Breaking Bed: Hammocks, Futons and More

By Maria Ramos
Last Updated: August 13, 2018

Most of us sleep on a bed; and, occasionally, the couch. But even though most beds are simply a combination of a mattress and a surface—an adjustable base, bed frame, box spring, foundation, platform, or the floor—some configurations and designs are better for certain situations. For example, bunk beds and trundle beds have multiple mattresses and are often found in shared bedrooms to maximize area use without sacrificing personal space. Some uncommon options—sleeping bags, hammocks and the like—are typically reserved for special events, such as camping and other recreational activities, due to their portability.

There are also places around the world that use unusual sleeping surfaces; even though modernization and globalization has mostly made these items cultural oddities, as opposed to the norm. In Japan, a traditional futon consists of a paired mattress and duvet laid on the floor at night and stored in a closet during the day; very different from the sofa bed we call a futon in the US. In parts of Asia and Central America, handwoven mats—made of dried and dyed plant matter—is spread out on the floor and used for sitting and sleeping, especially during warm summer months.

While the beds you will encounter throughout your life are all probably going to be the familiar mattress-and-surface type, wouldn’t it be great to find out more about the the uncommon ones? You may find that some other way of sleeping may be better for you, or you may want to try it just to get an authentic experience while on vacation. We’ve found that some of these items can be used for different purposes, too—Japanese futons are similar to sleeping bags that children often use for slumber parties, and handwoven mats also work for picnics or beach trips. Some beds may be more common than you think, and you just may not be aware of them.

Here’s where we break it all down for you: Breaking Bed, a series where we introduce you to everything from hammocks to historically significant bed types. The list below includes everything we’ve written about so far, and you can click on each item for more information in a separate article. Let’s learn about beds!


The Baníg

The Philippine baníg can come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Baníg design—down to the very materials used—changes depending on the region in the Philippines it is from and on the ethnolinguistic group that made it. A baníg can be made from dried palm or pandanus leaves or blades of swampy reed grass. The drying process, sometimes under direct sunlight, strengthens the material and imparts a shiny brown tone. Sometimes the leaves are dyed before they are cut into thin, manageable strips. Then they are hammered and wound to preserve softness and pliability. A baníg can have colorful patterns on it for decoration; however, it is likewise very common to find a plain brown baníg for everyday use indoors—particularly for sleeping—especially in provincial homes.

There are no set rules for using a baníg; in fact, though it’s traditionally used for sitting and sleeping, many modern homes in the Philippines and around the world use these handwoven mats for purely decorative purposes, as wall hangings or in place of rugs. To use a baníg for sleeping, simply unroll it—indoors or outdoors, on the ground or on an elevated surface.

sob-enterprises Baníg, Ebay


The Charpai

The traditional handwoven bed from the Indian subcontinent is known by many names. It can be referred to as khatt, manja or manji; as well as variations of a term that literally means “four-footed”: charpoy, charpaya, and charpai (Hindi: चारपाई; Urdu: چارپائی). As the name indicates, one of the two main components of the charpai is a four-footed frame; which supports a handwoven net made of rope or belts of fabric. Due to the prevalence of rope variants, the charpai is also sometimes referred to as a rope bed. The frame is usually made of lightweight wood, such as mango; although modern interpretations of the charpai may use metal frames. The rope or fabric is usually made of natural materials, as well: cotton, jute, coir (coconut fiber) and even dried leaves, such as those from date palms. Along with the current and non-traditional prevalence of metal frames in charpai designs is the use of synthetic weaving material, particularly nylon.

The charpai is used for sleep as is—no mattress, and often not even a blanket or pillow. The entire point is to maximize ventilation and prevent heat and humidity from interrupting sleep. During summers, it is very common to see charpai outdoors in rural areas; used for resting and socializing during the day, and for sleeping at night.

Charpai Beds, Patina


The Japanese Futon

The most important thing to know about the Japanese futon is that it is different from what we think of as a futon in the US. It is not the space-saving sofa bed popular with college students, although it is likewise flexible. The Japanese futon is actually typically thought of as a set of items: a shikibuton (敷き布団) and a kakebuton (掛け布団); often accompanied by a tatami(畳), a makura (枕), a mofu (毛布), and occasionally a taoruketto (タオルケット). While just a few of these items are essential, they are referred to and grouped together; much like we think of our beds as being not just a mattress and box spring—but also inclusive of blankets, comforters, pillows and more.

The mattress or shikibuton is generally firm due to its thickness—about three to four inches—and the fact that it is laid out on the floor. On top of the shikibuton is the kakebuton: a comforter or duvet of varying thickness and make. Like a duvet, the kakebuton is often protected by a cover that is easily and regularly washed; these covers are usually simple compared to the kakebuton, which can still be seen through a popular “open window” design that faces outward. Japanese futons should ideally be folded up and stores in an oshiire (押入) or a deep closet during the day, though it also must be aired out on a regular basis. It is normal in Japan to see people hanging their futons outside and beating them with a special stick made of bamboo to aid in shaking off dust and other particles.

EMOOR Japanese Futon Set, Amazon


The Murphy Bed

Murphy beds are featured in many comedy classics, from silent Charlie Chaplin films to Three Stooges scenes, and even more contemporary media like the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the video game series The Sims. You may even know what the Murphy bed is without realizing it, as it goes by many names. It’s been called a fold-down bed, a hideaway bed, a pull-down bed, and a wall bed. However, the term Murphy bed is most commonly used in the US and most of North America.

The concept of the contraption is simple: You pull or fold out your bed when needed, and hide it when it’s not in use. This is achieved by storing the bed inconspicuously against the wall. The Murphy bed is hinged on one side so it’s able to flip up and masquerade as a closet or cabinet—or be hidden in one. These days, Murphy beds can also be mounted sideways, and may even come with a folding mattress. There are also models that include attached desks, drawers and shelves; for a truly efficient use of space.

Bestar Nebula Wall Bed, Amazon


The Petate

The origins of the petate go back to the Mesoamerican Pre Hispanic period. In fact, the name of this sleeping mat or bedroll is actually derived from the word petlatl from the Aztec language group Náhuatl. The petate is not made of textile. It is generally made out of dried and woven fibers of Leucothrinax morrisii, also known as the palm of petate; though other endemic varieties of palm or palm-like plants are used. Making a petate is a difficult task consisting of multiple, time-consuming steps. The leaves or fronds are carefully cut and then left on a flat surface to dry under the sun. Great care and attention must be taken to ensure that the plant material does not curl or arch during the drying process. Sometimes some of the fronds are stained with vegetable-based pigments in order to allow for colored patterns in the petate design. After this is accomplished, the dried fibers deemed strong enough are used in long and arduous hours hand weaving to create the final product.

Like the Philippine baníg—the first item on this list—the petate can come in all shapes and sizes, and the same weaving techniques are also used to make other items: baskets, hats, toys, and more. In terms of materials used, weaving and design, and even applications of the technique to other novelty items, there’s not much that sets the petate apart from other traditional handwoven mats. What is very different, though, is the way the idea of the petate has been firmly ensconced in the cultural memories of the countries in which it is found. This is likely due to the simple fact that the petate has been around since at least the 15th century. Though the petate is no longer significant as a sleeping mat for daily use, the notion of it remains alive and well in many common colloquialisms and idioms in the Spanish-speaking world.

EcuaLama Petate, eBay