Iraq mattress maker has a soft spot for tradition
Iraq mattress maker has a soft spot for tradition
Mohammed Fawzi Radhi makes his living putting people to sleep.
is a trade on the edge of extinction, but as Iraqis come to appreciate
the comfort of his hand-fluffed cotton mattresses, Radhi says, business
is picking up.
Like many other businesses in Iraq, Radhi"s was
affected by the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In his case, newly
imported merchandise competed directly with his age-old trade after
Iraq"s borders opened up and foreign goods poured in. The imports
included beds with foam mattresses and springs. Suddenly Radhi, who
restores mattresses by combing and fluffing up the cotton innards, had
a king-sized problem.
It nearly drove him to close the
52-year-old family enterprise, but as time goes on, he says, Iraqis are
returning to him for their sleep needs. Once they"ve tried a
factory-made mattress and compared it with his handiwork, they feel the
"People call me a mattress craftsman," says Radhi,
25, a cheerful, slight man in an oversized shirt who works out of a
tiny storefront in Baghdad. "People know that with us, they get what
Radhi, who is a scientist by training, doesn"t
need a sign to advertise his skills. Most days there is at least one
mattress lying on the sidewalk outside his shop, waiting to be
restuffed with freshly fluffed cotton or to have its matted, tired guts
ripped out and put through the purring metal machine that combs the
cotton. The machines, which are assembled in Iraq from imported parts,
are about waist-high and bear a vague resemblance to a photocopier with
Old cotton is placed on a tray and fed into the
machine, passing beneath a roller with teeth that chews up and
separates the matted material. It"s spit out the other end in silky
Radhi spends most of his time in his workshop, which is
actually a maroon metal shipping container. Stray tufts of cotton hang
from the corners and float through the air like tiny ghosts. Mountains
of cotton waiting to be sent through the combing machine sit on one
side. On the other, an impossibly soft cloud of freshly puffed,
snow-white cotton rises higher than Radhi"s head. Soon it will be
stuffed into mattress covers according to customers" specifications.
The harder the mattress, the more cotton goes in. Fortunately for
Radhi, most Iraqis prefer soft mattresses, which require less effort to
A medium-soft double mattress requires about 50 pounds of
cotton, which Radhi weighs on a huge scale suspended from the ceiling.
Shoving the mass through the machine takes about 30 minutes, assuming
the power stays on.
"Of course, electricity is the hardest part
of the job," said Radhi, who gets about two hours of power a day from
the city. "The other problem is the dust that accumulates in the
cotton. Some people bring in mattresses that are 20 or 25 years old."
that dirty might need several passes through the comber, and though
some may think that putting cotton through a machine is easy work,
Radhi knows better. It must be inserted just so, or the machine could
Then the stuffing begins. Once that"s done, the mattress
cover is sewn together. Radhi finishes by beating the mattress with a
stick to flatten any mounds or dips and ensure a smooth, comfortable
surface. He charges about $4 per kilo, or 2.2 pounds, of cotton, plus
Radhi started in the trade when he was 13, learning the
trade from his grandfather and his grandfather"s partner, who started
Radhi nearly closed his doors in 2004, in part
because of security concerns but mainly because of competition from
"But people gradually noticed that
what they were getting is not necessarily what they wanted," he says,
squeezing a wad of cotton.
He does keep a small stock of foam
mattresses in the little warehouse next to his shipping container, for
the rare customer who prefers that style. He brings out samples of the
pillows he has made, and shows his best mattresses -- several inches
thick, hand-stuffed and more than $100 each.
graduated from Baghdad"s University of Technology with a science
degree, says he might like to be a teacher someday. But being a
mattress craftsman has served him well during Iraq"s turmoil.
a craft or a trade is a weapon in itself," Radhi says when asked
whether he has ever feared for his safety. As long as he provides a
service that makes people happy -- and who doesn"t love a good night"s
sleep? -- he feels safe, he says.
This is a busy time of year.
People are getting their mattresses ready for winter, which brings
bitter cold and the desire for thick, comfortable bedding. During the
summer, many Iraqis sleep on mats because they want something
lightweight to drag up to their roofs or into their courtyards to
escape the heat indoors.
Most of his customers want their
mattresses soft. Radhi insists this is better for the back than the
firm, factory-made mattresses popular abroad.
As for his own mattress?
"I like it in the middle," he said. "I know what"s good for me."
October 16, 2008