Japanese are known for their minimalism and love for nature. It is common to find natural elements incorporated into their day to day activities. One such activity is sleeping. Yes, authentic Japanese sleeping experience involves a futon (a thin mattress made of pure, organic cotton), laid on a tatami mat (made of straw, and is about an inch thick) on a tatami (straw/reed) floor.
Traditionally, these thin mattresses were made by futon masters, whose expertise in the field came from generations of knowledge being passed down to them. As such, these trade secrets are still highly regarded and protected to this day and age. Traditional futons are handmade, comfortable and pricey, but worth every penny.
The Japanese sleeping culture has been termed as relaxing and is mainly done on the floor – no raised platform beds. If you want to experience true Japanese sleeping culture, you can try out Japanese Ryokan and learn about Japanese life. The traditional futons used are fluffy and thin (about 10 cm thick), rectangular in shape and filled with cotton. They are so different from the western version of futons which mainly refer to a sofa that can be converted to a bed.
The Japanese sleeping area features the futon (cotton slim mattress) placed on a straw mat (tatami mat) and a feather filled duvet and pillows. The best thing about this tradition Japanese bed is that it can be stored during the day and laid out again at night. The futon can be folded and stored, so can the duvet and the mat as well. While the futon is primarily made for one person, there are diverse sizes that can accommodate more than one person, which encourages co-sleeping. There are endless cosleeping benefits which is why this culture is picking up pace.
Tatami mats are primarily made of straw or reeds, which makes them firm and airy. The mat adds cushioning while keeping the futon off the floor. It is also pretty common to find that a lot of traditional Japanese households feature floors and furniture made of reeds just like the tatami mat. Today, however, there are different variations of the mat, with some manufacturers using foam or rubber.
There are a lot of misconceptions that fly around whenever one wants to differentiate between authentic handmade futons from all the other variations that are in the market today. Therefore, here are a few pointers to keep you alert when looking for an authentic futon.
• Authentic handmade Japanese futons are made of pure cotton. This means that the cover, as well as the filling, are all made of pure cotton. While most futons are white in colour, there can be other handmade floor mattresses whose cover is patterned or flowered.
• When the futon is fresh from the craftsman’s hand, it is fluffy, soft and has a thickness of about 10 cm. After a week or so, the thick soft padding thins and becomes stiffer, even more so with time. Within two to three months, the filling is now more constricted which makes the futon about half as thick as when it was new. Here is a pro-tip; when buying a futon, go for the moderately stiff, higher quality filling option.
• The finishing of an authentic Japanese futon is done by hand. Look at the futon’s sides – they should be done by hand. There are some who sell futons that are machine-sewn on three sides and hand-stitched on the last side. This kind of futon can still be referred to as handmade. The unique style of finishing is called a looser stitch, and it cannot be made by machine. If you want an authentically Japanese futon, look out for the looser stitch.
• Authentic handmade Japanese futons feature pure silk thread tufts which are placed at the corners of the futon. These 24 thread tufts are placed at the corners to prevent the cotton padding from sliding out. This is because the padding is filled all the way up to the corners by the skilled craftsmen, hence the need to bundle together the tufts to secure the padding.
• The handmade Japanese futon also features binding threads made of pure silk. These binding threads are attached so as to keep the padding from shifting until the futon settles. In traditional futons, these binding threads fall off eventually.
Most authentic Japanese futons have extra padding at the centre of the futon. The cotton stuffing keeps the futon sturdy and prevents it from falling flat. This extra padding gives the futon a thick, kamaboko shape, which cannot be achieved by a machine.
• The first step is creating a base using a pure cotton cover laid down on a flat surface. Once the craftsman is satisfied with the surface, he places layers of cotton on the cover. Layers upon layers of cotton are placed, with the craftsman taking great care to ensure that there is even thickness.
• Once satisfied that the futon is of the appropriate thickness, the craftsman then adds a little extra padding at the centre and places the top cover. This is done after he ensures that the padding is evenly laid to create a smooth shape, taking into consideration the comfort required for a great night’s sleep.
• The cover is then reversed when holding everything together so that the cotton padding doesn’t slide out of place. The padded futon forms a beautiful plump shape that looks a lot like a fish cake (kamaboko).
• The craftsman then sews the open sides to close up the futon. This process requires great skill as you should work against the cotton padding’s resistance. Additionally, the craftsman adds binding threads at specific places so as to hold the padding in place. Once the sewing is complete, tufting is done on each corner of the futon. This basically means bundling together these threads so as to hold the padding in place and prevent it from sliding out.
This is the most basic, easily understandable process of making a handmade Japanese futon. The cotton used in making the futons is sourced from reputable manufacturers, most of whom have had their business running for generations. The cotton is then sterilized using heat to make it suitable for padding.
Making a tatami mat is an ancient Japanese art. While there are many variations to achieving the look you want depending on the knowledge passed down, here is a simplified version of how a tatami mat is made.
• Start by laying down the straw woven mats and sew the edges, making sure that you have worn the appropriate protective gear to avoid hurting your hands. Skilled craftsmen use a wearable sturdy rectangle patch so that the palm of the hand is well covered.
• The main fabrics to be used as edges are then laid down appropriately before commencing sewing the edges by hand. This step can be difficult, even for those who have been at it for a while. Craftsmen have to ensure that the fabric they sew at the edges is of high quality and does not run.
• You can do these other two steps with a machine if you have one, or by hand. Tatami craftsmen, at this point, adjust the width and length of the fabrics so that they are perfectly in line. You can use pins to stick the mat to certain positions so that it doesn’t move around during sewing. You can decide to put a small board underneath the mat to give it the one-inch thickness needed.
• Once you have aligned the materials properly, you can sew in the edges by hand or with the help of a machine. Be sure to have the top and bottom straw layers stretched out enough so that the surfaces are sturdy yet airy.
Making a tatami mat is both elaborate and delicate. You have to know how to take the right measurements, how to stretch out the fabric as well as how to properly sew the edges so that there are no mishaps.
There are a few things that you can do to keep your futon fluffy and soft for longer. Here are some quick futon care tips.
• It is advisable to air out your futon as often as possible especially on sunny days. Be sure to change positions of the futon so that there is even air-drying. Apart from keeping odours away, airing dries the futon thereby retaining its original fluffy form
• When you are not airing the futon, fold it and store it. Leaving the futon out in the open can lead to exposure to moisture, spilling accidents and dust
• Every once in a while, preferably weekly, fluff up the futon. This involved beating the dry, aired out futon with a tennis racket until the fibers go up again. This is an important part of restoring a futon especially after a few days or weeks of constriction
Always use a protective pad or cover on a futon. The protective cover is removable and can be washed as often as you want. Ideally, the cover should be cleaned thoroughly so as to keep your sleeping surface inviting.
Every once in a while, it is important to wash the futon, duvet and, pillow covers. This is necessary because, over time, sweat accumulated in the cotton fibres can be the perfect breeding environment for bacteria. While cotton itself is hypoallergenic, accumulation of dust, sweat and bacteria can make you sick. Therefore, make sure you keep your beddings clean at all times.
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