Hey everyone! So a couple of years ago I posted in here about trying to find some mattress alternatives. I was fed up with the process of buying a big, stupid mattress every few years that was impossible to clean, ridiculously expensive, and made, of course, of toxic gick.
It was maddening. I felt trapped by the consumption and expense, and the stupid sheets, and the memory foam pillow top crap that I could never truly clean. I hated conventional mattresses, but I wanted a mattress. I wanted a bed.
I examined tons of options, but I just wasn't ready to sleep on a few blankets on the floor, I liked the idea of being raised off of the floor, particularly since I was pregnant. Ask any pregnant chick, getting up off of a floor is no easy feat. Natural latex mattresses were expensive, wool mattress pads were nice, but still too expensive for my budget.
Ultimately, I wound up landing on a straw mattress. There wasn't much information on these that wasn't historical, but what I did find was interesting. And hey, how hard could it really be to make?
Straw mattresses were widely used a couple hundred years ago. While richer classes in Europe often had wool mattresses, poorer classes used straw. There were even designated mattress fluffers that would go around to the elite residences and fluff them and switch out the straw when it was too compacted and ground up.
So long as the straw is kept dry, it's completely safe to use. Obviously mold and pests are a concern, like with any other mattress, but with the proper precautions, it's a perfectly viable option.
So with that information under my belt, and absolutely no firsthand experiences from anyone that had actually tried it, I wrote up the dimensions for a mattress case and got to work.
So we did it. I think we used 3 bales of straw (important: not hay) in total for a queen sized bed. It was dusty, sneezy business, but it came together nicely, and in no time we had a 2 1/2 foot tall mound that was our mattress.
I was about 2 1/2 months pregnant when we started this project. After much rolling around, we managed to get our mound to look more like a mattress, and were pretty please with the results:
- it was extremely comfortable. Like I said, I was pregnant. We slept on this thing on the floor for the first half of my pregnancy, and when hoisting myself up become exceedingly challenging, we rigged up a bed frame with a sort of hammock of rope to get it up off the floor, and life got a bit easier for me.
Throughout my entire pregnancy, even with a history of lower back pain, I never had any back pain. At all. NONE. It was crazy, and I'm telling you, it really was just damn comfy.
-It was like a memory foam mattress, with a great memory, as my husband said. When you slept in this thing night after night, the straw started forming around your typical position in the bed. Over time, we wound up with little nest like holes on each of our sides of the bed, which were wildly cozy to snuggle up into every night. Mine had a nice big belly-hole on one side, it was just perfect my roundness.
-When the mattress's lumps got too pronounced, we just beat it up a bit. We'd pick up the edges and shake it, pound it with our forearms, just generally redistribute the straw. It'd be a little awkward for a night or two as everything got settled again, then it was back to comfiness.
-bugs and mold were never an issue. Now, we live in Montana, so it's pretty cold and dry here anyways, but we were really careful to never let the bed get wet, and checked the straw very carefully as we put it into the mattress casing. Any questionable or slightly damp straw was discarded. I also steam ironed the casing with a few drops of tea tree oil mixed in the water. I don't know how much of a difference it really made, but it gave me a little peace of mind that the oil might help to deter any insects from setting up shop, and we never had any problems.
- It was a warm bed, but not stuffy. We had a wood stove in our bedroom, so our biggest concern was keeping the bed at a safe distance, since of course it was highly flammable. On nights when I overloaded the stove, the bed didn't sweat us out, everything was nice and breathable. However, our little nest shapes were nice for nestling into on a chilly night, and the straw proved to be nice and insulative, which was great since our house was basically just a tarpaper plywood shack.
All in all, it was amazing. We spent the first few months of our son's life in that bed, cosleeping even, and were even planning a homebirth with it last year, covering it in plastic and such while our midwife slept in the other room (long story, the homebirth didn't happen). We only disassembled it because we had to move, and moving a straw filled mattress is just crazy huge pain. We distributed the straw, which was still completely dry, to our chicken coop, and later composted it.
If I had to do it over, I would make the way the end of the mattress closed up more tight - we always had a little bit of straw on the floor. Never anything too crazy, but it was a source of great irritation for my husband (who notably, never actually swept...). All the same, it was a bit of a design flaw I think I would also sprinkle some DE in with the straw sporadically, just to further ease concerns of creepy crawlies in my bed, though I can honestly say I never saw one insect in or around this bed!
Since then, we've been sleeping on a few heavy blankets, just because we realized that we didn't really mind sleeping on the floor after all. But man, sometimes I do miss that big lumpy straw mattress, it was sure cozy! One thing's for sure though, I'm never buying a conventional mattress again. I plan to buy a daybed for our living room soon, and guess what? That thing's getting a straw mattress put on it
Nice post! This is definitely a handful of nails in the coffin of me owning a conventional mattress. My roommate just bought an (expensive, toxic, uncleanable) memory foam mattresses that are so cool right now, and it is in fact making her back issues *worse*.
While Im bookmarking this for my summer endeavor, Ive noticed in my botanical inquiries lately that "Bedstraw" sounds very desirable for this - it apparently doesn't bog down and get matted over time. Who knows!
Mondo muchas gracias, amiga.
"It might have been fun to like, scoop up a little bit of that moose poop that we saw yesterday and... and uh, put that in.... just.... just so we know." - Paul W.
I agree with Ian, nice post thanks for the information.
And Ian said...
memory foam mattresses that are so cool right now, and it is in fact making her back issues *worse*.
The answer to back pains in MOST cases is Exercise and YOGA and good nutritional supplements, especially minerals. Exercise and Yoga will give you the strength and stretching your body needs, and especially Yoga will teach you how to re-align your vertebrae if you pay attention while doing it. The nutritional supplements give the body what it needs that CANNOT be guaranteed to be in your food (in most cases it is not). Without the proper nutrition disks break down, rupture, and cause all sorts of issues for your internal organs including your heart...many heart issues are due to this and once again nutrition is the answer.
Many, many thanks for your detailed post! I suffer from upper back pain which is directly related to which mattress I sleep on. I always thought I needed a really firm mattress to support my back but I have recently revised my opinion through an unintentional test. I'm currently on a three month contract with in-house accommodation and the mattresses are not the best quality nor the newest. I thought I was really going to struggle but I have had no problems. Every 2 weeks I visit my daughter who has the mattress we purchased a year ago and is really firm. I can just about manage 2 nights on that but the second night's sleep is very broken. I had a futon years ago which I remember being really comfy but that was given to me and I think they are rather expensive now.
As we are about to set up house in another country we will have to refit our entire house. I hoped to do most DIY but was resigned to buying a mattress and I've been viewing mattress purchasing with trepidation. Your experience has provided a way out of my dilema! My only worry is my husband's asthma. I am thinking of double or triple covering with heavy linen but I think the dust might still come through.
Doea anyone have experience with straw mattresses and asthma?
Provide food for people, and they eat today. Teach them permaculture, and communities eat every day.
Lady's bedstraw was used a hundred or so years ago to stuff mattresses, but it takes a lot. It does rustle a bit after being dried, but the herb itself is easy to gather and pretty dry as it is growing. Has anyone had any experience with it on Permies. (my goats also loved it).
I'm so glad you all liked the information! I can't tell you how many side-eyes we've gotten over our straw mattress, but I never let it get to me, that thing was absolute love! I remember my husband prepping it with dropcloths and plastic sheeting when I went into labor, and the midwife just thought it was so funny, doing a homebirth in the mountains on a straw mattress
I've always had the token 'allergies', but I'm not asthmatic, but I will say the only time the straw ever got to me was when we were stuffing it, which I would definitely advise using a mask and opening windows for - it makes ya sneeze, folks.
Other than that, the firmness never really bothered me, and I am just really super big on conventional mattresses being the bane of so many back issues. That being said, if it's an issue of personal preference, I do LOVE the feeling of a big fluffy thing, but my back does not, firmness definitely seems to keep my stuff in alignment.
I'm curious to know how the various straw fillings differ for firmness, it's not really anything I ever thought about!
Peggy Rivera wrote:Can you tell me more about the casing you used around the straw?
I use drop cloths from the painter's shop for my mattress. They are usually 100% cotton but take a few goes in the washing machine to get the sizing and other additives out.
Another good, but more expensive, material for making straw ticks is duck cloth.
I usually sleep on a straw tick for a couple of weeks camping each year. Most of the time it's great, but sometimes there's pollen, pesticides or mold in the straw that triggers terrible hay fever. Good quality straw is very important with my sensitivities. I think this year, I'll make a cover for my straw tick mattress (straw tick being the medieval words for it, not sure if it's still called that).
Stuffing the mattress can be very dusty, so I like to do it outside on a sunny day. It's a comfortable mattress and breaths remarkably well. My friends that sleep on straw regularly change their straw at least once a year.
A paddle is useful for redistributing the straw if it gets lumpy.
As with other natural fibre mattresses, keeping it on a frame that breaths (like a wood slat or a rope bead) can greatly extend the life of the mattress. Turning the bed down each morning, so that the covers are at the foot of the bed (instead of making the bed like my mother taught me) also helps the mattress breath and last longer.
Ducking and ticking is great, and drop cloths are just some great fabric to have around in general, I'm actually looking for some for an upholstered headboard project myself.
I actually just ordered some bulk canvas from Joann's for mine - free shipping, and I caught it on sale, so it was only a few bucks a yard, and it's super heavy duty stuff, so I never felt the pokiness of the straw through the mattress casing.
I just bought a whole big bolt of it, and I use the remnants all the time around here
One of my favorite books is Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley. In it she detatils how English country people actually lived and farmed during the centuries before industrial consumerism. There is a bunch of info about how straw was used for chairs, beds, and mattresses. By the way, those dome-shaped beehives you see in pictures are upside-down baskets made by coiling a roughly-braided straw rope round and round. Chairs in British clubs were made without any wooden frame, by coiling the straw up into a beehive with an open side and a solid bottom, according to Hartley. Once they are covered with leather, nobody realizes their true nature. The hollow construction of the straws makes for a warm, well-insulated chair.
For a bed, the straw was made into a rough braid several feet long--you can add more as you go--and coiled into an oval mat. Usually instead of stitching the coils together, these beds were held together with thin wooden pins--just a splint of split branch, really, so they went together really fast. Once the proper size was reached, the bed was finished with a rim one or two coils tall, making it into a shallow tray. This well-insulated, cozy basket was often used as is; the rim kept out drafts and a traveler would just use his cloak for a cover. Or it could hold a mattress of loose straw or of feathers off the ground, contain the amorphous shape of the mattress, and make a place to tuck in a flat sheet. Beds like this were also used in shepherds' summer huts. In homes, they were used as "truckle" or "trundle beds", stored under regular wooden beds in the daytime and pulled out to accomodate children or guests.
Hartley says that even in well-to-do households where featherbeds were the norm, straw mattresses were used for sickbeds and childbirth. The mattress could then be emptied, the straw burnt or composted, and a new case filled in minutes.
This seems so simple and doable that I've always wished I were not allergic to straw and grass. It would be great to see people trying this more. There were whole classes of plants known for making high-quality mattresses. Our Lady's Bedstraw (Gallium sp.) is still called after this use. Many of these bedstraw plants had tiny barbs on the stem, so that they locked together to prevent shifting and falling out of the casing. Heather was also used. My favorite mattress story of all: When a friend was in Greece in the seventies, she was in a village that had no hotel or inn, and stayed in a private home. In this Greek cottage, the mattress was filled with wild thyme plants! She said the fragrance was unforgettable, and it has always been my benchmark for immersive sensory experience!
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