What makes a truly spectacular down comforter? Today, we’ll learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff… or in this case, the feathers from the down.
Let’s start by answering the fundamental question: what exactly is down?
Down is the layer of soft, fine feathers that all birds have. It sits underneath the coarser exterior feathers—called contour feathers—that cover their bodies and help them fly. When they’re born, baby birds are covered with natal down but will later acquire the stiff, wiry, barbed feathers we’re more familiar with.
Why Choose Down For Your Comforter?
Unlike contour feathers, down feathers have no quills—those are the pointy bits that run the length of the feather. Down is also incredibly light, soft, and breathable. But most importantly, it plays a vital role in heat retention.
You could call down nature’s insulation. Despite how light and fluffy it is, down is a powerful thermal insulator that serves birds and humans alike. The loose three-dimensional structure of down feathers creates pockets of fiber. These, in turn, trap warm air, protecting against heat loss. For both birds and humans, this means preserving precious body heat during the cold months and chilly nights.
Fill ‘Er Up
Fill power is another measure of comforter quality. In particular, this term refers to the insulation quality of the down. The fill power is the space in cubic inches that one ounce of down fill occupies. The higher the fill power, the greater the percentage of down clusters. High fill power = better insulation.
A comforter with a fill power under 600 is considered good quality and is usually best used in warmer climates where temps rarely dip below freezing. Conversely, anything with fill power above 700 is the crème de la crème of down comforters. They’re terrifically fluffy, warm, and expensive.
As we know, down is something that all birds have, but when buying a down comforter, you’ll likely be choosing between goose down or duck down. So what’s the difference? Obviously, the main one is that one comes from a goose and the other comes from a duck, but does it make a difference in quality, warmth, or cost?
Goose down is traditionally used in down comforters and is considered higher-quality, making it the preferred fill for many down products. Goose down isn’t so vastly superior to duck down, but perception can carry a lot of weight!
As a rule of thumb, the goose is a bit more expensive than the duck. This is probably because ducks are much more common—and accessible—than geese. White geese, in particular, are preferred for comforters as their down won’t show through the white fabric. Still, geese are bigger birds, which means it takes fewer geese to produce a high-fill comforter.
The exception to that rule is down from the common eider duck, a sea duck that mainly inhabits northern coastal regions. Luxury home goods company Icelandic Down specializes in eiderdown products. They use a sustainable and ethical method to gather their eiderdown: in the areas where eiders gather to lay their eggs, farmers create sanctuaries for them to roost. There, the female eiders create their nest through a unique show of motherly love: she plucks the down feathers from her own chest to keep her eggs safe and warm.
No eiders are harmed during the harvesting process at Icelandic Down. The farmers merely gather the down after mother and chicks have left the nest. This means the yield from each nest is relatively small, and as a result, the price for these duvets is high. But considering the unparalleled comfort, warmth, and ethical harvesting, many customers think these eiderdown comforters are worth their weight in gold.
It is worth noting that not all down is collected the same way. Many birds naturally lose their feathers when molting, which typically happens once or more per year. Down can be collected during this time, which is entirely ethical. However, because molting is only a periodic occurrence, ethically harvested down can be considerably more expensive than the alternative.
The majority of down used for comforters is harvested from ducks and geese that have been slaughtered for meat. In a small percentage of cases, down may be acquired through live-plucking, which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’re the kind of person who cares about the ethics of the products you buy, do your research before purchasing a down comforter. And if you find the whole idea of feathers a bit off-putting, why not look into synthetic down products?