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In Search Of The Perfect Mattress

I have been searching for the perfect mattress for our soon-to-be-built platform bed. Here is what I mean by “perfect”:

  1. Low cost,
  2. Toxin-free,
  3. Comfortable, and
  4. Just the right size.

Numbers three and four are easily found with a wide variety of mattresses out there. Unfortunately, the vast, vast majority of them are treated with toxic flame retardants. While these chemicals might not be as dangerous as the PBDE that used to be used as a flame retardant, they are still substances I do not want to be breathing in night after night. And I am skeptical that anything that nasty ever completely offgasses.

Mattresses that are not toxic, or very low in toxins, will never be low cost. Au contraire, they are the most expensive options out there. I’m talking natural rubber and organic cotton that are treated with non-toxic flame retardants – which, of course, are more expensive than their toxic synthetic counterparts.

Our current bed

When we first moved in here, we did not want to spend $50-$100 a month on a storage unit. And good thing, since it ended up taking almost two years for our ultimate home to be built! Although we moved a full-size and a queen-size mattress with us, we realized with dismay that we would not be able to store them ourselves without losing most of the floor space in the Tuff Shed we started out in. So after I explained to my husband another mattress option, we donated them to the local flea market.

That other option was to create a futon-like mattress out of all the quilts and afghans that Jerry and I (mostly Jerry) had collected over the years. It took J one week, and me two, to get used to sleeping on something so extremely firm (it feels hard until you get used to it), but now we both sleep very well on the makeshift mattress which simply lays on the floor at night.

But these piles of quilts and afghans have done double duty. During the day, they have formed the couch cushion.

About a month ago, I had to face a dilemma: in the new house, we are going to have our own bedroom, and an actual bed – no more sleeping on the floor! – and a separate couch. What would we do for a couch cushion, and what would we do for a mattress?

What I have considered

The easiest thing would be to follow a suggestion I make in my book Crazy Simple, and go Japanese. That is, chuck the idea of having a couch altogether and just sit on throw pillows on the floor. But not only does that idea not fly with Jerry, but also we know from experience that sitting all the way down on the floor and then having to stand up from the floor is not comfortable. We used to have a “floor couch” in the tiny house and even though the two of us have no back problems or arthritis or any such thing, if you’re not raised in that kind of furniture environment it’s hard to get accustomed to as an adult.

That idea aside, I thought we could use the existing throw pillows that we had no use for in the tiny house as the couch cushions. Then we could simply go on using the folded bedding as our mattresses. But how long would the polyester batting with which they are stuffed last if they were constantly sat upon? Your average Wal-Mart quality bed pillow isn’t supposed to last more than eighteen months with just your head laying on it for eight hours a day; pillows that people put most of their weight upon might not last even that long.

So I decided we would continue to use the folded bedding as the couch cushion, and purchase a futon mattress for our bed. However, after not very much research I discovered that futons are sprayed with flame retardants as much as any other mattress.

Then how about using the futon for the couch and the folded bedding for our bed? That wouldn’t bother me as much, since one doesn’t usually spend nearly as much time on a couch as in a bed – and often not in a reclining position.

A traditional Japanese full-size futon runs over $300 including shipping. A lot cheaper than regular coil mattresses, but still up there. A cheaper futon with a coil that I found is covered in cheap polyester. So then I’d be dealing with not only flame retardants, but chemicals from both the fabric and the dye.


I had nearly given up when I went back to the pillow idea. I looked up “organic cotton pillow” on Amazon, and almost bought a few. My idea was to wrap them all in a sheet to create one continuous cushion. But organic cotton anything is expensive, and just like a conventional pillow, they would have to be replaced probably every two years.

What to do?

Then the light bulb went on. What about a different kind of pillow? I’m talking a kind of pillow that is said to last even longer than a futon mattress (which is supposed to be good for ten years).

My final decision

For several years, I think over five, I’ve been sleeping with a buckwheat pillow. This is a pillow that is stuffed with buckwheat hulls. It conforms to your head and neck, and can last up to fifteen years. Unlike polyester or cotton batting, it doesn’t get compressed down. A couple of years after I began using one, I bought one for J when his conventional pillow got too flat. Now B has one, as well.

So after nixing the idea of using organic cotton pillows for the couch, I looked up buckwheat pillows. For $100 cheaper than buying a traditional Japanese futon mattress, we could line the couch with four or five buckwheat pillows (we already have throw pillows to put against the back).

We received them just last night. Unlike the pillows we use for sleeping, which I bought from a website other than Amazon, they do not have a soft wool padding on one side. So when we lay them out and sat down on them, they felt harder than we wanted a couch cushion to be (I mean, they’re buckwheat hulls, right?). I said to Jerry, “What if we buy a couple of blankets from Goodwill to fold over the top of them?” He thought that would work.

But if you know me, I am all about saving money and using what we already have. In a storage box, I have a comforter that I bought when I was single. Why not use that as covers for our winter bed, and use the cotton thermal blankets as toppers for the buckwheat pillows?

I tried it out this morning, and lo and behold, the slim blankets, each folded at least twice, make sitting on the pillows a lot more comfortable. Now, not anything like a sofa you buy from a store. But modern sofas, with their super-soft cushions, are horribly unhealthy for the human spine, and consequently nervous system. If you need to lie down, go to bed. To sit and watch T.V. or read for thirty minutes, a firm cushion is good enough for most people.

What our new sofa cushion will look like

I will drape a sheet over the top of the couch platform. On top will go the five new buckwheat pillows, scrunched together as close as possible. On top of those, the folded thermal blankets. Then I will wrap the sheet tightly over the whole kit-and-kaboodle.


Photos of the “new” couch and bed coming in a week or two. Stay tuned!

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