Also, the book How to be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman has a fascinating section on Tudor-period beds, and some practical advice for using and maintaining straw and feather beds.
Check out Making Cotton Mattresses at Home, from the University of Florida’s library collection. Similar to the USAID booklet below, but better quality images, and a description of stitching a rolled edge. Thanks, Amy!
Addendum 8/2/14: From the comments, a solution!
You can read my meanderings below, and you can go through the many, many comments, where there’s lots of buried gold, but for the time-pressed who are ready and raring to make themselves a mattress, I’d just go to this PDF of a 1965 USAID booklet on how to make a cotton stuffed mattress:
It’s the most detailed set of instructions I’ve found anywhere. Thanks, Sammi!
This is the story of my life. I read about some old domestic technology or product that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it is obsolete. Or perhaps it is only done/made in more enlightened countries. Nonetheless, I want it. So I have to make from scratch.
Yesterday we met a great couple, Renae and Dimitri. Renae mentioned she was thinking about making her own mattress. I was intrigued because just that morning I’d woken up with low back pain. Our mattress is worn out. We need a new one, but I’ve been dreading buying a new one. I don’t like the waste of it all: the ignoble dragging of the old mattress to the curb the prospect of sleeping on a brand new construct of toxic foam and fire retardants–or opting for a less toxic but less comfortable futon.
So, when Renae said this, I was fascinated. I’d never considered making my own mattress.
Turns out she got the idea from Dimitri. Dimitri is from Greece, and he told her that in Greece, mattresses are made by local craftsmen, and are stuffed with 100% wool. These mattresses basically last for life. When the wool gets compressed the mattress guys will empty it out, fluff it up, and re-stuff it, adding more wool if necessary. The wool and the cover can be washed, too.
This made so much sense. It was clean, local, ecological. Sensible. Why had I never heard of it before?
Renae said she’d looked around for an American version of this, but could find nothing to suit her, so was considering buying 150 lbs of wool and doing it herself.
Intrigued, I ran home to MyBestFriendGoogle and started investigating. Turns out the Italians and the French as well as the Greeks are keeping this old bedcraft alive. (I’m not sure who else does this.) I read an article in the Telegraph about a British woman who dragged her beloved wool mattress home from Italy. It’s 45 years old and doing well. When she lived in Italy, she took part in the sensible practice of mattress maintenance:
“In Italy during the summer, the mattress man, il cardatore, tours Italian homes, pulls out the wool from their mattresses, re-cards it, adds some more, as the process reduces the stuffing a bit, rebuttons and then sews the mattress cover back up again.”
I get the impression that this maintenance is not annual, but happens as necessary–which may be something like every 5 years. She had some trouble finding a craftsperson in England to re-stuff her mattress (because the art is lost there, too) but after a 30 year search (her mattress becoming perilously thin in the meantime) finally found someone in Wales who was game to try.
Then, at Secrets of Paris, the blog of a travel writer living in Paris, I read about how she got turned onto the wool mattress scene by the locals, and got a wool mattress handmade in Paris for 680 euros. When her stuffing goes flat, the mattress guys will take the mattress away in the morning, take to their shop, unstuff it, fluff it, and get it back to her the same evening.
Both of these articles sent me into fits of jealousy. Where is my local sustainable mattress industry? Where is my forever mattress???
(I know I’m sounding like a Portlandia skit, but after all, it’s all based on us anyway. Fred and Carrie are parked across the street in a cable van, right now, taking notes.)
Here in the U.S. there are retailers who sell wool stuffed mattresses. They are specialty retailers who sell non-allergic, toxin-free alternative bedding. These offerings are expensive. But more frustrating than the money is the fact that the beds just don’t look as good as the French and Italian mattresses I’ve seen (see the links above). The euro mattresses look like proper mattresses: thick, with squared off sides that will hold a sheet well. The allergy mattresses are thin, and look more like futons. Strangely, they are also two-part systems. All the companies I looked at recommended you buy a base mattress, which will be about 5 inches thick, and then a softer wool “topper” — essentially a thinner, less firmly stuffed wool mattress — to make it comfortable. By the time you buy both components for a queen bed you’ll be paying more than $2,000 (Twice as much as the Parisian bed–and I don’t think of Paris as Bargain Central). And this doesn’t include shipping. And no one is going to come to your house to fluff your wool.
So…once again….it’s come to this. I’m considering making my own.
I’ve garnered some clues in my research:
1) The best wool for beds is long staple wool. Some recommended breeds: Texel, Suffolk, Clun Forest, Blanc du Massif Central and Dorset Horn wool.
2) The game Welsh craftsperson who re-stuffed that lady’s 45 year old mattress said she figured out the wool needs to be laid down one layer at a time in the ticking, not actually stuffed. You have to work with the nature of the wool. It took her about 6 hours to fill the mattress.
3) Here is a webpage, in French, showing the mattress making process. Lots of useful pictures. I have to run it through Google Translate for more clues.
4) Do not fall for the eHow result if you search for how to make a wool mattress. It gets off to a great start by recommending you use glue, rather than stitching, to construct your mattress tick . (They call the tick a “fabric sheet pouch.”) Yup, glued seams. To hold in great quantities of pressurized wool which is under external stress from heavy human bodies. Yeah, that will work out well. I swear, their articles should be labeled “For Entertainment Purposes Only.”
5) Here’s an article from the Seattle Times about mattresses in landfills and the problem of recycling conventional mattresses. It will give you strength to continue your search.
Anyway, I need to give this mattress business some more thought before I order a truckload of wool. Or decide to open my own wool mattress business in downtown LA.
If in the meanwhile, any of you have any ideas or recommendations or cultural insights, I’d love to hear them!
I’ve been focusing on a wool mattress, but if I let go of the wool idea, there are other DIY options. I haven’t plunged down that rabbit hole yet, but here’s a few I’ve bookmarked:
These people are hardcore: a homemade straw mattress to sit on a cob platform.
The comments on this post are great, so be sure to read them if you’re researching this subject. I’ve pulled these how-to links out of them for convenience: