What’s the Big Deal With Cotton in a Bed?
Cotton is a regular ingredient in many all natural or luxury mattress lines. I feel it is the most important fiber to look at first. Largely because all other fibers compare themselves against cotton, and it will help things to flow better throughout the rest of my future articles if we start with the fabric baseline. Cotton is the first fiber we will look at comprised of the macromolecule, cellulose. Now, bare with me for a moment, because we’re about to get technical (don’t worry, I’ll translate). The cellulose in cotton differs greatly from that of rayon (which we’ll get to next) or wood pulp, in that it has higher degrees of polymerization and crystallinity. Polymerization is determined by how many repeating units are in the fiber, and a “unit” is a combination of elements (in cotton that unit is anhydro-beta-cellulose). Crystallinity then refers to how closely those molecules are packed and to their parallelism (5). The translated version- cotton is one of the strongest fibers used in the textile industry.
Due to cotton’s high levels of crystallinity, and because the molecules in cotton are bonded together using hydrogen, water is not allowed to pass into cotton’s molecules. This means that cotton doesn’t lose any of its natural strength when saturated, in fact, cottons strength nearly doubles when wet, according to most sources I’ve investigated. When molecules in other fibers become saturated, the overall strength of the fiber is compromised which allows for warping, stretching, and tearing, meaning that other fibers become weaker when wet. I feel it is also important to mention that many synthetic fibers, such as polyester, are hydrophobic and their strength is generally unaffected by moisture (5).
When cotton exists in it’s raw form, nature protects it under layers of oils and wax making it waterproof and thereby preventing the formation of molds and rot. Cotton, therefore must be processed to strip off these protective layers to give it the absorbent properties it is known for. Once processed, cotton can absorb over 24 times its own weight in water (11)! This makes cotton excellent at pulling moisture and perspiration away from the body allowing for better temperature regulation for the user. This absorbency does vary based on the variety of thread and on the knit or weave pattern it is manufactured into, but this variation is slight.
Human kind and cotton have a long-standing history, the length of which is still not entirely clear to historians today. The earliest records I could find were of cotton balls found in Mexican caves which dated back to about 7,000 years ago. The first historical records of cotton fabrics originate from Pakistan and from Egypt at about 3,000 BC. It was an American machinist named Noah Homes who first patented the cotton gin (short for engine) in 1793 which revolutionized the cotton industry. Today, cotton is the most heavily utilized fiber in the world, and is a leading American cash crop lending to over $5.3 billion worth of supplies and services on the farm level alone. It is therefore notable that humans have a natural affinity towards the fiber and that cultures around the world have recognized its value, but what does all this mean for the mattress buyer/seller?
For starters, cotton is a renewable resource that is 100% biodegradable and hypoallergenic and every single piece of the plant is utilized, leading to a zero waste product (5, 8). The “lint” is the white cotton ball on the top of the plant which is used for cloth. The stock is plowed into the field and used as an enriching fertilizer. The “linters,” or the short hairs on the cotton seeds, are used for extracting cellulose which is used in the manufacturing of rayon, certain plastics, explosives, high quality paper products, and even processed into “batting” which we find in some of our mattresses. The cotton seeds are crushed and separated into cottonseed oil, cotton meal, and cotton hulls. The oil is used for cooking and baking, and the meal and hull is generally used in animal feed or fertilizer.
We covered why cotton is strong, but we didn’t talk about why that matters. After all, the cotton in all the beds I work with is buried way down in there, it’s not like we’re going to be rolling around on the fiber itself so that it can soak up all our sweat. So to put cotton into perspective, let’s take a look at foams. According to our sales manager and to a whole lot of overly technical data I could barely wrap my understanding around, standard Poly foam has about a 50% degradation rate over the course of ten years regardless of how it is used. Foam is filled with gas pockets that slowly leak out as they become contaminated with oxygen (11). Without the gas to hold the foam’s shape, it begins to “deflate” in a sense and becomes yellowed and diminished. Cotton doesn’t suffer from this same affliction, and since the cotton in our mattresses is generally compressed and compacted down into a thick matt and then tufted into place, we don’t have to worry about the cotton “flattening out” on us. Your average polyurethane foam mattress promises a life span of anywhere from 8 to 10 years, whereas an all cotton and natural fiber mattress, such as the ones from the company “Custom Comfort Mattress” boasts their mattresses living 15+ years. In short, you are removing a layer that is guaranteed to last no more than 8 – 15 years (depending on foam quality) and putting in a comfort layer that will last 15 plus years.
In sum, cotton is 100% biodegradable, renewable, a zero-waste product, and is naturally hypoallergenic. It’s one of the strongest working textiles with one of the longest life spans. It is highly absorbent and becomes stronger when saturated. It’s a leading cash crop that is generating billions of dollars of internal revenue and jobs within the United States (which is in the top three largest cotton producing countries). It only seems logical that cotton should be included in any product one hopes to keep around for a prolonged length of time.