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All dressed up: Mattress fabrics play many roles

By Barbara Nelles / November 2009

Whether you call them “mattress fabrics” or just plain “ticking,” the textiles used to upholster mattresses and foundations are a vital part of the marketing—and the comfort and performance—of today’s bed sets.

In the home, ticking will be covered with bed linens, but it’s what attracts the consumer’s eye at retail.

Fabrics chosen for each mattress model tell a story on the sales floor, suppliers say. They provide visual cues to a bed’s price point in relation to other models in a collection. Ticking also can tell a story of luxury or “naturalness” or, increasingly, functional benefits such as aromatherapy and temperature regulation. In many markets, damask mattress fabric has ceded the floor to circular knits. And with knits, it’s easy to stitch in words like “cashmere,” “organic cotton” or “natural,” allowing the bed to speak directly to consumers.

While innerspring beds remain mostly white, consumers who purchase nontraditional bedding like latex and visco–elastic want it to look different, says Adam Lava, vice president of sales for A. Lava & Son, a cover, quilt and mattress kit supplier based in Chicago.

“We’ve moved away from that ‘block of yellow cheese look,’ ” Lava says. “Consumers want to look at their expensive new mattress and see beauty. These beds look more like upholstered furniture.”

“I had an executive in the perfume industry once tell me that the box is the most important thing about selling perfume. And that one damaged box in a display ruins everything—you’ll sell nothing. I think it’s the same with mattresses, to some extent. As much care needs to be taken with the outside of the bed as with the inside,” says Camilla Franklin, vice president of global sourcing and design for Blumenthal Print Works, which is based in New Orleans.

Colorways & design trends

In the United States, most midpriced innerspring bedding is still very much enrobed in white. But on higher end innersprings, “green” beds and specialty sleep models, you’ll find more color and design seeping into panels, borders and trim.

“Black worked and now shades of charcoal and silver are very popular. We are seeing little pops of color in chocolates and berry–type colors,” says Steve Bond, vice president of design and innovation at Culp Inc., which has headquarters in High Point, N.C., “And dusty, silvery shades of aubergine, lavender and lilac are up and coming.”

“Bordeaux and turquoise are the trend colors in fashion this season,” says Apollonija Spela Honigsman, research and development manager for Bodet & Horst in Elterlein, Germany.

Color schemes of eco–friendly beds tend to be aqua blue/green and soft sage or moss accent colors, Franklin says.

“Metal tones, such as bronze, stainless steel and a pewtery look that is almost violet, are combining well with soft background colors and greens are getting bluer,” says Lynn Pappas, product portfolio manager for Bekaert Textiles USA, which has headquarters in Winston–Salem, N.C.

“Here in Canada we’re getting into new colorways,” says Lorne Romoff, vice president of sales for Montreal–based Maxime Knitting. “We are knitting thicker, heavier fabrics in silvers, baby blues and other soft tones. The bedding floor is much more colorful and visual than in the U.S.”

“On my very first trip to Scandinavia, they looked at my samples and said, ‘Too much color!’ ” says Nebi Dogan, area sales coordinator for Boyteks, which is based in Kayseri, Turkey. “Then I traveled to Morocco, bringing my most colorful fabrics, and they said, ‘Where’s the color?’ ”

“Blues and greens, including turquoise, are very big in Turkey right now. Europe remains more soft gray and modern. In North Africa, dark red and blue jacquards with gold patterns are popular on mattresses that are placed right on the floor in living rooms for sleeping and as furniture. In South Africa, the taste is very similar to the U.S., in Greece they like ecru cottons and in Sweden, blues,” Dogan says.

“Nontraditional” is how many describe current design motifs.

“Traditional motifs, such as medallions and scrolls, have gotten cleaner, more minimalistic and stylized. Large–scale patterns—we call them ‘jumbos’—are popular in Central and South America and are starting to appear in the U.S.,” Pappas says.

The oversized motifs have been around for a while, says Marian Stephenson, design director at Innofa USA in Eden, N.C. “First it was medallions and now it’s everything—flowers, leaves, etc. In home furnishings we are seeing modern paisleys and ethnic geometrics with sort of African inspiration. It’s interesting to watch how and when these interior fabrics reach tickings.”

“We are selling smaller, more delicate prints with nature motifs—vines, leaves and smaller flowers, as well as a lot of geometrics—in earth tones, greens, roses, silvers and golds,” says Wade Wallace, vice president of sales for Tietex, a woven and nonwoven textile supplier based in Spartanburg, S.C.

Honigsman sees a growing “globalization of tastes over the last 10 years.”

“It’s quite amazing,” she says. “We are basically all connected—in Asia, Australia, Europe, the U.S. As we all tap into the same resources, the trends are becoming very similar with just slight modifications. Something we develop in Europe will be very trendy in Asia, too, though maybe they will want a different color.”

Advancing technologies

Given the slow global economy, it’s not surprising that one current trend in mattress fabrics is affordability. Suppliers say mattress makers are buying more 100% polyester fabrics because of cost concerns.

But that doesn’t mean mattress manufacturers are looking only for less expensive tickings. For higher end beds, they are seeking luxury fabrics containing expensive yarns, such as silk and cashmere or trademarked, functional yarns like Outlast, CoolMax and Celliant.

There’s also a growing market for eco–friendly fabrics made with cellulosic fibers such as cotton, linen, rayon, Tencel and bamboo viscose, as well as fabrics made from polyester yarns spun from recycled plastic bottles.

“The entire cellulosic category is increasing because of the comfort factor and people wanting to get away from petroleum products,” says Laura Allred, the design director of Continental Ticking in Alamance, N.C.

In August, Tietex introduced Pure Earth, a collection of 100% unbleached natural cotton woven fabrics printed with vegetable and mineral dyes for the mattress borders and top panel.

“When it comes to yarns, it seems there is something new each week,” says Eric Delaby, vice president of sales and marketing for Deslee Textiles USA, based in Inman, S.C. “We’ve used hemp, kapok, linen, bamboo—all these natural yarns—but now there is ‘milk’ and crab shell, too.”

Introduced in Europe earlier this year, Bekaert recently launched Purotex in the United States, says Brandon Wells, vice president of sales and marketing for Bekaert Textiles USA. The fabric is imbedded with microencapsulated probiotics to fight odors and allergens.

Some fabrics help manufacturers simplify processes or solve problems.

Bekaert offers a Crypton finish—a technology that provides a waterproof barrier and stain protection.

Culp introduced a border fabric quilted to FR material this year, says Mike Cottonaro, senior vice president of sales and marketing. The company also sells a ticking with an “FR adhesive backing” that allows manufacturers to reduce the amount of FR fiber needed.

Supreme Quilting, a supplier of covers, quilts and kits, offers an FR solution in a zippered cover designed to help small and midsized mattress producers hold down FR costs, says Steve Holder, vice president of sales and product development for the Etobicoke, Ontario–based company.

Zippered covers—very popular in Europe—are gaining popularity in North America, especially among Internet sellers of foam and latex beds, Holder says.

“If there is a problem with the bed’s comfort, the customer can literally adjust the bed themselves,” he says. “The manufacturer can ship a new layer of latex and the customer can insert it into the bed—preventing full product returns.”

Spacer fabrics are not new, but have become very trendy on foam beds because of the promise of a cooler night’s sleep, suppliers say. The three–dimensional fabrics with vertical polypropylene fibers come in a range of thicknesses and are used on both borders and top panels.

Also designed for use on foam beds are some new knit collections that have the look and feel of being quilted—without the need to quilt.

Culp’s QuiltFree, introduced a year ago, is a woven border fabric with a simulated quilted design. For the top panel, Culp offers Cumulus, a heavyweight, quilted–look knit that also requires no quilting.

At Innofa USA, the two most popular fabrics are a high–end 100% organic cotton group, and a textured, heavier group that requires no quilting.

“Some of these are so thick they look like a pillow and they work especially well with foam beds,” Stephenson says.

Maxime Knitting just introduced its three–dimensional, quilted–look “blister” products.

“It’s being really well received and has super stretch with elastic yarns,” Romoff says.

Zoned knits are available from companies including Deslee, Innofa and Bodet & Horst. These fabrics have areas of greater elasticity in the hip or shoulder regions and work especially well with zoned foam cores, suppliers say.

Knits versus wovens

Mattresses at promotional and lower price points often are covered with inexpensive printed fabrics, such as warp knits and nonwoven stitchbonds or with polyester and polypropylene–blend jacquards. But knits, too, are finding their way onto lower priced goods, suppliers say. Previously the province of the $999– and–up queen set, knit covers now can be found on beds with suggested retail prices as low as $399 in queen.

Once considered difficult to handle and quilt, the industry has figured out how to work with knits, suppliers say, and knits’ share of the market continues to grow.

“On specialty bedding, where you want more movement and flexibility, knits work especially well over microcoils, air bladders and foams,” Delaby says.

The overwhelming presence of knits is beginning to spark some renewed interest in high–end jacquards in both North America and Europe, suppliers say. But gone are the stiff, scratchy damasks of old. The influence of knits means that jacquards need a soft hand.

“The comeback is partly due to the vanilla nature of knits,” Cottonaro says, “With jacquards, we can be so much more decorative and ornate and the hand is comparable to knits.”

“With wovens, you can achieve a separation of feel from bed to bed—we’re getting back to that. You can soften or firm it and change the hand, whereas knits tend to all have the same cushiony feel when you lie down,” Bond says.

“It’s human nature to want something different,” Allred says. “That’s why we’re beginning to go back to Old World damasks.”

To confuse things further, several major suppliers have introduced high–end jacquards that use elastic yarns and have some of the stretch and look of knits. Conversely, there are knitted fabrics with the look of wovens.

“In the last year or two, we have responded to customer requests by creating knits that have a woven look. Some have stretch—perhaps more in one direction than another—and some are very stable with almost no elasticity so they cut easily and can be used in borders,” Honigsman says.

In the United States, Africa and Asia, traditional wovens remain on the market because of their affordability and Dogan says he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon. But knits win the popularity contest in most other parts of the world.

Collaborating with customers

Ticking suppliers are fond of using the gift–wrap analogy when they talk about their products. But they are quick to say that ticking does more than adorn a bed and draw the eye. A line that has been well–merchandised with mattress fabrics transmits important visual cues to consumers.

“Our customer may tell us they have a six–bed collection starting at $499 and going up to $1,999,” Bond says. “They may say they want a better border starting at $1,299. And that’s our task—to come up with price points and a common theme so that when the beds are all lined up together, they are cohesive yet you get a visual step–up story.”

The covers on specialty beds do more than just look good: “Those dropped borders and cording visually represent on the outside what’s on the inside,” Lava says. “The salesperson can point to the cord and say, ‘From here up is your super–soft memory foam layer and from the microsuede panel down is your firm–support foam,’ etc.”

Merchandising a bed line is a collaborative effort between supplier and manufacturer.

“We get the ball rolling, but it’s very much a give–and–take with our customers—you have to be nimble and agile because it’s all very customized,” Wells says. “And retailers are much more involved in the process, too.”

“You create visible differences. It’s a little bit subjective, but typically the simpler patterns are less expensive,” Stephenson says. “It’s a meeting of minds between customer and designer. They look to us for ideas. Sometimes they may have a specific request, but most are designer–driven. We listen to what they want and interpret it.”

The digitization of production and design has enabled fabric suppliers to easily respond to requests for customization and make quick changes.

“I’ve got a lot of colors in my paint box and the fact that the designs are all electronically controlled means we can do really short runs and do work for small– to medium–size customers. Pattern changes are easy,” Allred says. “As long as we have the components, we can put it on the loom and get product out the door in three to five days.”

“We provide a lot more exclusives than in the past,” Bond says. “What we sell to one customer we rarely offer to another.”

Inside designers’ creative process

Textile designers say they find inspiration everywhere they go and most have a camera in hand to record what they’re seeing. Some textile suppliers also purchase artwork from design studios that their own team then interprets for mattress fabrics.

“I do lots of retail research in all areas—from fashion to even thrift stores,” says Camilla Franklin, vice president of global sourcing and design at Blumenthal Print Works in New Orleans. “I constantly take snaps, assembling them in all different ways. It’s great fun.”

“I find inspiration in nature, fashion, architecture, at trade shows, while shopping. And there are so many trend services, plus, of course, there is the Internet,” says Marian Stephenson, design director at Innofa USA in Eden, N.C. “My favorite online resources are design blogs, especially Design*Sponge (www.designspongeonline.com) and decor8 (http://decor8blog.com).”

Depending on the customer, Franklin says the design process can involve a little or a lot of give–and–take.

“If they’ve got a big design department—some companies have their own interior designers—information and direction flows both ways,” she says. “Other customers want us to lead them and that’s a service we offer. We create coordinated stories with borders and panels for them.”

“We observe social trends, too, and marketing trends,” says Lynn Pappas, product portfolio manager for Bekaert Textiles USA, which has headquarters in Winston–Salem, N.C. “(Trend and marketing guru) Robyn Waters is a good resource. You listen to the visionaries, read shelter magazines, go to design and trend presentations. The ‘Sherwin–Williams 2010 Color Forecast’ presented at Showtime (in High Point, N.C.) was great.”

When apparel manufacturing moved offshore, Montreal–based Maxime Knitting took its “expertise and knowledge of fashion trends and colors and brought it into the bedding business,” says Lorne Romoff, vice president of sales.

Apollonija Spela Honigsman, research and development manager for Bodet & Horst, based in Elterlein, Germany, says her company’s design team monitors numerous sources, including trend books from MoOD (Meet only Original Designs, formerly Decosit Brussels); the Peclers Paris trend agency; the Heimtextil fabric show in Frankfurt, Germany; and Dutch design firm Milou Ket.

“Many of my inspirations are in upholstery fabrics. I’m drawing on my previous experience as an upholstery designer,” says Laura Allred, design director of Continental Ticking, based in Alamance, N.C. “Over time, I focus on the individual customer’s tastes and markets and develop a rapport with that customer so that often, I can intuit and fulfill customer needs before they even verbalize it.”

Debates along the border

Typically, ticking suppliers offer manufacturers two grades of fabric: border and panel.

Today, most single–sided bed sets sold in North America have a less expensive jacquard or sometimes a warp knit on the border panels and a pricier knit or damask on the top panel.

Suppliers say the use of less expensive border fabrics is a cost–saving measure—the result of higher manufacturing costs associated with FR solutions, rising raw materials prices and the popularity of circular knits, which are less stable as border fabric.

Many mattress manufacturers use a common border across entire collections—sometimes across entire brands—which allows them to save even more money by reducing bed bases to just a handful of SKUs.

“It’s a smart move from a manufacturing point of view,” says Ann Weaver, vice president of sales and marketing for Lava Textiles USA, with headquarters in Gastonia, N.C. “You don’t have to worry about the hand with border fabrics, so you can spend less and put more money in the top panel of the bed, which is what the consumer feels.”

However, the use of common border fabrics has lent a certain “sameness” to the retail floor, some fabric suppliers say. They see a countertrend brewing.

“People are definitely beginning to spend a little more money on borders and are jazzing them up,” says Lorne Romoff, vice president of sales at Maxime Knitting in Montreal.

“There is some rethinking going on about borders because a better border fabric with some color or design is the best way to get the consumer over to your bed on the retail floor—it’s the first thing she sees,” says Brandon Wells, vice president of sales and marketing for Bekaert Textiles USA, based in Winston–Salem, N.C.

“Your first frame of reference on the bedding floor is the border,” says Mike Cottonaro, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Culp Inc., which has headquarters in High Point, N.C. “Borders are finally getting the respect they deserve—we’re seeing movement toward better borders.”

Some mattress makers are looking at affordable knits for borders because they want something different, says Marian Stephenson, design director at Innofa USA, based in Eden, N.C. “Knits are a little more difficult to work with because of the stretch, but a contrasting textured knit on the side will create a better match with a knit top panel.”

“We are in the packaging business and the border needs to be finished perfectly. It’s the final touch,” says Eric Delaby, vice president of sales and marketing for Deslee Textiles USA in Inman, S.C. Deslee promotes knit borders for “an upholstery look.”

“A tightly constructed chenille, for instance, creates a very sturdy no–slip border and a great look,” Delaby says.

“Achieving an upholstered look on the border with stretchy knits has been done but requires revamping your manufacturing process,” says Laura Allred, the design director at Continental Ticking, based in Alamance, N.C. Using some of the new upholstery–style woven tickings is a growing trend, she adds.

“The bed as an upholstered item is a trend that started in Europe and Asia, but it’s spreading,” Allred says. “Of course you cover it with a sheet, but you don’t use dust ruffles, so the foundation always stays exposed.”

For moderately priced bedding, Spartanburg, S.C.–based Tietex launched its printed Edge Border Collection about a year ago.

“Printed ticking is nothing new but we are seeing a new trend toward printed borders using small, subtle geometrics like herringbone and diamonds or company logos, words and phrases,” says Wade Wallace, vice president of sales for the woven and nonwoven textile supplier. “The prints can be coordinated to complement the accent colors in the top panel.”

“If you walk though a retail store, you will see that the border is as important as the surface—if anything, it’s more important,” says Camilla Franklin, vice president of global sourcing and design at Blumenthal Print Works, which has headquarters in New Orleans. “Manufacturers need to differentiate among their products, yet I see different brands with the same borders. The border should be part of your

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