This past week I took the train out to Newark to visit the Shifman Mattress Company and had a remarkable deep dive into not only how Shifman makes their mattresses (the old fashioned way - they were founded in 1893), but also how the mattress business works and has evolved over the past hundred years. Come along for a tour, courtesy of the Hammer family, who have run Shifman since 1985.
Everything starts here as raw cotton from bales is chopped up and fed into this huge machine. The machine makes fine, clean layers of cotton bedding that, although very fragile when they come out, are layered and bound so that they remain intact and loft, supplying the foundation of the mattress.
The Quick History:
"Shifman & Bro. Mattress Company was founded in 1893 when brothers, Abraham and Samuel Shifman established a manufacturing company dedicated to superior quality bedding... Throughout the 20th century, the Shifman family was slow to adjust to changes in the industry. Consumers wanted firmer bedding, more fashionable covers and brand name recognition.
In 1985, when Mike Hammer purchased the company from Robert and Burton Shifman, grandsons of Samuel, the company had deteriorated badly. Over the next several years, Mike Hammer changed the name to Shifman Mattress Company and instituted several improvements to its manufacturing procedure. The design changes had a positive effect on consumers.
In 1994, Mike's youngest son, Bill, joined the team and is currently the company's president. In 2008, the company expanded its facility by 40 percent in order to enhance its manufacturing capabilities and meet the growing demand for its mattresses."
Next all the side panels are made on the top floor. In this very manual, retro, human process, this woman is sewing panels for all the of Shifman signature models. She takes damask and sews it over a naturally fire proof rayon batting. All the sides then get handles sewn on, paired with tops and bottoms and stacked for the "stuffing" moment.
Next the spring center is pulled from the rack and paired with the cotton, Talalay latex or foam combo that makes the mattress.
Below is the "stuffing" room, where the "pregnant" mattresses are built around a core and then hand sewn to lock all the materials together. The needle is extremely long. It takes about two hours to assemble and sew each mattress at this station.
All Shifman Mattresses are handmade, made with as many natural ingredients as possible and are two sided - which means they'll live twice as long. Two sided mattresses used to be the standard, but increasingly companies sell "one-sided" mattresses along with the promise that you don't need to flip them. This is true, but flipping is actually a benefit!
Next we go downstairs to the boxspring room, where we can see a hand-tied boxspring being wrapped up. Boxsprings are SUPER IMPORTANT for more comfort and a better night's sleep and used to be standard in the industry as well. They double the cushion zone that your body takes advantage and the the life of your mattress. A mattress without a boxspring is like driving a car without shock-absorbers. Many beds are now sold without them or with "foundations" that are simply light solid spacers and do nothing for comfort.
Finally, the mattresses are wrapped up and moved into inventory with boxsprings. After completing our workshop tour, we went up to the showroom. Shifman's showroom is small, moves around a lot and is not the main place trade customers see their wares. Below is their main showroom in Highpoint, NC where the finished products are properly shown off. Big clients? Bloomingdales and Stickley, Audi & Co. for whom they make exclusive mattresses.
Shifman has adapted to the fast changing world of the mattress business by staying relatively up-market as opposed to trying to compete for lower prices. They start at around $3,000 and go up to as high as $30,000. This allows them to keep their bespoke, hand-made process alive and work closely with their major retailers to give them exactly what they want.
What should you want? Bill Hammer said, when asked, that you should lie on any bed you consider until it feels right to you. Money and brand aside, he was a firm believer in first hand experience. Does he like his beds better? He likes handmade beds with real hand-tied boxsprings, because he thinks they provide a truly superior comfort level, but the rest is up to you.
There are not many companies that do this anymore. The ones that do are European companies, like Hastens and Savoir, and these can run double the price of a Shifman. There is also a company like Charles Beckley in Queens, that does the same thing, but they only build custom beds for decorators these days.
As mattress companies have become less regional and more national over the past 35 years, companies like Shifman have had to compete with more affordable, lower quality mattresses with MUCH bigger marketing budgets and an American public that has been trained not to know exactly what's underneath them at night.
With the recession and the green movement, this is changing, making it simultaneously harder to find the money to spend, but making people smarter shoppers who care more about what they spend every night lying on. We've been trying to do our part by learning as much as we can, and this trip to an actual factory was a total eye-opener.
I want to thank Mike and Bill Hammer for letting us in on their world last week and sharing with us the rich history of the Shifman company. You can see my ongoing experiment of sleeping on many different mattresses and passing on what I learn, and I can't wait to get into some more factories and see how the rest of the world builds theirs.