Once Upon This Mattress

Gizem Ozcelik

After decades of sleeping pills and quick-fix insomnia solutions, the writer and DEPARTURES contributor takes a closer look at what she’s sleeping on.

I went to Sweden to sleep, perchance to dream, perchance to sleep some more. You might say that I’ve been on the hunt for a good night’s sleep ever since I began suffering from insomnia as a young child and was put on a precocious dose of sleeping pills. In the intervening decades I’ve tried every soporific known to the pharmaceutical industry, from Ambien to Trazodone, all in the hope of lying back on my pillow and dozing off, the better to knit up “the raveled sleave of care.” Leave it to William Shakespeare, who coined that sublimely metaphoric phrase, to understand the importance of sleep not just as a rest stop or interregnum (accounting for about a third of one’s lifetime) between one’s waking hours but as an activity with its own unique healing properties.

Curiously enough, although I’d long invested in sheets with an elevated thread count from Frette and Pratesi and pillows stuffed with 100 percent goose down, I had never focused much on mattresses. I’d figured an adequate mattress from a reliable chain like Sleepy’s—one that didn’t buckle when you sat on it—was all that was required. As it turned out, I was in the dark about what really mattered when it came to bedding until I happened to wander into the Hästens store on Madison Avenue, not far from where I live, in New York City. I had passed the shop, with its tempting blue-checked bed in the window, any number of times, but one day I went inside.

I rapidly got into an intense conversation with a lovely young salesman who suggested that I try out the various beds, with their varying degrees of firmness. I explained that I was a writer who wrote about a mix of subjects, from Woody Allen to depression to facials, and that I suffered from chronic insomnia and would give anything—or nearly anything—to sleep soundly. He must have been listening carefully because one or two weeks later I got an e-mail from a publicist at Hästens inviting me to Sweden to see how the company produced its artisanal (and correspondingly pricey) mattresses. A plane ride later I was in the tiny industrial town of Köping (rhymes with “shopping”), 90 minutes west of Stockholm, about to commission a horsehair-filled, hand-stitched mattress of my very own.

Daphne Merkin and Patricia Morrisroe discuss their insomnia »

The Swedes, perhaps because they live with long stretches of darkness from December to February, have always been sensitive about the benefits of sleep. All the same, in the 1800s, the best beds were made in England, followed by France (two of the top-end bespoke mattresses on the market today, Savoir Beds and Vispring, are made in Britain). The Americans came along and made simpler versions of the English beds, but it took a small Swedish saddle-manufacturing company, founded in 1852, to bring together the best of all worlds in terms of craftsmanship and ingenuity. In 1917 David Janson, a grandfather of Hästens’ current owner, Jan Ryde, together with Janson’s father, began large-scale production of mattresses.

The present-day Hästens (Swedish for horses, a small image of which is the firm’s logo) is housed across from green pastures that the company also owns, in an attractive two-story building designed in the 1940s by the renowned Swedish architect Ralph Erskine. Inside, all is clean and white and well lit, hardly in keeping with my Dickens-inspired idea of what a mattress factory would look like. Photos of smiling staff line the walls.

In short order I met up with Tobias Stolpe, a friendly bearded fellow wearing jeans, black sneakers, and a tattoo on the back of his neck, who has worked at the company since 1996 and is now the production manager. He practically levitated with pride in his product, as did many of the workers I met. “We make the best bed in the world,” Tobias said matter-of-factly. “There are people who save for a Hästens bed—it’s an investment, like a car.” The company, which was appointed Purveyor to the Royal Court in 1952, produces ten different mattress models, including adjustable ones, which run from $3,500 to more than $100,000 for the top-of-the-line Vividus. The creed of the custom-made infuses the entire streamlined operation. There is no stock lying around in anticipation of a sudden demand; the beds are made to order at the rate of 200 per week—and, as I was to discover, many of the steps are done by hand.

What I was most struck by was the atmosphere of engagement—a kind of perceptible quiet satisfaction—that suffused the factory. The staff, comprising 80 or so men and women, swells to about 130 in the peak fall season; it is mostly young (the average age is 37), and many of the men wore Hästens T-shirts. People moved from area to area on tractors, listening to music on headphones or on radios, and the overall pace seemed remarkably relaxed without losing a beat in efficiency. The workers are trained in-house, at what Tobias referred to as “our own Hästens academy,” and some of them come from families that have been employed by Hästens for generations. The factory runs from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; employees get three breaks per day and stay an average of 12 years. When I asked David, who comes from a town near Köping and had been working at the company for 13 years, since he was 20, if he intends to stay on forever, he answered good-humoredly, “Hopefully not.”

Hästens emphasizes the importance of natural materials such as horsehair, which wicks away moisture, in addition to wool, cotton, and flax, because the drier and cooler you are, the deeper your sleep. And, as those who’ve studied the subject know, the number of hours you sleep matters less than the amount of deep sleep and REM sleep (also known as dream sleep) you get. Similarly, my assumption that the firmer the mattress the better turns out not to be valid; a mattress should be flexible enough to adapt to one’s body, maintaining overall support while keeping one’s spine straight. I also learned that when it comes to sheets and thread count, it’s the length of the cotton fiber and the weaving technique that make the difference, rather than the number of threads.

The Hästens Continental models are composed of three layers: the core, which is a thick-spring base; the mattress itself; and a slimmer, pallet-like top mattress, which is meant to be changed every five to seven years. All Hästens beds contain at least two different types of patented steel-spring systems—the flexible pocket springs sit atop the firmer Bonell spiral springs, which provide deeper support. The stuffing is layers of allergen-free horsehair, cotton (treated with a salt-based fire retardant rather than toxic chemicals), and wool, differentiating Hästens mattresses from most others, which usually rely on some form of foam filling.

The newer part of the factory, built in 1997, is all windows, and it is here that the mattresses, after being checked for quality, are sewn together with one of the four German-made sewing machines that date back to the 1940s and have since been computerized. The surface of each mattress is stitched with a chain-like pattern that ensures an ideal firmness, while the sides are hand-stitched in a process that takes four men at least four hours per bed.

The pièce de résistance, or so-called Rolls-Royce of the Hästens line of products—from down quilts, pillows, leather headboards, and bed linens to pajamas, bathrobes, alpaca throw rugs, and down-filled socks—is, as mentioned earlier, the Vividus. It is referred to in awed tones within the company, as if it were a sacred object. I met with Jan-Erik Leander, a master craftsman who’s been with Hästens for more than 25 years and who was involved in developing the Vividus, which was originally built only for display purposes to show what was possible in terms of workmanship.

Two or three Vividus beds are made every week by a team of six people, adding up to 140 to 160 man-hours per bed, and the beds are favored by American, British, and Asian customers. Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise are among the celebrities rumored to own them. The materials are substantially the same as those used on the other mattresses, except for being of slightly higher quality. The frames are constructed using dovetail joints, without screws or nails. There is a unique spring system, with each spring positioned in the mattress by hand; flax is placed between the springs to ensure a completely silent bed.

For more on the quest for deep sleep, read our story, Confessions of Insomniacs »

I watched as a Vividus was finished off with a headboard in light-gray check. The bed had been built to individual specifications, which in this instance meant that the mattress was slightly smaller than queen-size and had a split bottom (meaning it comes in two pieces, making it easier to move in and out of doorways). The mattress was fitted with a nameplate identifying the bed as “exclusively made for” the lucky Turkish couple to whom it would be shipped.

At the end of two days in the Hästens factory I came away with a renewed appreciation for quality. Although the word artisanal is lobbed around endlessly, applied to everything from soap to chocolates, the truth is that it is difficult to get a handle on what the concept really means in a world filled with merchandising hype. The people at Hästens, with their single-minded commitment to making the best bed possible, no matter how arduous or time-consuming the labor, reminded me that excellence is, in many ways, an old-fashioned virtue best achieved when pursued as its own reward—not as a catchy sales ploy for an upscale market. That said, Hästens is so convinced of the allure of its mattresses that it has expanded its market from its original Nordic base to more than 100 stores across the globe. These stores offer the opportunity to try out a range of models, so you can stretch out, close your eyes, and dream of the perfect sleeping experience.

Addendum: I’ve been sleeping on a Hästens mattress for the past six months and can duly report that the bed feels close to divine, with a degree of firmness but also somehow a degree of give that I’ve never experienced before. I sleep through the night more often, although I must admit that I haven’t entirely given up on my sleeping medication. And I am most struck by how good my mattress is on the nights I happen to be sleeping elsewhere, when my back suddenly starts aching.

Hästens handcrafts ten mattress models, from $3,500, and has stores in eight states, including California, New York, and Texas; hastens.com.