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The dying trade of mattress making

As society races ahead, it leaves behind people struggling in niche trades. Future of gadday wallahs is uncertain.

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PUBLISHED January 15, 2023

Driving through the main Gizri area and Burns Road or the busy, narrow streets in the older areas of Karachi, one can spot a shop or two where artisans known as gadday-wallay [mattress makers] make custom-designed pillows, cushions, comforters and mattresses [gadday] using cotton wool. They also fluff out cotton wool in your used pillows, mattresses and quilts to refresh them and make them plumper. In this way, you can use the same ones for years and years.

Most of these cotton wool tradesman run family businesses or are carrying forward trades inherited from their fathers. As the use of machine-washable, synthetic fibre becomes more common these days for bedding, these vendors are slowly vanishing.

Sixty-year-old, Umar Daraz has been running his cotton wool bedding shop in Nazimabad no.1, since the last 30 years. He had never thought that a day would come in his life when he would have to look for other options to earn a living, because presently, his business is in shambles.

“I learnt this work from my father and have been looking after the shop since I was a kid,” says Daraz. “In those days, the business was good. As winter approached, people would get their comforters or quilts renewed. Cotton wool in old pillows that had become lumpy and uncomfortable was fluffed out and the pillows were plumped up. Even mattresses that would thin out after a few years of use could be refreshed.”

Daraz is struggling to make his ends meet with his small income. He also has to manage shop expenses and pay fixed salaries to his two employees who help to use the big electric machine to fluff out the cotton which is filled in mattresses, pillows and comforters.

“There was a time when cotton was fluffed out by hands or by using a hand-held machine which was like a big needle piercing in and out of cotton to make it soft and usable,” recalls Daraz, showing how the electric machine presses and softens cotton for use.

“But now electric machines are used to soften and shape cotton.”

The cotton that is fluffed out is spread to fit the size of the fabric and sewn up with stitches at equal gaps, so it remains evenly divided throughout the length and breadth of the mattress or quilt. Spreading cotton through the machine hardly takes 10 minutes, and a mattress is prepared in 1-2 hours.

“Customers tell us the size they require and also choose the design and fabric of the mattress or quilt which we fill up with cotton wool accordingly and sew it up making borders and a plainer inner side,” explains Daraz. He adds that customers ask for different amounts of cotton wool to be filled in their quilts or mattresses and it is weighed in kilograms.

Mattresses and comforters that Daraz made a few decades ago used to be made according to the size of the bed and usually required 50-60 kg of cotton. The industry that uses cotton wool filling is limited now as shops have mostly shut down due to a low demand from customers as foam mattresses have taken over the market.

“We have some loyal customers who have been coming to us for decades now,” says Daraz. “They still prefer cotton wool filling inside pure cotton fabric instead of furry blankets, foam mattresses or synthetic fibre-filled comforters available everywhere. Most of our customers are senior people who are hanging on to their pure traditions. I often wonder what will happen to our business, once these people are no more.”

The cost of cotton mattress and comforter varies on the weight the customer requires. Mostly five kilograms of cotton is used for mattresses, while comforters only need four kilograms of cotton as these are bigger and cotton is evenly spread in these. For mattresses, compressed cotton is used to give the mattress a proper shape.

Khan says that refilling and new covers of comforters cost around Rs700-800 if new cotton is not added to the filling, which can go up to Rs1500 depending on how many kilograms of cotton are used.

The price of cotton is Rs300-400 per kg but varies with quality, while original cotton which is extracted from cotton farms is Rs800 rupees per kilogram.

“Pure cotton is available for customers who specifically ask for it,” says Daraz. “Otherwise, mixed cotton is reliable and widely used in the market.”

Amir Haider who runs a small 10x10 cotton wool bedding shop in Soldier Bazaar, Karachi, learned the trade from his uncle as a child when he was just 10 years old. He is disappointed on how things have shaped up in last one decade. “The low-priced used or export-leftover comforters with synthetic filling being sold in the market are giving us competition and taking our customers away,” says Haider, who has also started selling carpets and table cloths in his shop to expand his business. “Customers who would get their comforter and mattresses made from us in Rs1000 can now get three of those comforters for that price.”

Muhammad Abbas, a loyal customer gets his grandmother’s mattress and comforter renewed every year from Daraz’s shop.

“My grandmother who migrated from Allahabad, India, likes to use a wooden bed or takht with a cotton mattress on it for sitting, lying down and sleeping,” he says. “This tradition is simply a must for her.”

Abbas says she is the only one in the family who has this requirement and she never uses any other bed or couch even to sit on. So there is a possibility that when she passes on, he won’t be visiting Daraz anymore. But until then, every year, he takes the comforter and mattress to the shop where the cover is renewed, the cotton wool fluffed or more cotton wool added for softness.

Other than the older generation, Daraz’s customers belong to the lower-middle classes who either do not have access or affordability to buy expensive blankets and foam mattresses. Sometimes they don’t even have beds and sleep on the floor using a cotton wool filled mattress and quilts [in winter].

“I earn just enough to manage my house,” says Noman Khan who along with his wife and three children uses cotton wool mattresses to sleep on the floor. “I got these mattresses from my mother and I only spend a few hundred rupees every 3-4 years to get new covers and they become perfect to be reused.”

The quality and durability of cotton wool mattresses and comforters depends on the use, but these are bulky and heavy to store, and need to be fluffed out after some use. Cotton wool mattresses are known to be better for the back and are completely sustainable.

Flipping and rotating mattresses once a month or periodically not only helps to air them out, but also compresses it evenly as the mattresses can become uncomfortable with use over the years. Mattresses, pillows and quilts should be left in the sun for a day to air out and kill any bacteria present, utilising the anti-microbial qualities of the sun.

While bedding that uses synthetic fibre filling is light, easy to store in lesser space and does not require refilling and renewing every few years, it is not sustainable and environment friendly.

“Cotton wool quilts are heavy but keep the cold out well,” says seventy-year-old Mehrunnisa, who has been using the cotton wool bedding since her childhood. “The new synthetic stuff is not so good at keeping cold out and after a few years, it becomes useless, while cotton wool items can be reused for years.”

“We have a few orders now from people also come for 6x6.5 ft mattresses because doctor s recommends sleeping on a cotton mattress on the floor.

“I was 20 years old when I had a protruded spinal disc,” says Fiza*. I tried everything pain management, but nothing helped until three years ago, when a surgeon recommended yoga and sleeping on a cotton mattress on the floor. My expensive ortho-care spring mattress was not much use because the compressed foam used in it puts pressure on the back while cotton wool adjusts to your back.

Many like Haider and Daraz find themselves struggling to make a living in this niche occupation that they previously did well in and have known all their lives.

While globalisation and growth has brought massive changes in our lifestyles rapidly, old trades, habits and traditions are dying fast, especially in our urban centres. Though the market has reduced significantly for these artisans, it is still surviving because of customers who prefer to sleep on these sustainable cotton mattresses. But there are not enough customers anymore to stop Daraz from worrying about his uncertain future.