Picking apart a pillow-top mattress

A sagging mattress is bad for youJenny and I have both been suffering from a number of muscular and back pain problems lately. We initially put it down to our lack of exercise and generally unhealthy lifestyle, and while that’s all too true, we eventually discovered that the mattress was the main culprit.

The one that we have was the one we bought when we first got married, so we didn’t skimp, and got a fairly expensive model with a pillow top. This seemed like a good idea at first: it was comfortable, had good support, etc.

Fast forward a few years and the pillow top was showing distinct signs of the many hours we’ve spent asleep. There were two body-shaped cavities caused by the sagging foam; these shapes were not “contoured to the shape of our bodies to maximise support, blah blah blah” but horribly uncomfortable averages of all of our sleeping positions over the years. We found that we’d be constantly be sleeping slanted no matter how we positioned ourselves on the thing, not to mention the hill in the middle. 10 year warranty? Bleh. Not covered.

As a bargain hunter, my natural instinct was to go shopping for a new mattress. It’s then that I discovered the sad truth that almost all mattresses come with pillow-tops now – the manufacturers have got this scam down to a fine art (several sales people admitted as much to me).

We went to several places and tried many mattresses, but after several such failed expeditions I decided to take matters into my own hands. Going from advice that I found through Google, I decided to remove the pillow-top foam layer. Here’s a brief description of the process:

  1. Unstitch the edge – relatively straightforward because it’s easy to see where the layers are, since the thing is literally just an extra layer sewn on top of the mattress. We tried to unstitch as little as possible but still ended up doing 2 adjacent sides.
  2. Detach the foam layer – our model used long thin plastic thingies to keep the layers in place. Y’know, like those things that hold tags onto clothes in the shops with a wide bit at either end and a stringy part in the middle. Yeah, that. I just used a hobby knife to cut them all.
  3. Remove the foam layer – this is a lot harder than it sounds. The friction between the layers meant that it wasn’t simply a matter of yanking it out. That’s why we had to unstitch half the top, so that we could separate the layers as much as possible so it would be easier to pull.
  4. Sew the top back on – in theory you could just toss the whole thing and just buy a new mattress topper, pad or overlay to replace it, but on ours, the top layer had some foam cells and a thinner foam layer glued directly underneath. These probably wouldn’t have contributed much (if anything) to the sag, so we decided to keep it.

End result: an almost good-as-new (firm) mattress, and anywere between $700 – $1500+ saved. Let’s be realistic about the results though. It’s not as if the springs themselves hadn’t sagged in 5 years – the middle still has some height to it, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was with the foam.

8 Comments

  1. Chris

    Thanks so much for posting this… very helpful. I too had searched in google about the problems with pillow tops and if people had successfully removed them. I purchased my pillow top (Sealy Eurocomfort) 3 years ago and loved it when I tried it out. Over the past 6 months to a year I started getting pain in the middle of my back, really tight muscles that never seemed to relax. I work in front of a computer all day and at that time was overweight so I attributed these symptoms to those issues. I recently dropped the weight and changed my posture at work and to be honest, my back issues got worse. In the back of my mind I knew it was probably the mattress (never had issues with old stiff mattress) but also didn’t want to spend another $1000 on a new mattress. After reading this article (and a few others: http://www.instructables.com/id/Hacking-a-Pillow-top-Bed/) I decided to jump in and remove the pillow top. Specifically the foam overlay. As soon as I cut around the pillow top layer (3 sides were needed) I had access to the foam insert and was successfully able to cut the white plastic thingies. I simply removed the foam and stitched the top layer back to the sides. I was lucky enough to have a thin pad on top of the pillow top so I didn’t have to put anything on top of the mattress afterwards. I’ve slept on this for 4 nights now and can’t believe the change. My middle back pain is gone. I highly recommend this to anyone who is not happy with their pillow top. Saved me money and a hassle. It only took me 45 minutes to cut out the pillow top and hand stitch everything back. Thanks Caesar!

    • No worries, Chris. The added benefit is that you won’t lose any more sleep over throwing away a perfectly good mattress and buying a new one!

  2. Allan

    I have the same problem. After five years our pillow top is sagging and I’m laying here with chronic lower back pain. I was looking for the cheaper way out also. By cutting off the pillow top I could save on buying a new mattress. After all it’s just a normal mattress under the pillow top anyway. I am great full I have found your page and read what you have done. I also like the comment above. I am about to do the same. I am excited about having a firmer mattress and getting a good nights sleep, pain free.

  3. Mary

    I am very picky with my mattress, just a thin layer of foam too much and it can be unbearably soft for me. I got a pillow top pocket spring mattress and found it slightly too soft resulting in me getting a tinge of backpain. So I just opened up the pillow top and took out the offending layer of memory foam. Now it’s perfect. I recommend to anyone that they should consider D.I.Y on their mattress if they don’t find it comfortable. Also I would suggest mattress toppers that come in many forms (latex, memory foam, normal foam) that can be great to replace old sagging pillow tops.

    • Great advice, Mary. Thanks for popping by!

  4. Ashley

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve noticed that my mattress (which is less than a year old) has been bothering my back. I’ve been sleeping on the floor with a yoga mat and have noticed a dramatic difference.

    I’m going to follow up with the retailer, and if they can’t offer any reasonable solutions, try to remove the pillow top on the mattress.

    For those of you that have tried this, have the effects been long-lasting? Or do you find that it is more an issue of the innersprings which are no longer supportive? And would it be worth it to remove the pillow top to put on a foam topper to make the mattress feel more firm?

    Thanks again for the post, and any suggestions you can provide.
    Ashley

    • Hey Ashley, since writing the article 3 years ago we’re still using the very same mattress, and it is entirely tolerable and it’s going on 7 years now – the springs naturally last much (much, much) longer than the foam layer. The warranty is supposed to cover the mattress for 10 years, however the fine print states that the foam layer height difference must be greater than 2cm (or an inch), which it wasn’t. But my body could clearly feel it.

      If you take out the foam the mattress will be very firm. But then you have the option of adding any kind of mattress topper (of any firmness or thickness you like), including memory foam or whatever takes your fancy. Then when that wears out, you can simply replace it without having to toss the entire mattress.

      Good luck!

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