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Uncommon sleep: Gateway Mattress in Milton serves niche bed markets

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Neil Johnson
June 26, 2013

— If you've never laid your head on a bed pillow stuffed with alpaca fiber, the feeling is hard to describe.

It's firm, yet—at the same time—soft. It's breathable and moisture wicking, while also warm—or at least insulated. It conforms, yet it's springy.

"It's got some real charm and mystique, doesn't it?" said Dave Williams, who owns Gateway Mattress, a Milton factory that manufactures niche and custom sleep mattresses and bedding.

Charm? Mystique? Maybe. Moreover, it just makes sense. Alpaca fiber, it seems, has the stuff of greatness when it comes to pillow stuffing. So why aren't all pillows stuffed full of the camel-like creature's conditioned fleece?

The answers, maybe, are rooted in material availability, quality and cost.

Simply put, alpaca fleece fetches more money per pound than sheep's wool because it's softer, it doesn't get matted and it is virtually crush-free.

It also costs more to feed alpacas than sheep, and it's more expensive to clean and process alpaca fleece for use in products—partly because alpacas are fond of rolling around on the ground, Williams said.

If you can find an alpaca fiber-stuffed pillow in stores, expect to pay between $120 and $160 for it.

Just don't expect to buy one directly from Williams.

With the exception of a line of standard mattresses at its factory outlet, Gateway Mattress manufactures and sells many of its mattress and bedding products directly to wholesalers, suppliers and carriers who request and contract for unique or specialty products.

Super-springy alpaca fiber pillows are just one niche product that Williams' small mattress factory makes.

A few others:

-- Mattresses and pillows with built-in ceramic magnets. They're made for people with arthritis problems and chronic nerve pain who are seeking magnetic therapy—a method used to treat illness and pain using static magnetic fields.

-- Coil spring mattresses with tops and internal layers made of "all natural" cotton and Australian Joma wool. Joma is a luxury wool that's crimped and stripped of its "barbs"—natural catches in wool that act like Velcro. Barbs can cause fleece fiber to gradually adhere to itself and collapse inward and lose its natural springiness.

The essence of what Gateway Mattress does, Williams said, is to probe markets for unusual mattress-making techniques and to find wholesalers who want to bankroll products that are a bit outside the norm.

"We're always scratching to find new avenues to make new sales," Williams said. "The world doesn't stop turning, and new ideas don't stop emerging. You've got to change to move forward."

Williams has been in the mattress industry since the 1970s and 1980s—the halcyon days of the waterbed. He's run Gateway Mattress's parent company, Baron Styles, since 1987.

Lately, more and more mattress-making ideas are emerging. Williams isn't sure if it's a signal that the economy is turning, or if some wholesalers and suppliers have taken to the Internet in a hunt for smaller mattress makers willing to fit super-specialty orders.

Williams said Gateway's small shop can be more willing and able to switch gears and work with sellers on experimental plans than larger mattress companies.

Yet the willingness to delve into the niche only makes sense, Williams said, if Gateway can actually do the work at a rate and volume that make the endeavor profitable.

It's Economics 101, Williams said.

"We'll get inquiries for if we can do natural or 'organic' products, and the question is, 'I want organic—can you do that cheap?'" Williams said. "Well, 'organic' or 'natural' and 'cheap' don't usually go hand-in-hand."

Remember the processing costs to clean the fleece of those dirt-bath-loving alpacas?

There's Williams' shop and labor overhead, and then there's the burden of product development and flammability testing—a federal mandate for all mattress and bedding material. It all costs somebody money.

In any case, Williams and his six factory workers are getting busier than they've been in recent years; the plant's working with more product lines, and there are more discussions about potential partnerships with new wholesalers and merchandisers.

That's good news, Williams said, particularly as the company is branching out with a factory-direct warehouse where retail customers can direct-purchase Gateway's lines of traditional and mainstream spring mattresses.

"Last year at this time, I had the equivalent of one iron in the fire," Williams said. "Now what we're seeing, it's getting to be more like multiple irons, three or four at once."



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