automotive and furniture upholstery work, “but I do a lot of other things now,” she says, including boat and pontoon covers, tops and enclosures of all kinds as well as furniture and marine upholstery. But that’s just part of her work life. “I do a lot of specialty covers for the race industry, for airplanes, specialty bags—whatever comes in,” she says.

But it was a client with a typical boat cover problem—clear vinyl and fabric shrinkage—who got her thinking about a new solution, one that’s turned into a second business for her.

About three years ago, she was working on a boat where the enclosure was still in good shape, but the client couldn’t get it all closed over the boat. “It just popped into my head: what if I made a spacer zipper? She told the client, “I just want to try something,” and he was happy to give her the go ahead. The experiment worked, and EZ-Xtend boat zippers were born. “[The cover] snapped like it was brand new! He was right back in business. He’s still using it,” she says. “I make them so you can cut them to length right there on the boat and cap the end of it, so it has a neat, finished appearance.”

She’s hoping to get distribution for her invention. “I’ve had people call me from around the country for the zippers,” she says.

She started a marine canvas and upholstery discussion group on LinkedIn, partially to promote the EZ-Xtend zipper, but it’s become much more than she imagined, growing to nearly 400 people from all over the world. She’s also been notified that she’s reached the top 10 percent use profile. “Amazing!” she says. “I never would have thought. It’s been phenomenal.”

It’s also given her an opportunity to share her enthusiasm for the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA), too, helping to promote MFA events. “I talked about the marine convention [in January],” she says. “I plan to do a lot of that next year. Talk about it when it’s over, too, to generate interest out there.”

Winding down

In fact, she’s hoping to retire in five years. “I’m 54 and I’m doing a man’s job,” she says. “I love what I’ve done, but physically, I’m not as strong as I was. By the time I hit 60 I should not be crawling around on boats.”

When she’s not taken up with running two businesses, she’s involved with her son’s musical interests. “My son’s in a Christian rock band, so any extra time … it’s rock n’ roll, baby,” she says. “I’m a 54–year–old groupie.”

For a woman who once lived on the water, you’d think it would be hard to be a landlubber but her work helps ameliorate that. “I love the water, but I get around it a lot, so I don’t feel cheated,” she says.

The rest of her life is all about family. Mostly it revolves around being a great mom and wife to her son and husband.

By Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review