How To Make Your Own $35 Straw Mattress

by ziggy on September 11, 2009 -- 26 comments -- Follow

mattress-test

(This lovely DIY how-to is written by my partner April, who recently made a fantastic straw mattress for the cob bed. Not only is it entirely natural, it’s pretty super to sleep on, too. Read ahead!)

Living in a hand-built home can often mean making unique and non-conventional furniture choices. I recently transitioned from a tent to a cob house and ran into the dilemma of what to do about a bed. My criteria was something natural and sustainable, economical, readily available, quick and easy to assemble, and comfortable. Is that too much to ask? I decided to do some research first.

Why not to buy a conventional mattress

I looked at some conventional mattresses. What the heck is in those things, I asked. These mattresses are composed of metal coils, often plastic coated, encased in fabric and padding. As a result of their materials and manufacturing, they also contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, and chemical fire retardants that will off-gas over time. And, with a price tag of over $350 for a full size mattress, this option isn’t particularly economical. However, there is such a thing as eco-friendly and organic mattresses. These usually contain organic cotton or wool, non-toxic fire retardants, natural latex rubber, and recycled metal springs. But with an even heftier price tag of around $1000 for a full size mattress, this wasn’t really an option for me at all.

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Traditional mattress materials

What about making my own mattress? People have been making their own beds for thousands of years. The ancient Romans used straw, an agricultural by-product, to make their mattresses. Another by-product, rice chaff (the husks separated from the edible grains), is used as mattress filler in Asia and oat chaff was traditional in Scotland. At first, making my own mattress sounded too ambitious since I’ve got a minimal amount of sewing experience, but straw is natural, locally available, and at $2.00 – $4.00 per bale, it was worth a try. If it didn’t work out, disposing of my straw mattress would be as simple as reusing the fabric for another purpose, and dumping the straw in the garden for compost. (Most conventional mattresses go to a landfill at the end of their lives.)

Making a tick

I needed to make a simple sack, traditionally called a tick, to serve as the mattress cover. A sturdy cotton fabric with vertical blue stripes, called ticking, is still used for mattresses today. I chose heavy fabric woven from 100% cotton, or duck, because it appeared to be more sturdy and durable for my purposes.

My mattress would rest on a cob platform pressed against a curved wall along one side. Because of its custom shape, my first step was to lay down a sheet of paper (I used sheets of newspaper taped together) to trace a template for the mattress shape. For someone making a conventional-sized mattress, this step is as easy as finding dimensions for the appropriate size bed frame (twin, full, queen, or king).

Designing a template

mattress-temp

Next, I laid the paper template on my fabric and added an inch to each side (2 inches added to the total width, 2 inches to the total length). I cut out the top and bottom panels at the same time to eliminate any shape inconsistencies. Mattress thickness can be based on personal preference. I chose to make the side panels for my mattress 9 inches wide (7 inches when finished) based on the height of the bed platform. I cut out rectangular side panels from the leftover scraps of my large panels and sewed them into one strip long enough to go around the perimeter of the two long sides and one short side of my large panels. (The other short side is where the button closure goes for stuffing straw – more on that later.)

Pinning and sewing the fabric

mattress-pins02

Next, I pinned and pinned and pinned. Don’t underestimate this step. It takes a lot of patience, but the attention to detail mattress-pinsat this point will make sewing much easier later. I took the edges of each panel (about ½ inch) and folded them over twice before pinning to reinforce the seam and make a finished edge on both sides of the fabric. This ensures that your fabric won’t unravel and should make stuffing much easier. You can attach panels to each other by folding with the edges sandwiched together. Make sure to insert pins perpendicular to the direction the thread will be sewn (if using a machine) so the needle glides easily over the pins. This fabric is heavy and unwieldy so pinning one side at a time makes it easier to push through a standard-size sewing machine. Also, make sure to use a heavy-duty needle, made for canvas or jeans, and thick thread.

The panel for the button closure was a little trickier. I wanted the closure to button in the center of the panel rather than at the seam to help put less stress on the edges of the mattress. And they need to be strong enough to take daily abuse. So, I cut out two panels to make up the closure side (one 6 inch wide panel and one 5 ½ inch wide panel) and finished one long side of each panel (where the buttons and button holes would be sewn). After over-lapping the finished edges (about ½ inch), the panel should be 9 inches wide (like the other sides) and easy to sew in place. After sewing everything up, I turned it inside out and stuffed the mattress!

mattress-buttons

Stuffing the mattress

Stuffing is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure to break up the straw bales thoroughly and stuff evenly. Stuff more tightly for a firm mattress without lumps. You can use a stick or rake to help push straw into corners, or climb into the tick yourself to get the straw packed especially well.

mattress-stuff

The mattress looked a little absurd once I got on the bed because it was so huge, but the straw eventually settles to the intended thickness after a couple weeks of use. After about four  to six months, the straw will be replaced. This is because the straw will become quite compact after much use.

In total, I paid $29.00 for fabric and thread, and $6.00 for 3 bales of straw. All told, it took me about a week and $35 to make my own comfy straw mattress!

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Jarerex September 16, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Amazing! Looks like a quality bit of craftsmanship, the seams are especially well done ;)

Is it poky at all to sleep on, or do you just sink right in and pass out from sheer delight?

Lisa Morales September 18, 2009 at 12:13 am

A perfect eco-solution to the mattress problem. Good job on the seams and buttons too. :) Love, Mom

Leigh October 3, 2009 at 7:29 am

Neat idea, but I have alergies to dust and grass. I have a feeling this wouldn’t work for me, darn it.

By the way, you will find that you need to empty and re-fill your matress once a year with fresh straw… otherwise it gets stinky and really dusty.
Leigh

Cait October 5, 2009 at 12:43 am

Fantastic!

One note – if you’ve got critters, keep your eyes on things. Straw can harbor FLEAS. Ugh. :P (Discovered this one unpleasant summer – I used ot have a straw-filled ‘mattress’ in my playhouse at my grandparents’ farm.)

itheophanos October 5, 2009 at 5:13 pm

i made my own mattress with an organic cotton futon mattress cover ($30 for a deep queen, three side zip cover on ebay) and stuffed it with buckwheat hull that i ordered from a local central NY farm (eventually spent a little less than $200 on filling it to the extent i wanted)…

as the bed is form-fitting, every few nights i level out the buckwheat again… i used to have lower back pain sleeping on a Serta pillow-top mattress, but it’s a thing of the past… the buckwheat is always a perfect temperature… it’s an interesting sensation to sleep on; kinda’ reminds me of nights spent on the beach… significant others thought it was strange at first, then came to love it, and it sleeps 3 bodies just fine… i have horrible allergies to straw and hay, and i’m unaffected by the buckwheat… supposedly it deters bugs too.

only downside– HEAVY (i think mine is around 300lbs)… luckily, just empty the buckwheat into smaller containers or contractor trash bags to move in small loads)…my friend was inspired and used a california king-size normal mattress cover and put over 500lbs of buckwheat hull into it… it’s a ridiculously oversized bean-bag of a bed, but luxurious to sleep on/in.

thought i’d go into business selling these things to others, maybe i will yet, but here’s to everybody else who wants to escape the terrible capitalist machine– cheers!!

Helena October 8, 2009 at 2:45 am

Great job, love when we understand that we can make the most of our things our self. Happy I found your sight, I will follow your thoughts.

Millet hull love November 28, 2009 at 3:06 am

Love my millet hull pillow wondered if anyone has used millet hulls for a mattress Thanks

Challis December 30, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Bravo! I bet you sleep heavenly on your handmade mattress! :) Love getting back to making things we need instead of ‘consumerizing’. Thank you for sharing!

The Urban Mint Raven February 19, 2010 at 5:23 pm

THANK YOU this was exactly the kind of mattress alternative I was looking for! How comfortable is it?

ziggy February 20, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I think it’s pretty comfortable. The mattress starts off as extremely lofty and puffy and eventually settles to be much firmer after sleeping on it for several weeks. The only issue that I have is that sometimes the mattress is not perfectly flat and there are some indents, but I think if you have the ability to flip your mattress, that would be alleviated (we can’t flip ours because of the irregular shape).

Ramona Jan March 28, 2010 at 9:43 am

Before looking at this site, I made myself a straw mattress. However, I am having trouble with lumpiness. I wonder if anyone has any advice on that?

Rebecca April 19, 2010 at 6:13 pm

This is great, I was so inspired I decided to make one, I just got the hay and am working on the sack. I finished a rope bed base to put it on and I cant wait to see how it turns out.

melody April 20, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Hi i was wondering if anyone could give some websites or local NY, NJ, PA stores that sell organic hay and the mattress cover material. thanks

ziggy April 20, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Rebecca: Just to note, hay is not the same as straw. Straw is the term for leftover stems resulting after grain has been harvested, but hay is dried grass. I’ve not heard of anyone using hay to make a mattress, but I’d be inclined to avoid it in favor of straw.

Ramona: Are you able to flip the mattress or beat it to smooth it out?

Daisy May 4, 2010 at 10:07 am

I’m looking to purchase a buckwheat futon, but maybe I’ll try sewing one instead. congratulations on not spending a ridiculous amount of money on a mattress! I was about to purchase a new mattress and box-spring set; my husband and I both require a firm sleeping surface. I think I will feel MUCH happier with a buckwheat futon that costs a fraction of what I would have paid, ($1700+) YIKES!

crissei May 18, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Very nice! I made a similar mattress for my son that is stuffed with wool.

Claire June 4, 2010 at 10:09 am

Thanks for providing these instructions. I have decided to build a mattress and found this very helpful and inspiring!

Ziggy can you tell me why you would choose straw over hay? I found a source of hay which has already been cleaned and is insect free. I have been told that hay is softer to sleep on.

I am going to make a 20cm thick mattress/futon made of wool and cotton batting. Depending on how comfy it feels on our cob floor I might use bales of straw/hay packed into a wooden frame to create the bed base.

Eady July 19, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Approximately how many pounds of buckwheat is needed to make a queen size mattress? Any suggestions?

Rachel C July 27, 2010 at 4:15 pm

itheophanos- please tell me which farm (contact me through my website?)! I live in NY and want to do the same thing but most of the time buckwheat hulls are about $3-5 a lb. WHERE did you get your hulls??

Dean Penn September 1, 2010 at 6:46 am

Came across your wonderful site looking for mattress alternatives. Didn’t realize how inexpensively a great natural mattress can be made. I love the smell of straw!

Appreciated the comment of itheophanos on the use of an inexpensive futon cover for those of us that can’t sew as good as April. (Beautiful work April!)

Thanks Ziggy and April for sharing your inspiring story!

Harold September 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm

This is truly inspiring. Thanks for posting!

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