The Great Mattress Cover-up
By Wesley Vaughn
Ever since the transition from woven sleeping mats, mattresses have been covered. Whether filled with sawdust, straw, or feathers, a cover—also called ticking—defined the shapes and dimensions of the earliest mattresses. The role of the cover was to hold the loose materials in place.
The first cover materials were whatever was available where the mattresses were made, whether linen, wool, cotton, or some other fiber. The first requirement was durability. The fabric had to be strong enough to hold the fill under the sleeper without rupturing, spilling the contents and losing its support. The grain of the fabric had to be close enough to keep the cushioning materials from leaking through. With small caliber loose fill material, a tight weave was preferred over knit. With the invention of innerspring mattresses, the cover held padding against the springs to cushion sleepers against the ends of the coils.
In the United States, mattresses were first made locally. Thanks to the U.S. cotton industry, the almost universal mattress cover material was heavy cotton canvas. Some luxury mattresses were covered with linen. Early commercial cushioning materials were cotton or wool batting and horsehair. Then, toward the end of the 19th Century, wagon seat springs were modified for the first innerspring mattresses as Bonnell coils, and padding served as cushioning over the springs. Mattresses still needed covers, and sturdy cotton continued to be the expected material.
When synthetic fibers became more widely used in clothing, they also began to be used in covering mattresses, usually polyester in a blend with cotton. Polyester increased durability, reduced shrinkage, and lowered the cost.
Mattress cover fabrics were generally woven, though the contents were no longer loose materials. But with the introduction of memory foam mattresses by Tempur-Pedic with memory foam’s conformability, knit fabrics were preferred because they could stretch with the surface of the foam. Several fabric forms are available now: damask, jacquard, terry, velour, microsuede, flocked, and others.
Beginning with manufacturers of luxury mattresses, such as ES Kluft and Aireloom, silk and cashmere joined linen as luxury mattress cover fabrics. Then the quest for healthier and environmentally responsible materials led to new mattress coverings, such as bamboo, wool. Wool is advertised as coming from several sources. OMI stresses its use of domestic wool, while others cite wool from France, New Zealand or some other country. For some of its models, Carolina Mattress Guild uses Repreve, fibers made from recycled plastics, such as beverage bottles.
Rayon is used in covers, too, not only as the cover fabric, but more often as the fire barrier just below the fabric. Since rayon naturally impedes the spread of flames, mattresses can meet federal flammability standards without using chemicals. Several mattress makers are using organic materials as much as possible. These include organic cotton, grown without pesticides, and untreated wool. There are several blends of fibers in cover fabrics. The most used are polyester-cotton, silk & wool, and bamboo & cotton.
On early mattresses, the entire cover was of the same material. Now the sides are covered differently. And with one-sided mattresses, the bottom panel differs from the top panel.
Temperature control also produces new mattress coverings. The first applications are for breathability. The use of foams made mattresses warmer, sometimes too hot. The initial solution was airflow. When the cover is breathable, air flows through it better, carrying heat away. The Space Age produced Outlast, a material developed for use in space suits. Outlast uses phase change materials to absorb extra heat when too hot and releases heat when it is too cool. Now several mattress models by different manufacturers are covered around the border (the sides) with mesh to allow grater airflow for cooling.
Other fabric materials such as CoolMax are profiled to channel moisture away from the surface, keeping it both cool and dry. This brings about an irony. Horsehair was among the early mattress cushioning materials. Now Stearns & Foster uses Mongolian horsehair in the covers of its Golden Elegance mattresses for moisture wicking.
Fabrics are often treated to make them more healthful or aesthetically pleasing. Some of the treatments are aloe vera, lavender, gel, silver, and vitamins.
Mattress covers can be quilted or non-quilted, tufted or non-tufted. In quilted covers, the quilting materials share billing with the cover fabric. Quilting foams may be polyurethane, memory foam or latex. Sometimes these are gel-infused to enhance cooling. Quilting fibers are also used, such as polyester, Dacron, rayon, cotton, various kinds of wool, cashmere, etc. The functions of quilting materials can be cushioning, softness, warmth, coolness, and breathability. In SpringAir’s reintroduced Four Seasons line, the quilted topper is reversible. One side has a Joma wool quilted cover for warmth. The other is quilted with silk & fibers for cooling. Whatever the firmness level of a mattress, a quilted cover is perceived as luxurious, even though it is fairly common now.
There are several considerations used by mattress designers in selecting cover materials. Among these are comfort areas such as surface texture, conformity, breathability, and how warm the underlying material gets. Health issues include allergies, mold & mildew, pathogenic microbes, and pests (such as bedbugs). There are also the economic issues of durability and cost. Besides these are considerations of environmental impact, aesthetics, and class appeal. The goal of designing the cover of a mattress is to optimize the balance of these considerations for the best mattresses in the designated price range.
Sample list of cover materials by source
Plant origin —
- Linen (from flax)
- – extracted fibers
- – viscose for rayon
- Wood fibers
- Aloe vera fibers (added to other fibers)
Animal origin —
- – Lamb’s (fr. France)
- – Jomma/Joma
- – Merino
- – “Eco-Wool” – from U.S. raised sheep without chemical baths
- – New Zealand
- Rayon (from plant cellulose, such as bamboo)
- Recycled plastics
- CoolMax® fibers for moisture control
- Botany Wool®, wooly fiber made from plant materials
- Maize fibers, synthesized from corn stalk cellulose
- Silver fibers
- Gold fibers
Treatments and other materials —
- Outlast® (temperature control)
- Silver coatings (anti-microbial, anti-static)
- Aloe vera gel or extract (skin soothing)
- Lavender (scent, relaxation, hygenic)
- Vitamin treatments
- Fire Retardants (several manufacturers are now replacing chemical treatments with naturally flame-resistant materials such as wool and rayon)