BY JULIE A. PALM
More mattress makers select tailor-made covers to adorn today’s beds
Once a sleepy segment of the mattress industry, the cut-and-sew business today is fiercely competitive, with long-time players expanding their capabilities to produce sewn mattress covers and fabric suppliers moving in to offer their customers the value-added service. Companies are reporting double-digit growth in sewn cover sales and project continued strong performance in the near term.
Sewn covers, also called zippered covers, are made primarily for foam mattresses. Several factors are spurring growth in the business, most notably the baby boom of new e-commerce bedding companies, who often serve primarily as marketing and sales companies, relying on supplier partners to construct and even ship their foam mattresses to consumers.
“E-commerce is driving the majority of growth,” says Dennis St. Louis, president of Gastonia, North Carolina-based Creative Ticking, a division of Beverly Knits. “If you’re a millennial, you don’t want to go to a store to buy a bed—or much of anything else. My son is a millennial who lives in Atlanta. He buys his clothes online and if he buys a mattress, he buys it online and puts it on a European-style slat bed. These e-commerce startups come from diverse backgrounds and their model is 100% outsourcing of manufacturing.”
Industry analysts put the number of e-commerce mattress companies between 70 and 100, with more entering the field every month.
But the popularity of foam and hybrid bedding overall also is driving interest in sewn covers, as traditional bedding producers rely on cut-and-sew specialists to make covers for their specialty lines, both those sold online and those sold on the floors of brick-and-mortar retailers.
In addition, growth in sewn covers is part of an overall trend throughout the mattress industry of companies turning to suppliers for services, as well as machinery and components—a shift that began accelerating a decade ago when manufacturers sought help from suppliers and consultants to create mattress sets that would meet the federal open-flame mattress standard (16 CFR Part 1633) when it went into effect in 2007.
Producing sewn covers is tricky. Even companies that specialize in them describe the manufacturing process as precise, technical and time consuming as they strive to create exact-fitting covers for squishy, shape-shifting foam constructions. What’s more, many of those finished foam mattresses now are compressed, rolled, packed and shipped to consumers’ homes, where they expect to unpack the box and sleep on a perfect-looking mattress. Complicated constructions with a variety of trims and embellishments can take a few hours to produce; even with automation, manufacturing sewn covers can take 20 minutes apiece.
“A zippered cover is a lot more detailed to produce than a regular piece of fabric,” says Lorne Romoff, vice president of sales and marketing for Montreal-based Maxime Knitting, which produces covers through its TM Couture division. “It’s the cutting, trimming, sewing, labeling.” Even using automation, “it’s extremely detailed work and you have to be extremely careful to produce an exact cover,” he adds.
To ensure that sewn covers coming out of Jomel Seams Reasonable LLC fit well, Lila Walker asks her customers to provide sample mattress cores for exact measurements. “It’s a fallacy that every core is the same. If the top is latex or the middle has gel foam, the way it squeezes, especially on the corners, changes. I ask for a clean core from every customer. It costs them a little money, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it to know their covers will fit perfectly,” says Walker, a principal in the company, which has headquarters in Hillside, New Jersey.
BedTimes talked to a number of sewn cover providers about their capabilities and trends in the category.
Capacity and creativity are king
Adam Lava describes his company’s mission this way: “We don’t make beds, we make beds look good”—and sewn mattress covers are a big part of that effort. Chicago-based A. Lava & Son supplies a variety of mattress components, as well as contract quilting and sewing. It started producing sewn covers in 2004 for large national brands seeking covers for specialty bedding. A. Lava & Son continues to serve that segment and also manufactures covers for e-commerce players. In many ways, today’s sewn covers are an extension of the “mattress kits” and quilting services that many factory-direct manufacturers used to rely on his company for in the 1980s and 1990s, Lava says.
Operational efficiencies—thanks to machinery and expertise—allow A. Lava & Son to design and produce attractive, functional custom covers while bringing them to market quickly, says Lava, owner and vice president of the company. That’s vital to success in this category.
“Everything we do is custom design. Very few people buy a stock cover because everyone wants their own look. So you’re making a custom product, but one that’s made in bulk,” he says. “We have to be able to turn our designs around quickly.” While custom upholstery, like a sofa, might be promised to a customer six to eight weeks after the order is placed, complicated sewn covers need to be turned around in a time frame more akin to six to eight days to meet the just-in-time needs of mattress manufacturers and retailers, Lava says.
Capacity is key to doing that. “We have the largest capacity of cut and sew in the industry and understand the process better than anyone because we’ve been a distributor of raw materials for 100 years,” he says. “We’ve upgraded our equipment, adding automated cutting and other systems. We’re not using traditional mattress manufacturing techniques. We’re borrowing from apparel for high-volume production.”
In 2012, A. Lava & Son expanded its cut-and-sew capabilities further, entering into a joint venture with High Point, North Carolina-based Culp Inc. Called Culp-Lava Applied Sewn Solutions, or CLASS, it leverages A. Lava & Son’s experience in cut and sew and Culp’s fabric portfolio and expertise. (More on Culp and CLASS on page 36.)
A. Lava & Son offers both quilted and smooth-top covers, as well as hybrids, for instance a smooth panel with quilted border, as well as other treatments such as embroidery and heat transfer. “The only limit is your imagination,” Lava says. The company also touts its experience with FR solutions to create covers that help mattress manufacturers meet federal flammability standards. “We are experts on finding cover solutions that meet FR requirements and have many ways to approach it,” Lava says. “It’s not easy for everyone to do.”
Early leader grows as category evolves
Supreme Quilting was one of the early entrants into the sewn cover category, jumping in about 20 years ago and building its business initially by serving “mom-and-pop” mattress manufacturers that didn’t want to invest in the equipment or staffing needed to produce their own covers for specialty bedding, says Steven Finkelstein, owner and president of the company, which has headquarters in North York, Ontario, outside Toronto. The company already was producing rolls of quilted material, and surging and cutting quilted mattress panels: Producing sewn covers was a natural extension of its offerings.
When the federal open-flame mattress standard took effect in 2007, Supreme Quilting’s sewn cover business got a positive bump as more mattress producers turned to industry suppliers and consultants to help them design, prototype and even test beds. Producing sewn covers that stand up to open-flame testing and maintaining the detailed records and quality assurance procedures that mattress manufacturers require of suppliers remains one of the challenges of manufacturing covers, Finkelstein says.
Supreme Quilting manufactures both quilt-top and smooth-top covers, but with its years of quilting expertise, its main emphasis is on quilted covers—in contrast to many of its current competitors who focus on smooth-top versions. Like other cut-and-sew specialists who aren’t part of ticking suppliers, the company sources fabrics from a variety of companies.
“We mainly do quilted product. That’s what we’re really good at. We try to make a nice, quality mattress cover,” says Finkelstein, adding that he’s particularly proud to have a return rate of less than 0.5% on his company’s covers. “The No. 1 thing with us is quality control. Every cover is carefully monitored throughout production and inspected.”
Many of the mattress producers coming to Supreme Quilting today are looking for mattress covers to fit specialized bedding, including custom mattresses and the split-queen and split-king mattresses used with adjustable bed bases. Other customers are seeking organic covers or those with a “natural story,” Finkelstein says.
Although they remain part of its customer base, Supreme Quilting serves fewer mom-and-pop manufacturers than it did early on, in part because there are simply fewer of them in the industry. Its other customers include large traditional mattress manufacturers, many of whom sell to big boxes, and e-commerce players.
“We don’t want to be involved in producing a commodity, and we want to be of service to our clients,” Finkelstein says. “I’m really working hand in hand with a client and helping them develop an entire cover program.”
A source for covers—and ideas
Although it counts e-commerce companies among its customers, Ideal Quilting’s core client base is traditional mattress majors and specialty bedding players that manufacture lines for brick-and-mortar retailers, says Nick Rossini, owner of the company, which has headquarters in North York, Ontario, outside Toronto.
“A lot of people making traditional mattresses don’t want to bother with cut-and-sew operations and coming up with the design ideas on their own,” Rossini says. “Many of them are happy to outsource that by working with companies like ours that give them some new ideas and help them develop great-looking covers. That’s one of our strengths.”
Ideal got its start as a contract quilter for top-of-bed, table linens and other products. The evolution to sewn covers for mattresses was a slow one that began to pick up speed about five years ago. “Our equipment wasn’t even for the mattress industry originally, but we’ve slowly upgraded the facility, and began quilting rolls and then panels and now covers,” Rossini says. Today, Ideal has a workforce of about 65 in cut and sew, with sewn covers accounting for about 95% of its bedding business. “It’s our main focus right now,” he adds.
The company sources textiles from several major ticking suppliers. It quilts about a quarter of its sewn covers; the remainder are smooth-top versions, often incorporating performance fabrics. A challenge for all sewn cover producers, they agree, is creating covers that will allow mattress brands to differentiate themselves. For one customer, Ideal proposed using orange with black accents on the border.
“It looks amazing,” Rossini says. “That’s one thing we try to do—have great ideas and stay ahead of the curve. To succeed in this business, you can’t offer a commodity. You have to offer design and innovation. I believe that’s our strength.” To help with that, Ideal relies on industry veteran Paul Sharon, who is vice president of international and North American sales and product development. In his role, Sharon leads Ideal’s design and product innovation efforts.
“The future look of the mattress continues to evolve, with a blend of industrial and contemporary schemes and very clean lines,” Sharon says. “We continue to forge ahead in design aspects that are traditional, but not necessarily typical to the mattress industry.”
Embellishments and special fabrics make sewn covers more visually interesting and functional but also more complex to produce. Regular communication with customers about lead times and other manufacturing considerations keeps relationships with mattress makers solid, Rossini says.
“These are really complicated products and an elaborate process,” Rossini says. “But they are also really fun. I love what we do.”
Putting fashion forward
A primary reason mattress makers rely on partners to create sewn covers is they want to reduce equipment, staffing and training costs, but a key advantage they gain is design expertise, says Walker.
“Using us for their sewn covers simplifies their manufacturing process and, in my opinion, gives them a more attractive and fashion-forward look,” she says. “It also gives companies more flexibility to change their designs because that’s our expertise—kind of like an updated design on a new car every year.”
Jomel Seams Reasonable is a division of Jomel Industries, a supplier of mattress components. Jomel purchased Seams Reasonable, a maker of point-of-purchase items and sewn covers, in 2012 and changed the company’s name to bring it in line with the parent entity. Jomel Seams Reasonable’s cover business has quadrupled in the past four years, Walker says, and she expects it to grow 15% to 20% in the coming year.
The company offers both quilted and smooth-top covers, producing the former at is headquarters plant in Burkesville, Kentucky, and the latter at its facility in Trinity, North Carolina. “Quilted zippered covers look more like a traditional mattress and usually have a more conservative feel,” Walker says. “Smooth-top covers tend to be more fashion-oriented, and you can get more creative with angles and fabric configurations because the knit material is easier to work with.”
Walker is not alone in acknowledging that a lot of mattress manufacturers come to her asking for a cover that “looks like” one of the major e-commerce players, “but different.” The primary designer for her company, Walker likes the challenge. She works with a variety of ticking suppliers to create distinct looks for mattress makers, often adding details like “blister” fabrics on borders or leather piping.
Jomel Seams Reasonable also produces foot protectors, bolsters and other POP, and Walker likes to take advantage of that capability to offer mattress makers a package designed to coordinate with a sewn cover. For instance, the leather piping on the sewn cover might be repeated on the window frame of a foot protector. “We offer the whole package,” she says. “A lot of people offer POP and a lot do covers but there aren’t a lot that do both.”
Fabric supplier finds new role
As we noted, several ticking suppliers have jumped into the cut-and-sew business as demand for sewn mattress covers has grown.
High Point, North Carolina-based Culp Inc. got into the category in 2012 with the creation of Culp-Lava Applied Sewn Solutions, the joint venture between Culp and A. Lava & Son. Through the partnership, covers are produced at “mirrored” facilities in Stokesdale, North Carolina, and A. Lava & Son’s plant in Chicago, says Jeffrey Veach, CLASS business unit manager.
As a practical matter, adding cut-and-sew capabilities helps mattress fabric suppliers maintain or, hopefully, increase their market share. Although cut-and-sew operations run by fabric suppliers do source ticking from other companies, the majority of fabrics used in their sewn covers are drawn from their own catalogs.
“We saw it as a way to provide a value-added service for our customers,” Veach says, “and a big driver was the ability for us to utilize our fabric resources to offer more fashionable designs, from fabric to finished cover.”
The CLASS partnership gave Culp another immediate benefit—“the largest capacity in the industry” and the ability to produce covers in either Stokesdale or Chicago, Veach says. “It’s a great partnership that gives us a flexible platform for production,” he says. “It also provides risk mitigation for customers because we have the redundant locations to allow us to handle unforeseen demand and speed products to market. The dual location is what separates us from competitors.”
CLASS produces covers primarily for foam mattresses, but also for hybrid beds. It offers covers for foundations, pillows and toppers, too. “There’s a lot of opportunity for growth in the hybrid world,” Veach says. Most CLASS customers favor “minimalist, clean looks” and the company’s designers often add visual and tactile interest by incorporating soft, textured knits that provide “more of a furniture look,” he adds.
“All our covers are custom-designed, unique programs for each customer,” Veach says. “We pride ourselves on working with customers, particularly those who may not have ever designed a cover, building on their ideas to create the cover they envision.”
Partnership provides creative spark
“Throughout the mattress industry, we’re seeing a trend of companies partnering and combining forces,” says Will Creekmuir, director of sales and marketing for Progressive Products Inc., which has headquarters in Riverside, California, and manufacturing in Tijuana, Mexico. “Manufacturers are looking for suppliers who can provide a complete aesthetic package—fabric as well as cut-and-sew services. It simplifies their supply chain when we can provide solutions from ideation to product design to production.” BekaertDeslee purchased PPI in 2012 to give the Waregem, Belgium-based textile supplier cut-and-sew capabilities in North America.
Tapping into BekaertDeslee’s fabric expertise, PPI designers are well-suited to help mattress companies design covers using textiles and constructions that maximize the benefits of their mattresses, Creekmuir says.
“In the bedding market and especially in specialty bedding, the emphasis on foam technologies, such as temperature regulation and pressure relief, has become extremely important” Creekmuir says. “A smooth-top zippered cover is best to deliver those benefits, but you can’t use just any fabric. That foam really needs to be paired with the right fabric. We help our customers with that.” PPI customers benefit from BekaertDeslee’s large catalog of technical fabrics that offer anti-microbial properties, moisture resistance, temperature regulation and a host of other benefits, he says.
New e-commerce players who may have less experience in the mattress industry benefit from PPI’s fabric and design expertise, but so do traditional bedding manufacturers, Creekmuir says. And, of course, all mattress companies want products that look good and stand out.
In terms of aesthetics, “the trend is toward simple, clean lines—modern and contemporary,” says Megan Adams, PPI soft goods designer. Clean white panels often are accented by pops of bright color in accents or trim. Grays and blues are popular in borders, which often have an upholstery look or more technological feel.
PPI’s focus is on the U.S. market but as part of a global company, it has broader capabilities, including BekaertDeslee’s cut-and-sew facility in Slatina, Romania.
“As our customers grow and look to expand into other markets, we can help them, not only from a fabric standpoint but also with cut and sew,” Creekmuir says. “We can provide easily the exact same covers in different parts of the world.”
Vertical integration is a selling point
Maxime Knitting has seen extraordinary growth since it started producing sewn mattress covers just two years ago in a division it calls TM Couture, Romoff says.
“We’ve been growing extremely rapidly,” he says. “We’ve built from the ground up and in 24 months, we have about 100 sewers in-house.”
Requests from existing customers, many of whom were looking to streamline their own sourcing and production processes, prompted Maxime Knitting to start producing covers. “It’s much easier for our customers to follow up with one supplier rather than follow up with the fabric supplier and then the cut-and-sew guy and then maybe the laminator,” Romoff says. “Everyone is becoming more price conscious and having everything under one roof is simpler and more cost effective.”
Maxime Knitting touts its vertical integration: The company does its own knitting, finishing, laminating (through its Keltex division), and cutting and sewing. It sources ticking from other suppliers as needed but the majority of its covers are made with Maxime fabrics, Romoff says.
Like many other cut-and-sew specialists, the No. 1 driver of business for Maxime Knitting’s TM Couture division is the rise of e-commerce mattress sales. “In e-commerce, they tend to want a direct fixed cost. They want to know: ‘This will cost me $1 and I can sell it for $2.’ Many are computer and marketing geniuses. In working with us, they are looking for our support and our expertise to engineer the most appealing product,” Romoff says. And because so many e-commerce companies offer only one mattress model, they need a unique cover that will help define their brand.
Designing and producing covers for beds sold online presents specific challenges. “We’ve been encouraging customers for years to go with a knit border and that’s becoming more common with roll-packed mattress,” Romoff says. “When a consumer unpacks the mattress, the knit border will come back quickly to its original smooth form. A woven border coming out of the box is like a shirt, wrinkled. A knit panel and knit border go nicely together.”
Solving such problems is a part of the sewn cover business that Romoff relishes. “The challenges are a game for us,” he says. “It’s what keeps things interesting. If you stay put in this industry, you’re going to go out of business.”
‘E-covers’ for e-commerce (and others)
Innofa USA has significantly broadened its business in the past three years, thanks to one customer asking if the long-time supplier of high-end knit mattress fabrics could produce sewn covers.
The company made a minor investment in necessary equipment that quickly turned into a major commitment to the category, says Johan Cleyman, managing director of Innofa USA, based in Eden, North Carolina. It is part of Innofa BV, with global headquarters in Tilburg, Netherlands.
“We’re now running three shifts, five or six days a week, and we’re still investing in super-modern equipment,” Cleyman says. The company’s cover business is “up 20 times this year over last” and Cleyman expects it to double in the coming year. Sewn covers for North American customers can be produced at Innofa’s North Carolina plant, a particular draw for mattress makers who want to keep production in the United States, or at Innofa’s facility in Puebla, Mexico, where costs are lower. Both plants can handle high-volume jobs.
Innofa specializes in “engineered covers” or what Cleyman calls “e-covers.” Instead of cutting a separate panel and border and sewing them together, the company knits them as a single unit. Machines knit covers in three sizes (twin/twin XL, full/queen and king/California king) that, during finishing, are transformed to fit cores in six sizes (twin, twin XL, full, queen, king and California king). “We’ve fine-tuned the patented applied e-covers process so that the finished sizes are always correct,” Cleyman says.
Engineered covers have several benefits for Innofa’s customers, which are primarily e-commerce players. Most importantly, they reduce the amount of sewing. “Labor in the U.S. is expensive. Instead of having to seam 7 ½ yards of border to the panel, we sew the four corners and the zipper and we’re done,” Cleyman says. Other nifty features of the method: Logos can be easily knitted into the cover and the all-knit construction eliminates wrinkles that can develop in woven fabrics during roll packing and shipping.
Innofa continues to invest in new equipment, Cleyman says, including a machine that reads marks specifically knit into the fabric and uses them as a cutting guide to create “perfect” engineered covers. Innofa’s interest in automation is a response to a problem several cut-and-sew specialists mentioned in interviews with BedTimes: a shortage of skilled labor.
“If you have aggressive growth like we have, finding skilled labor is the biggest challenge in producing covers,” Cleyman says. “We have to invest dramatically in automation.”
Support from a ‘one-stop shop’
When Creative Ticking first considered getting into the cut-and-sew business, many of the e-commerce mattress companies now driving the segment were in their infancies. But the Gastonia, North Carolina-based company was committed to providing value-added services for new players, as well as its existing mattress fabric customers, St. Louis says.
“At the time, much of cut and sew was being done by cut-and-sew people,” St. Louis says. “One of the advantages is that we can bring innovation and make the fabric, do the finishing and do the cut and sew, helping our customers logistically and saving them money by giving them a one-stop shop.”
The company went all in from the start. “We didn’t build it in segments. We built it to be a high-capacity, state-of-the-art facility from the start,” St. Louis says. The operation opened about 3 ½ years ago. Major capital investments include large-width knitting machines and large-width cutting tables that allow the company to produce engineered covers—the covers that look like a separate panel and border but are a single piece, St. Louis says. Creative Ticking recently installed embroidery capacity, which St. Louis says, gives a higher end look.
“Machine-wise, we can do anything our customers need,” St. Louis says. The company also has added management, including George Jimerson, who has both a mattress design and production background, as director of manufacturing.
With many customers interested in mattress covers made with performance fabrics, Beverly Knit’s experience producing material for demanding customers like Nike, Patagonia and Under Armour is a particular selling point, St. Louis says. Among the Creative Ticking solutions available to sewn cover customers is its patented TioTec fabric, which offers the feel of a high-quality knit but also acts as the FR barrier, eliminating the need for an FR sock on foam mattresses or nonwoven FR barriers, St. Louis says. “Many of our solutions offer inherent FR protection,” he says. “It allows mattress customers to eliminate SKUs, reduce complexity and save money on production.”
And because many sewn covers are intended to be zipped off and washed by the consumer, Creative Ticking offers a water-repellant, stain-resistant FR fabric that acts as an inner liner but looks like a well-designed fabric. “When the customer zips off the cover, she’s not seeing an FR sock or a yellowed foam core. She can still feel good about the bed when the cover is in the wash,” St. Louis says. “We can do it in whatever color customers want.”
Sewn cover constructions
The construction of sewn mattress covers is evolving almost as rapidly as their sales are growing. Typically, they come in smooth-top or quilted-top versions. Knit smooth-top covers create that “specialty-sleep look” made popular by early entrants into the all-foam category like Tempur-Pedic; quilted tops provide a more traditional mattress design. Both types can be embellished with trims, tapes and other accents.
Cover specialists most often create a single, precise-fitting unit that contains a top panel, border and bottom piece. Mattress makers then close the cover onto their cores using zippers recessed with fabric on the bottom or disguised by tape-edge around the perimeter—hence an alternative name, zippered covers. Perimeter zippers have an added benefit of allowing consumers to more easily remove the cover, either to wash it or to insert new comfort layers on top of the mattress core. Perimeter zippers, either near the top or the middle of the border, also are preferred by companies that make two-sided mattresses.
A cap version of a sewn cover typically has a quilted top panel and contrasting or complementary border fabric. The mattress manufacturer later adds a bottom tape-edge at its own plant, allowing it to use the cap on mattresses of various heights.
Advantages of outsourcing cut and sew covers
For mattress companies—whether traditional manufacturers or e-commerce marketers—there can be a number of advantages to using outside cut-and-sew operations:
- Reduced need for equipment, staffing and training
- Additional expertise in design and construction methods
- More efficient sourcing and use of materials
- Decreased need for fabric inventory management
- Access to latest manufacturing methods and equipment
- Design trends in sewn mattress covers largely echo those seen across the bedding industry today.
- Clean, simple, contemporary styling
- Bold geometrics, especially waves and blocky patterns
- White or cream top panels offset by borders in black, gray or blue
- Pops of bright colors, often borrowing hues from a mattress company’s logo and branding
- Technical and performance fabrics that improve airflow in and out of the mattress or offer temperature regulation, water repellency, stain resistance, washability and other useful properties
- Added visual interest from custom tape-edges, trims, piping, embroidery and other embellishments
To find more cut-and-sew specialists, check the BedTimes Supplies Guide online or in print every year in the December issue.