Photo by Ziggy Liloia
I’m a classic over-thinker - every decision I make, every purchase I consider, it has to take me like five times as long as a normal human being. Whatever man — I work hard for my money, and I don’t wanna waste it on junk.
It’s this thought process that went into my decision to try out sleeping on a straw mattress. I know, it sounds crazy, just hear me out here.
So it started like this — we had moved across the country to a very small town in central Montana, and the house was fully furnished, meaning there was a gargantuan, very uncomfortable California king sized mattress in the master bedroom. After the landlady agreed to move the mattress out, it was time for us to start mattress shopping.
Pft, as if. One does not simply, go mattress shopping.
It was a couple of years prior to this that my husband and I had fallen down the rabbit hole that is sustainable living and permaculture. We had started listening to Jack Spirko’s Survival Podcasts, as well as Paul Wheaton’s permaculture podcasts, and become flies on the wall at the forums at Permies.
After building up this mindset, even something as simple as just buying a new mattress was a weighted decision for us. We knew what these mattresses were made of, we knew what they cost, and ultimately, the idea of buying one just didn’t sit well with us.
To me, the pursuit of sustainability doesn’t just have to do with things like recycling and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — it’s about living a life that requires as little outside input as possible. That means frugality, making what you can, bartering when you can, so when it came to mattress shopping, the idea of spending $500 or more on something that wasn’t even going to be what we really wanted just didn’t make sense.
We went back to the drawing board — what did people sleep on before memory foam and Sleep Number?
I conducted hours of research on the topic, and found some interesting tidbits of information, but all in all, the web wasn’t proving to be a hugely rich resource on the topic - it was very hard to find any detailed accounts, let alone guide to making and using different kinds of beds.
I read about wool mattresses, corn husk beds, soft feather beds, until finally, I stumbled across the most primitive mattress of them all: straw mattresses.
This is generally something that hasn’t been done for a couple hundred years, so it was pretty challenging determining exactly how feasible sleeping on one was going to be. But hey, straw is cheap, and if anyone was going to make a suitable guinea pig, it was me, a pregnant woman, working on concrete floors, with a history of lower back pain.
With the odds stacked against me, I presented my idea to my husband, and we set to work.
I loved our straw mattress. Loved it. It was my cozy little nest at the end of a long day of work, cushy, yet firm, and free from the nasty smell of polyester and foam.
We were a little nervous, jumping headfirst into sleeping this way, but it worked out beautifully. We made our own mattress ticking with some heavy duty canvas we ordered online, and as a result, we couldn’t even feel the sharp ends of the straw needles.
Though the initial stuffing process was pretty dusty, when we finished up, you would have never known there was straw in our bed (aside from the amorphous blob shape it took). There wasn’t so much an odor of straw, since it’s not as fibrous and fragrant as hay, and since we were careful to keep it dry, we never had an issue with mold.
Sleeping on straw was an interesting experience, particularly while I was busy incubating a tiny human in my midsection. Though the straw was firm, it does tend to shift around a bit over time, and so eventually, we noticed that there were some pretty distinct indentations in the mattress that were shaped like our bodies while we slept - mine complete with a gaping space for my rotund belly.
My husband called it “memory foam, with a really good memory” - the longer we slept in it, the more pronounced the impressions got. Every few months or so, we’d have to beat the major lumps and bumps out of the mattress, whacking it with our forearms and stomping around on it, til eventually it was somewhat uniform again. There would be a few days of awkwardness as we coerced the mattress into a more reasonable form, then back into blissful slumber.
One challenge we did have to overcome was getting it off the ground — though not necessary, I began to have a hard time rolling my gestational butt out of bed in the mornings, so to ease the hilarity of the situation, we devised a sort of bed frame for our odd mattress.
Using a queen sized metal bed frame and some heavy duty rope, we created a sort of grid-like rope hammock, rather than just use boards, where the spaces would allow the straw to bulge through. At first, it worked great, but then we ran into the issue of everything wanting to pull to the center of the "frame", and we wound up with a significant lip of straw around the perimeter of the mattress where the frame was, further boxing in the pregnant lady.
In hindsight, I think just using boards with some plywood sheeting laid across the top would have worked fine, and I’m not really sure why we didn’t think to try that — the rope idea seems vastly more difficult.
Historically, these mattresses were fluffed once a week for high class citizens, and maybe a few times a year for poorer families. We reshaped ours about every 4 months, and only emptied it of straw after a year because we were moving.
My favorite thing about this mattress was that it was completely, 100% biodegradable. The straw we emptied from the ticking went into the chicken coop, where the hens happily bedded down and laid eggs. The remainder went out as mulch on our hugelkultur bed, where it eventually decomposed into the soil.
Throughout this entire experience, even with my horrendous history of lower back pain, and running around on concrete floors with my big bad pregnant self cooking and waiting tables, I never once had lower back pain — it was unbelievable. The lumpiness that formed around where we slept every night made it a little challenging to get up, but never once did I feel like I couldn’t find the sweet spot and settle in for a good night’s sleep.
I encourage everyone to challenge themselves, and determine exactly what they really need to get a comfortable night’s sleep. No matter your age or activity level, it’s possible that the mattress you use is actually doing your body more harm than good. There is a significant amount of research out there to suggest that people do much better sleeping on firmer surfaces, and straw is definitely a step away from pillow toppers.
After we moved, we said we’d sleep on a few blankets on the floor until we had a chance to refill our mattress ticking. After a few weeks though, we noticed we weren’t really uncomfortable at all sleeping on the floor, even with them being hardwoods, so we just never used a mattress again.
Two years later, we’re still sleeping on the floor, with just a couple of comforters separating us from the hardwoods, our toddler son nestled between us. We all sleep quite contentedly, with no aches or pains, and no mattress, and we’re truly blown away by how many years we spent on one. Now when we go to hotels and visit friend’s houses, we do everything we can to avoid sleeping in a bed!
The bottom line is, conventional mattresses are not the most eco-friendly purchase a person can make, and the expense definitely doesn’t fit the model of a sustainable, self-reliant lifestyle. If you’re feeling bold, I encourage you to try a straw mattress out, or even just sleep on the floor for a few nights — you may be surprised by just how comfortable you can be with so little.
Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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