On the hunt for a peaceful night’s kip, I visited four natural bed manufacturers and discovered some of the secrets behind a healthful slumber.
Many a bad back is caused by poor mattresses, says Sukhita Derova from natural bedding company, Innature. She would know. As a professional cyclist in her youth, the sport put her body under duress, and taught her what it most needed to sleep well. Sukhita, who learned her skills working with European bed-makers, says getting a comfortable sleep requires a delicate balance of firmness and softness – your spinal alignment requires firm support so your back can relax whereas the pressure points in your hips and shoulders require softness.
Generally, Kiwis have a penchant for soft beds so usually opt for inner-sprung mattresses, but Sukhita says they give up imperceptibly beneath your bottom after a few months, leading to discomfort in your spine. That causes the smaller muscles in your back to compensate for the loss of support while you sleep. “As long as your muscles actively try to alleviate discomfort, your body isn’t relaxed so your sleep phases can be broken, and you’re less refreshed when you wake than you would be on a supportive mattress,” says Sukhita. “The effect is doubled if you share a bed. During good sleep everything can rest and arrange itself, and the immune system rejuvenates, so it’s important to create the right environment for it. There’s no point in eating organic food and sleeping on a poor quality mattress.”
As well as being a futon-maker, Mansoor Valkoun from Futon Ya San in Kaiwaka is also a qualified physiotherapist. “Sinking deep into a bed puts stress on the whole body including your brain,” he says. “When you sleep in stress, you tend to be stressed and tired, and that is the brain programme you have set up with a non-supportive bed. People don’t want to think there is something wrong with their mattress.”
Why is natural better?
Like Sukhita, most natural bed-makers consider inner-sprung mattresses to be the antithesis to a good night’s sleep, and it’s not just because the springs begin to give. The fabrics and other materials on them are often made from synthetics that can emit toxic chemicals. Sometimes a new mattress will have an unexpectedly strong chemical odour, but if you complain to the store you’ll likely be told that it will dissipate in a few days. Sukhita says they do become less noticeable but your nose also becomes used to them, and while the chemicals emitted by such mattresses won’t kill you, they can cause cumulative harm over time. Your immune system has to work excessively to counterbalance the effects of multiple toxins instead of regenerating itself during sleep.
Cancer survivors who have been through chemotherapy often become chemical-sensitive, and the experience can change their relationship with their mattress. Such changes can make them feel nauseous, cause headaches, tiredness, and a dry mouth. And it’s not just inner-sprung mattresses that are problematic – memory foam lovers may be surprised to learn that it’s made from petroleum and can expose sleepers to as many as 20 toxic chemicals, plus it’s hot to sleep on and doesn’t breathe.
Mansoor says the primary purpose of natural bedding is to be environmentally sound. “It’s also good for people to sleep with robust support and without lying in something which poisons them. Metal structures such as bedsprings attract measurable electromagnetic fields. These days such frequencies are everywhere – radio, internet, smart TVs, smartphones, etc and I think that at night we need to relax outside of this stressful environment and sleep on neutral ground.” Another advantage of natural materials, he says, is that they absorb and release moisture.
Ralph Behrens of Futonz has been making futons in New Zealand since 1987, after emigrating here from Australia and finding a niche in the market. He says non-organic materials come with the environmental impacts of production. “Sometimes there’s toxic waste in the processing. Raw cotton is normally treated with insecticides and pesticides, while organically produced cotton is far more environmentally sound. The Australian grown genetically modified cottons are friendlier still because they require less water and pesticides to keep them healthy.”
Some mattresses made from artificial materials ignite if exposed to fire whereas materials used in natural mattresses will smoulder but are unlikely to actually ignite. Apart from the obvious problem of being burned, fumes from burning synthetic materials are highly toxic.
Mansoor says part of the problem with modern manufacture is the primary drive to do business. “That’s why people take shortcuts to facilitate profit. Many products are called ‘natural’ but it can be hard to determine what is and what isn’t. The way a product is manufactured often ignores the cost of componentry. For example, to have metal in a mattress requires fossil fuels to manufacture the metal component. People forget that non-organic products often have multi-layered environmental impacts.”
Quality natural mattresses that are properly cared for should last 20-30 years while a futon that is carefully looked after might give 8-15 years. Natural mattresses are made from a range of materials including raw cotton, wool, latex, and coconut fibre (coir), and more recently, foam mattresses have been made from seed oils such as sunflower, safflower, or other natural seed oils.
Here is a breakdown however of the main components in a natural mattress.
Perendale or Southdown-cross sheep have curly wools that are sometimes used in mattresses and futons because they help maintain loft. However, in some mattresses ‘wool’ can often mean poly wool, a fine-micron polyester mixed with sheep wool. “Wool disintegrates very easily and is difficult to work with,” Mansoor says, “but the polyester gives it beautiful bounce”. He uses a 10% polyester/wool blend to support wool mattresses. Ralph also offers poly wool and pure wool options, and Innature uses a blend of pure New Zealand wool and 5% polyester, which is classified technically as pure wool.
Healthy mattress firmness is best achieved with a latex core appropriate to the individual sleeper’s needs, with upper and lower layers generally made from wool or cotton. Latex is a natural material and an excellent mattress component offering stability. It is manufactured from the sap of rubber trees. The trees produce from six years old and continue to produce for 15-20 years.
A 5cm latex core provides futons with resilience and consequently a longer life. Ralph says that while Futons inevitably settle and pack down over the years, the latex inside will be exactly the same in 20 years, helping the futon to retain its loft while providing sufficient padding so that the sleeper is unlikely to feel the wooden slats on the frame. Futon weight is a consideration since they must be regularly turned. Latex can be very heavy, and a latex core futon can weigh 30-40kg.
Mansoor has got around the problem of overly heavy mattresses by manufacturing them in two layers which can be removed and reassembled. He uses various combinations of rubberised coir, New Zealand organic wool, and latex.
Mattresses are enclosed in a protective layer of ticking fabric. Ideally, mattress covers should have organic wool stitched to the interior to give extra relief to the body’s pressure points.
Futonz and Innature both use tickings made from organic Tencel (sustainably sourced natural wood fibres), or a mix of 45 percent cotton and 55 percent hemp, both of which wear extraordinarily well. Futon Ya San also uses a hemp and cotton mix for ticking. Hemp is antifungal and antibacterial, making the covers strong and resistant to mould while providing a silkiness that cotton doesn’t have.
Ralph doesn’t recommend using a fabric such as organic cotton unless you are meticulous about turning your futon daily to prevent mould from growing.
Innature manufactures kitset bed bases. They use German hardware for their designer beds, which are easy to assemble, and also construct beds which require no tools to put together. They don’t use glue.
Guruta Koster from Natural Beds & Furniture, works from his workshop at the Absurdistan Community near Kaiwaka. He custom-makes 15 styles of slatted beds as well as one-off furniture pieces. He uses a range of good-quality, mostly New Zealand grown timber, and some imported sustainably grown timbers, including macrocarpa, pine, beech, oak, ash, and red and white eucalypts.
His slat systems consist of 25 pine slats held together by two webbing straps so they can be rolled up for transporting. They are fixed in place by two screws per side. Guruta’s Coco Heaven slat system incorporates 50mm strips of coconut fibre cushioning to create more flex in the overall system instead of flexible slats which are highly unsustainable. “It’s important,” he says, “that natural mattresses have aeration underneath or they can develop mould. Slats provide aeration.”
The right mattress for the right body
Body weight challenges mattresses. A 120kg man is going to require a different internal mattress structure to achieve proper support compared to a 65kg woman. Both Innature and Futons offer a mattress core change to customers if they prove uncomfortable.
In addition to his cotton and wool futons, Ralph imports seed oil mattresses from Italy which come in a range of firmnesses while creating softness at pressure points.
He says that the healthiest mattresses for infants are made from latex. The latex he uses is harvested by hand from organically certified plantations in Sri Lanka. There are regulatory guidelines for mattresses for littlies so ask about them when purchasing.
Futon Ya San Organic: Mansoor Valkoun, futons.co.nz, 317A Parekura Rd, Kaiwaka – open by appointment only
Natural Beds and Furniture: Guruta Koster, naturalbedsandfurniture.co.nz, 317A Parekura Road, Kaiwaka – open by appointment only
INNATURE: Sukhita Derova, innature.co.nz, 34C Portage Road, New Lynn, Auckland – visit their showroom Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, or Saturday 10am-2pm
Futonz: Ralph Behrens, 631 West Coast Road, Oratia, Auckland, futonz.co.nz – visit their showroom Monday-Friday 9am-5pm and Saturday 9am-3pm
© Theresa Sjoquist, 2022
First published in Organic NZ magazine, March/April 2022 Vol. 81 No.2