What is kapok - Learn all about this valuable natural fiber from the "silk wool tree".

Kapok –  A Natural fiber for mattresses, pillows and comforters

Natural fibers for comforters and mattresses have significant advantages for well-being. Natural Fibers insulate well, compensate for temperature fluctuations, and allow the skin to breathe.

Because plants produce natural fibers from solar energy and not chemically synthetically from petroleum, they are also superior to synthetic fibers in ecological terms.

What is Kapok

Kapok is a natural fiber from the so-called “silk wool tree.” In the kapok pod, the kapok seed is surrounded by silky fibers designed to protect it, similar to cotton, but kapok fibers are water repellent.

Unlike cotton fiber, kapok does not absorb water or other moisture. It is, therefore, buoyant, which, similar to the coconut palm, has contributed to the kapok tree’s spread and made kapok the traditional filling material for life jackets and life preservers.

Kapok fibers weigh only a fraction of cotton, the lightest fibers known. In addition, kapok fibers are extremely heat retentive and insulating due to air trapping.

Its breathable properties make it easier to release excess body heat into the environment, preventing night sweats. In addition, due to the wax coating of kapok, moisture is not absorbed but directly transferred, which can prevent the spread of bacteria and mites.

Ripe Kapok Fruit (Ceiba Pentandra)
Ripe Kapok Fruit (Ceiba Pentandra)

What is kapok used for?

Kapok filling material is mainly used for bedding products such as kapok pillows and upholstery. The kapok fiber is very soft and light, hollow inside, voluminous and surrounded by a layer of wax on the outside, which is why it is very smooth and shines silky.

All the above Kapok properties make the natural fiber an ideal upholstery and filling material for mattresses, comforters and upholstered furniture. As a result, Kapok bedding, such as kapok pillows or kapok comforters, has been enjoying renewed popularity for several years.

The water-repellent structure and the chemical composition result in another advantage: Kapok is not attacked by moths and does not provide a breeding ground for fungi and germs, which are the prerequisite for dust mite infestation.

Kapok consists of approx. 20% lignin is also found in wood and ensures stability and durability, but it contains little cellulose (35% compared to 95% for cotton), which is utilized by many fungi and small animals.

Thus, kapok is an ideal filling material for mattresses for allergy sufferers, but you are also optimally protected with a kapok bedspread. However, since these findings have not been thoroughly scientifically proven to date, allergy sufferers should seek detailed advice when buying kapok bedding.

Giant Kapok Tree in Rain Forest in Costa Rica
Giant Kapok Tree in Rain Forest in Costa Rica

Especially in colonial times, Kapok was the naturally available and widely used upholstery material of choice. However, Kapok then fell increasingly into oblivion until it was rediscovered due to its excellent Kapok fiber properties and sustainability. The kapok tree is also suitable as an initial colonizer of fallow land and ideal for reforestation.

The only disadvantage of the vegetable down is the fact that it is significantly more dusty than down, cotton or even wool, which has probably contributed to the fact that it has fallen into oblivion somewhat in the meantime.

Kapok can often be challenging to buy, as there are hardly any kapok manufacturers who produce kapok bedding. Kapok mattresses in traditional cellular construction are mainly produced in Indonesia, as this mattress production is largely unknown in the European and American regions.

The advantages of Kapok fibers at a glance:

  • water-repellent
  • breathable
  • shiny
  • light
  • voluminous
  • heat-retaining

Kapok tree, baobab and balsa wood

There are trees whose appearance is incredibly exotic, spectacular and simply fascinating. Such a tree is the silk wool tree or kapok.

Its growth height of 40 to 60 meters is impressive even by tropical standards, as are the typical board roots at the base of the trunk. Kapok fruits are reminiscent of the pumpkin-sized fruits of the famous African baobab tree – also called baobab – to which kapok is related.

However, the stems of kapok are long and straight. Baobab and kapok are woolly plants = Bombacaceae. Kapok bears the scientific name Ceiba pentandra.

The origin of the kapok tree is tropical Central America. However, the light, durable, large kapok fruits, which float like coconuts, enabled their natural spread across the oceans to all tropical regions of the world.

This fast-growing pioneer tree species has a wood similar to balsa: it is light and easy to work. Balsa is also a relative of kapok and very similar to it.

Kapok flowers are large and beautiful, opening in the evening and pollinated by bats and other animals seeking nectar. Kapok leaves are divided into finger shapes, like our chestnuts.

Plant down from the kapok tree

The most remarkable properties and the use and application of the kapok tree have to do with its fibers, more precisely with the seed wool that matures in the fruits or capsules. The term wool tree aptly describes kapok.

However, the wool tree and its natural fiber must not be confused with the world-famous cotton, which grows on comparatively small shrubs. Kapok fibers also enclose the seeds in the capsule and contribute to the wide distribution of the species with the help of wind and water. Unlike cotton, however, the silky fibers of kapok do not absorb water but float dry on the water’s surface.

Kapok fibers can hardly be wetted and are, therefore, buoyant. They are hollow inside, extraordinarily light and surrounded by a wax layer on the outside – like the feathers of waterfowl. Kapok is also known as vegetable down and is used accordingly.

Kapok – Light, soft and breathable like silk

A soft and voluminous material that does not get wet in water and weighs only a fraction of cotton has properties that are otherwise difficult to find in this combination.

Kapok fibers have a completely different structure than other plant fibers; they are very fine, very smooth on the outside, and hollow on the inside. They are the lightest fibers of all. Traditionally, Kapok fibers were used to make life jackets and life preservers.

But kapok can do much more: kapok is predestined for thermal insulation and weight reduction. Before the introduction of foams, kapok was the filling material for upholstered furniture. Today, kapok is a filling for lightweight comforters and ergonomic pillows.

The vegetable down is at least an equal substitute for duck and goose down, which is often also obtained in an animal cruel way. Another ingenious use for the heat-insulating and completely water-repellent natural fiber is mattresses.

Despite their sturdy workmanship and the high degree of hardness of kapok mattresses, they are incomparably light and thus easy to handle or even carry around. In addition, moisture does not accumulate in kapok beds because the hollow fiber does not absorb water vapor but conducts it outside. The result is a dry sleeping climate.

How kapok is produced?

Kapok trees can be found growing wild in all tropical regions. The giant trees yield about 10 kg of fiber per year. One kilogram of pure fiber is obtained from 200 capsules – not because the capsules are so small, but because the fibers are so light and airy.

So one kilo of kapok is a pretty big pile. The mature capsules are cut from the tree with knives and hooks on bamboo poles, opened and dried in the sun. Seeds and fibers are separated by hand or in a blower. The kapok fibers thus purified are not washed, not bleached, and not otherwise chemically or thermally treated.

They are processed in their natural form. The white to yellowish brown, highly lustrous, soft, and delicate fibers are surrounded by a layer of wax. This, together with the extreme lightness of the hollow fiber, makes it difficult to process.

Spinning, weaving or felting is not possible with kapok. Kapok fibers fly around and create far more dust than down, wool or cotton.

This is probably the reason why the once so important and appreciated natural fiber almost fell into oblivion. Kapok mattresses are still made today using traditional craftsmanship.

Sewn-in fabric partitions characterize them. These cells or chambers are stuffed with padding material so they cannot slip. Kapok mattresses are very high quality and durable.

The ecological importance of the kapok tree

As a pioneer tree, the kapok tree is an initial colonizer of fallow land and cleared or otherwise destroyed forest areas. Kapok forms a deep taproot very quickly and grows more than one meter per year already at the beginning of its development.

ecological Kapok tree

A three to four-year-old kapok tree can be nearly 10 meters high. Kapok trees thus contribute to natural reforestation in tropical and subtropical regions around the globe.

Although the most valuable product is fiber, the wood of the fast-growing kapok tree can also be used – for toys and art objects, plywood, boxes and matches. In addition, the oil from the seeds is processed into soap.

Kapok trees can easily become overgrown on agricultural land. Therefore, the wood and fiber use of wild trees are important uses and sources of income for farmers and their families.

The kapok tree provides wood, fibers and oily seeds, i.e., renewable raw materials that grow without pesticides and fertilizers as well as without irrigation and for which no forest has to be cleared anywhere in the world – on the contrary.

Kapok will not give dust mites and moths a chance

Experience shows that kapok mattresses are not infested with moths and are tolerated by people allergic to house dust. How can this be explained for a natural fiber?

It was assumed that a natural bitter substance in kapok kept mites away for a long time. However, from the scant scientific data that exists on kapok fibers, one can see the following correlation:

Kapok – although extraordinarily soft and delicate – has similarities to wood, both in chemical composition and in durability and hygiene.

Wood, or the lignin in wood fibers, is the substance that makes trees, but also wooden houses, furniture and appliances, so solid and durable. Once the wood has dried, it is no longer attacked by insects, fungi, bacteria or other pests.

On the other hand, cotton and other plant fibers consist primarily of cellulose (about 95% in cotton), a substance that fungi and many animals can readily utilize.

Like wood, the water-repellent kapok fiber is low in cellulose (approx. 35%) and high in lignin (approx. 20%). Kapok is, therefore, not a breeding ground for moths and also not for spores and germs because, on top of that, it is entirely water-repellent and remains dry even while sleeping.

Thus also, house dust mites have no habitat in Kapok bedding. Kapok mattresses, pillows and comforters are, therefore, practically anti-allergenic.

House dust mites
House dust mites

How to properly care for kapok bedding?

Sunning, shaking and turning are time-tested and perfectly adequate care measures for all kapok bedding. Heat and direct sunlight are equally suitable for quilts, pillows and mattresses made of kapok.

Because full-size kapok mattresses weigh only about 10 kg and there are foldable models to boot, transporting them out into the fresh air on a sunny day a few times a year is easy.

Kapok Mattres

Together with beating or brushing, this helps regenerate the fibers and maintain quality. Anyway, handmade kapok bedding is very durable. Any bulges in mattresses can be re-stuffed chamber by chamber after years of use, thanks to a zipper on edge.

Also, in kapok pillows, a zipper encloses the inner lining and allows padding or removal of filling material, depending on individual sleeping comfort.

If possible, the water-repellent kapok goods should not be washed.

Available blends also provide washability with cotton and kapok in comforters and pillows, particularly suitable for children.


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