My Latest Sewing Project: Comforter / Mattress??? (Part 1)

Earlier this year, I got into sewing my own camping/backpacking gear, my biggest projects being my tarp, my quilt, and my net-tent which … I haven’t written a blog post about.

This is a picture of my right knee inside my net-tent on the first occasion I tried using it, at Sunol Backpacking Camp in Alameda County, California. I hope I will get around to writing a blog post about my net tent.

During my backpacking adventures, I got used to sleeping in a quilt which I had sewn myself. I found that it satisfies me in a way that store-bought bedding, even of the highest quality, does not.

Furthermore, I didn’t like the comforter which I had been using. Winter was coming, which meant that my comforter was going to become more important. And when I was thinking of my dream comforter, I tried to find something similar to what I wanted in online stores, and could not find it.

The obvious solution was to make my own comforter. That way, I would get the features I wanted *and* have the satisfaction of sleeping in homemade bedding even when I was out camping.

One of the important choices is insulation. Down can be an excellent insulation, but I’m vegan, so down was not an option for me. There are many forms of synthetic insulation available, and some of them are excellent (including Climashield Apex, which is what I used in my backpacking quilt) but at home I prefer to use bedding made from natural materials such as my organic cotton futon. In particular, I wanted my new comforter to be 100% biodegradable, because no matter how durable it is, it won’t last forever and will need to disposed of at some point in the future.

So, I had ruled out insulation made from animals and synthetics, and I’ve never heard of insulation made from fungi, protozoa, or bacteria, which meant I was looking for insulation made from plants. Cotton? Too heavy, lacking in loft, and moisture-absorbing. Bamboo? Not warm enough, and I’m suspicious of the chemicals used in bamboo processing. As I considered my options, the obvious choice was kapok. It is the plant-based insulation/sutffing which is most similar to down, it requires minimal processing, and since it grows on trees which don’t require herbicides or pesticides, its environmental impact is relatively low. Kapok does have to be shipped long distances from the tropical rainforests where it grows, but nothing is perfect.

Here is a picture of a bag of kapok fiber on top of my comforter-in progress (I had stuffed most, but not all, of the chambers at this point).

When I was designing my backpacking quilt, I learned a lot about the details of sewing insulated blankets (whether you call them comforters or quilts). Loose insulation (including kapok) needs to be divided into chambers, otherwise the insulation will not remain evenly distributed, and there will be major cold spots. The two major types of chambers are stitched chambers and baffle boxes. Stitched chambers are way, way easier to make, but will have cold spots (albeit much less severe than if there were no chambers whatsoever), and are less durable. Baffle boxes generally do not have cold spots, but are a royal pain in the *** to make. Furthermore, there are different ways to make baffle boxes, and the better types (i.e. the ones which provide better warmth with less insulation material and/or are more durable) are an even bigger royal pain in the *** to make. There is a (down) sleeping bag which is made in the United States which typically comes with a $600 retail price, yet many hikers swear it is the most awesome sleeping bag ever and worth every dollar. I strongly suspect that it is so bloody expensive because they invest a lot of effort in the baffles, and that is also why it is superior to other sleeping bags (not that I know from personal experience, since I’ve never used it).

I decided to go with a simple baffle box design – I did not need the most perfect comforter ever, but I wanted it to be a good comforter, and I figured it was worth putting in the extra effort for durability and to make sure there weren’t cold spots. Making baffle boxes is way more of an effort than I ever expected, it at least doubled, if not tripled, the time it took to sew the comforter, but I’m proud that I did it and I have no regrets.

Here is a picture of my comforter after I had attached all of the baffles, but before I started stuffing it with kapok. Of course, as I stuffed the chambers, I had to sew the baffles down.

I sewed the entire comforter with hemp thread. It’s biodegradable and very durable. All of the hemp ropes in the window sashes in my home is over a hundred years old, yet most of the ropes are still in good condition, so I hope the hemp thread can also last over a hundred years. The hemp thread I used is not machine-compatible, which means it was hand-sewn, though much of it would have been hand-sewn anyway because I have no idea how I would sew the baffles with a sewing machine.

The fabric of my new comforter is organic cotton sateen from India. I’d never worked with sateen before, but this fabric was awesome, since working on this comforter I’ve ordered more organic-cotton-sateen-from-India for future projects. I used cotton sateen because it was a fabric which I trusted not to leak kapok.

This comforter will not be washable (because of the kapok), so I also sewed a cover which can be thrown into washing machines when necessary. I decided to use organic linen, because it’s a really nice fabric which is durable and feels good and is anti-microbial/anti-fungal (i.e. it will not develop bad odors as quickly as cotton), and it has a lower environmental impact than even organic cotton. Unfortunately, organic linen ain’t cheap and, because of the low thread count, I suspect it would leak kapok (which is why the comforter itself is made from cotton sateen), but the linen makes for a wonderful cover.

No part of the comforter or cover contains buttons, snaps, or zippers, because those are not biodegradeable. I did sew in some loops and tie-outs so that the comforter would not shift around too much inside the cover. I’m considering adding a few more.

My functionally complete comforter, partially pulled out of the linen cover.

There were multiple interruptions in my work on this comforter (as in, I would go days or weeks without doing any work), and even when I was working on it, I would at most work on it for a few hours per day. Sewing the cover, even by hand, only took hours. In particular, I did a lot of work on this comforter during the days when San Francisco was getting all of the polluted air from the Camp Fire and I was spending more time indoors than usual. Since I was not going outside for walks as much as usual, it was nice to have a project to occupy my hands (I listened to audiobooks while sewing and stuffing).

So that is how I made the comforter. I ‘finished’ it about a week ago, though I am still considering adding a few extra touches to the cover. In Part 2 I will discuss how it turned out.

6 thoughts on “My Latest Sewing Project: Comforter / Mattress??? (Part 1)

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  5. Hi, thank you for being vegan and using good items for our earth! You are a beautiful soul. I am also thinking about making a kapok comforter. Approximately how much kapok stuffing did you use and where did you buy it? Thank you.

    • I used approximately 9 lb of kapok, but I think I overstuffed, so if I made a second comforter I would use a little less.

      I bought the kapok from White Lotus Home, but looking at their website I see they’ve raised the price of kapok since I bought it from them, so maybe there’s another source that is cheaper now.

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