A Short History of Futons in the UK
What is a futon? A futon is a traditional Japanese mattress with a cotton cover originally filled with layers of cotton fibres.
In 1983 when we started making futons that’s how all futons were being made, but over the last 30 years there’ve been several changes.
The first of the changes were caused by the rise in China’s economy. As China’s economy grew it stopped being a net exporter of cotton and, as it started importing more cotton, the price increased – dramatically. The cotton plant produces fibres of different lengths. The top of the plant produces the longest fibres and the length of the fibres decreases as you go down the plant. As you might guess the longest fibres are the best quality and the most expensive.
All Cotton Futons
The longest fibre length cotton is used in the medical field, the mid length fibres are used for clothing and the shortest are used in industries such as furniture filling. As the prices increased, clothing manufacturers started using less expensive grades including the best of the grades used for furniture, including futons. The consequence was a decrease in the quality and an increase in price of the cotton available to futon makers. Shorter fibres lose their elasticity more quickly and result in futons with a shorter lifespan.
In the eighties and nineties there were a handful of companies making the materials used for futon fillings. Nowadays there is only one. So the choice of what futon makers could use was understandably limited to what was being produced by the filling manufacturers.
Polyester and Cotton Futons
The first response of the filling manufacturers was to make layers of polyester fibre which were then mixed with the cotton layers to make a futon containing some layers of cotton and some layers of polyester. This actually had some advantages; the futon was lighter in weight, didn’t tend to absorb as much humidity and didn’t compact so much over time. However, nothing stays the same. If one fibre goes up in price, eventually another related fibre will follow. This is inevitable because manufacturers of many products were looking to replace cotton with polyester to keep prices down. So there followed a shortage of polyester. And an ensuing price rise.
‘Wool Mix’ Futons
At this point futon makers faced some choices. Better quality and higher prices or lower quality and lower prices. The textile industry is ingenious and started producing a filling made from rag waste. Rag waste is what it says, shredded fibres from overproduction and recycling of anything textile. It was multicoloured with different fabrics and fibres, but had an overall dark grey colour. And it was far less expensive, less than half the price of cotton. It was called wool mix, which sounds rather good, and it was defined as having to contain a minimum percentage of wool of approximately 10%. The rest could be anything, polyester, cotton, nylon, even lurex; it actually looked rather pretty. It seemed that everyone was using it and the manufacturers were pushing it.
At The Futon Shop (our name before the year 2000) we experimented with wool mix but found it to be poor quality; although it made for a lighter weight futon, the fibres didn’t hold together and it flattened very quickly. We didn’t use wool mix, settling instead to maintain the quality.
In the late nineties a large Scandinavian retailer started selling budget futons at retail prices far below what independent futon makers were paying just for the fillings. For many futon specialists this came to spell the end of the popularity of the futon. Not just because they couldn’t compete on price, but because the poor quality of the budget futons came to destroy people’s faith in the whole futon concept.
In the year 2000 The Futon Shop changed its name to the Natural Bed Company – we were selling more beds than futons, so it seemed appropriate!
The next few years saw some technological improvements to the way the polyester layers were constructed. Some futon makers had tried including other materials into their futons. One idea was to include a layer of foam in the middle of the futon, on the basis that it didn’t compress as much as the cotton. Incorporating foam was especially popular in the USA. Our objection to foam was that it reduced the breathability of the futon and shortened the life of the cotton layers.
In Germany, where customers were prepared to pay a higher price for a superior product, futon makers included layers of pure wool.
For a few years as the The Futon Shop we’d made a variation on a futon that included rubberised coconut fibre, or coir. This created a firmer futon with a good life span but, as a harder product it had limited popularity and we decided to discontinue this design when the local coir supplier relocated.
Wool and I-Fibre Futons
The last two or three years have seen some brilliant technological innovations from John Cotton, the company who produce futon fillings. The Natural Bed Company are now using the new high performance fillings to produce, in the words of Director Peter Bennion, “the best futons ever”. These new fillings include Wool, i-Fibre and Rebound Polycotton.
Rebound Polycotton is a beautiful thick, stable filling that contributes much of the thickness, body and character of the futon. It’s a clever mix of cotton and polyester fibres in which the cotton fibres are held in a stable matrix of polyester.
i-Fibre is a superb new innovation in which fibres of polyester are arranged vertically rather than layered horizontally so they act like springs and have less tendency to compress. This increases both the comfort and longevity of the futon.
Pure new Wool has replaced polycotton as an outer layer to increase the natural fibre content and improve breathability.
Natural Bed Company futons are firm mattresses that can be used as a permanent mattress on a bed or placed on a folding wooden sofa bed frame for dual purpose use. They give firm, resilient support suitable for most body weights.
By – Peter Bennion (Natural Bed Company director)