"Horsehair," says the sales-lady, smiling serenely as she points to contents in a small glass case.
I mimic the calm nod of an experienced luxury shopper as an unfortunate, down-market thought occurs: It looks like bathroom clippings from a wiry-haired man.
"How simply divine," I offer.
"Yes, it wicks away moisture, allows air to circulate," explains the lady, who beams the smooth-faced look of the well rested.
January is for staying in bed, I always think. You don't want to get out of it on a snowy morning, and, by evening, you can't wait to return to its cocoon. You almost want to get a cold so you can stay under your blankets with a book and some tea. Now that we're in a new period of what the industry calls the "bespoke" bed, I thought I would check out a mattress that's the price of a new car.
Once upon a time, royal families set the standard for fancy beds – a sort of alternative throne – especially in England, starting in the Tudor period and lasting until the late 1700s. It's where the royal metaphor for mattresses – as in king-size and queen-size – likely had its genesis. "The bed was the most important object in a royal house, and it symbolized the king or queen," explains Sebastien Edwards, deputy chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces in London. "The bed was a little stage. Courtiers would attend the king or queen there. Births and the consummation of marriages were witnessed. And, just like clothes say a lot about who you are, so did the bed," he says in an interview.
One of the most elaborate royal beds that survives belonged to Queen Anne, construction of which began in 1714. It is 15 feet high with elaborate embroidered fabric on the canopy. There were five mattresses stacked one on top of the other, starting with coarser material at the bottom with layers of finer materials such as silk toward the top. (Sadly, Queen Anne died before she could use it.)
The importance of the royal bed sagged when power shifted from the palace to the House of Parliament, Edwards explains. Queen Victoria had a modest bed, for example. Queen Elizabeth likely sleeps in a nice but regular bed. "Of course, we cannot know for sure, as we don't get to see it," offers Edwards with the hushed discretion of a palace employee.
Earlier this month, news came that bedding for guests at one of Queen Elizabeth's beloved residences, Windsor Castle, is going down-market. Reportedly, commonplace, low-maintence duvets will replace sheets, eiderdowns and blankets, much to the dismay of housekeeping staff, who have prided themselves on traditional, perfectly tucked-in beds.
Everywhere else, however, luxe beds are being marketed to everyday princes and princesses.
Which brings me back to feigning interest in horsehair. I'm in the Toronto store of Hastens, a long-standing Swedish brand of luxury mattresses that has been branching out across the globe in recent years "on a mission to change the world through sleep."
I peer into the glass case as though it contains jewels.
The cross-section of a mattress is a wedding cake of materials: horsehair, fat pocketed coils, wool, cotton and flax-linen lining.
"The flax linen helps balance electrical fields on the body," the lady, called "a Hastens ambassador," says as she encourages me to "experience" the brand.
The warehouse is vast and spotless in the manner of car showrooms, but with a variety of mattresses – some round, some for children – on display. Their most expensive mattress is the king-sized Vividus model, priced at more than $90,000, made to order according to the buyer's weight, height and sleep patterns. My Goldilocks test is conducted on models (in gradations of firmness) that cost $45,000.
The ambassador ushers me onto a mattress, swooping her arm out as an invitation to lie down. She pulls back a little sheet. I worry about who has put his or her head on the same pillow. But I persevere. She says I don't have to remove my shoes and offers to take my purse and coat.
It's an odd thing, lying down in front of a stranger in a public space. It's not something you do unless you're homeless or about to faint. How we sleep is perhaps one of the most private acts, after all. It's when we're most vulnerable, too – supine, eyes closed, unaware. So, I lie there and ooh and ahh – on the softest mattress, I feel like I'm resting on springy, slightly crunchy moss on a forest floor – but my response felt like faking an orgasm. How could I really know what it's like to sleep on when I'm a) not relaxed in the middle of a showroom and b) being watched by a beatific ambassador who is expecting a response, like a sommelier who has offered you a sip of expensive wine?
But then I feel a little pea in the mattress of my mind. I realize it's not just about your back and the quality of sleep. Hastens sells sheet sets in the signature blue-and-white-checked fabric that upholsters their mattresses, immediately telegraphing to those in the know the bed's prestige. Perhaps the bedroom status marker is changing. These days, it's not just the person you're sleeping with but also what you're sleeping on that matters.
"Owning a good mattress is as important as exercise and eating well," maintains Ken Metrick, president of Elte, a high-end home furnishing store that now sells luxury mattress brands, including Vispring, Hypnos and OMI, which are priced from $5,000 to $55,000. "We sell mostly mattresses in the $25,000 range," he explains. "It's not the extremely wealthy people who are buying. It's the people who have taken the time to understand the benefits of natural fibres and a well-crafted bed. A high-quality mattress is far more important than the decorative stuff for a home. It's one of the few things you can do for yourself."
"People are investing in themselves. Many live busy, hectic lives and they think more about personal health and well-being. The market, in general, has decided it wants higher-quality, luxury beds," explains Alistair Hughes, managing director of Savoir Beds in London, which makes Hastens beds – even their most expensive – seem like Toyotas. Savoir, which dates back to 1905, when it was part of the Savoy Hotel chain, has created beds for celebrities including Madonna, Elton John, Oprah, Sir Michael Caine and Emma Thompson. Their tag line is "spend a third of your life in first class," and, shrewdly, they align themselves with British royalty, once sponsoring an exhibition at Hampton Court about royal beds. For the Queen's 60th anniversary on the throne, they created a limited edition of 60 Royal State Beds for £125,000 each ($256,670).
One was designed and made for a Middle Eastern client, who wanted to give his wife a bed for their wedding anniversary. "It was embroidered with images of bees and beehives. And the bed was all in black and gold," Hughes explains. Another was designed for a businessman who owned a French château. "He had a view of a magnificent fireplace or of a beautiful garden, and he couldn't decide which way he wanted the bed to face. So we made a bed 10 feet across, all very modern, with beautiful wood veneer, that had a high-tech mechanism that allowed it to rotate," he explains on the phone from London.
Canadians are more modest in their sleeping choices. In the Canadian mattress market, worth $831-million, according to a 2015 report from market research firm IBISWorld, the dominant players are AOT Bedding Super Holdings (Simmons and Serta) and Tempur-Pedic International (Tempur-Pedic and Sealy). Together, they account for an estimated 63.7 per cent of industry revenue. (They don't track luxury brands.)
Canadians buy mostly inner-spring mattresses that sell for $1,000 or less, according to the report.
Oh, but we can dream.