Horse hair and hand-stitching for a good night’s sleep

Hypnos developed a network of selected skilled licensees to support its export effort
Royal approval: Stephen Ward and Sharon Ball, sewing machine operator, with Prince Andrew (centre) © Will Johnston

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It would make for a messy pillow fight but the secret of a good sleep, it turns out, is the kind of support that is offered by a muddy swamp.

“If you stand in a swamp, you sink,” says Stephen Ward, group managing director of Hypnos, the bedmaker, which has won a Queen’s Award for export. “But if you lie on it, you’re being supported.”

Buckinghamshire-based Hypnos, owned by the Keen family, who started the business in the Edwardian era, makes luxury pocket-spring mattresses and beds. People in search of sweet slumber may pay between £1,000 and £8,000 for one of its bed sets.

Made with natural materials by skilled workers, Hypnos beds are literally fit for a queen: the company has held the royal warrant — a formal recognition for tradesmen supplying the royal household — since 1929.

Hypnos’s revenues have risen from £20m in 2011 to £63m in 2016, helped by its push to increase exports. In 2016 overseas sales reached £5m, up from £500,000 in 2011, and Hypnos expects exports to reach £20m within five years from now. The biggest overseas markets are the US, United Arab Emirates and the rest of Europe.

Similarly, staff numbers have risen from 180 to 550 at its two factories in Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, and Castle Donington, Leicestershire, where Prince Andrew opened a factory for the company last year.

Customers buying Hypnos beds from upmarket chains and independent retailers account for more than £42m of its revenues, with the remainder being sold to hotel groups.

There are 20 models of bed, and a wide choice of fabrics, headboards and bed feet designs. “We are not selling a bag of sugar,” says Mr Ward. “We’re selling something that has been specifically chosen by you.”

The manufacture of a Hypnos mattress requires craftsmanship, such as upholstery and sewing, where the skills include side stitching by hand to firmly secure the fine steel springs, and tufting. Tape edgers make sure the mattress top fits properly to its sides. “[Customers] are prepared to wait for something that is specific to them,” notes Mr Ward.

Some markets have particular requirements, such as a range of mattresses that are not turned over — and need extra edge support — for the US, or the addition of higher quality fillings than those used by local competitors.

“It took us a year or two to understand and accept the need for these changes,” says Mr Ward, but it paid off. Other efforts include multi­lingual marketing material and developing the Hypnos website for a global audience.

Beds for retail customers are usually made in the UK before being shipped overseas. For supplying hotels beyond Europe, Hypnos has developed a network of 20 licensees in countries as far afield as Australia, Indonesia and Singapore. Any technical problems are resolved quickly thanks to modern communications technology, says Mr Ward, and the licensees can help overcome language difficulties.

The licensees are mainly similar small, family-owned concerns with manufacturing facilities that meet Hypnos’s standards, including employment practices. “The work is important to them, and adds value to their business, and so they look after it properly,” says Mr Ward. “If we were a big group, the small licensees might be more wary.”

Making beds locally helps with lead times and logistics, says Mr Ward. Otherwise, “you’re shipping a lot of air a long distance”.

The cross-section of a Hypnos mattress requires layer upon layer of materials besides the fine steel pocket coils. It uses only natural fibres because of their hollow structure. This allows air to circulate through the mattress to the surface and take moisture away from the body.

The horse hair is made to curl to provide spring. “The hair is particularly good at wicking the moisture away so you don’t overheat,” says Mr Ward. “Wool also does this, but because it doesn’t have the springy properties it is better as a top surface.” Cashmere, silk, alpaca, bamboo and camel hair are used towards the top of the mattress. Camels can cope with a 30C change in temperature, thanks to the structure of their hair, Mr Ward notes.

Mattresses should be changed every seven to eight years. “The fillings settle and there’s been years of body sweat — it’s just something that should be done for comfort and hygiene reasons,” says Mr Ward.

There is no simple answer as to how firm a mattress should be, he says. The aim is to allow the body to have 90 per cent contact with the mattress, which improves comfort — hence the analogy with the support offered by a muddy swamp.

A too-firm mattress can create just five or six points of contact — such as the hips, knees, shoulders, back of the head and heel — which cause pressure points, lack of support and reduced comfort.

A list of this year’s winners and a guide to applying for a Queen’s Award are available at www.gov.uk/queens-awards-for-enterprise

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