I love my down jacket – especially now in the cold and dark – it’s light and warm, both really important considerations whenever I’m stuffing a backpack for a few nights in the backcountry (which, o.k., I admit doesn’t happen often) – or even when I’m walking the neighborhood.
Nothing is quite as good as down, the original fill for jackets and sleeping bags, and still the super hero of insulation. Down comes from waterfowl, which have down clusters under their waterproof feathers to keep them warm in the cold, wet conditions in which they live. Unlike feathers, which have a stiff shaft with barbs sticking out on either side, down clusters have a soft, fine stalk crowned with a puff of very fine fibers at the top. High quality down is so light that if you closed your eyes and someone dropped a pile of it into your hand, you wouldn’t even feel it (until it started to get warm). Down comes in a range of qualities (low quality down, for example, is usually mixed with a certain percentage of feathers): duck down tends to be lower quality than goose down (with the exception of down from the arctic eider duck, which is very high quality). Hungarian goose down is generally regarded as the best source of down.
But one thing is for sure: pound for pound, nothing insulates like good down.
Down keeps us warm by trapping the maximum amount of air (for warmth) with the minimum amount of material (for light weight and packability). That means that a down jacket will be lighter weight than a comparably warm synthetic. It will also be easier to pack and will stuff down smaller.
Down also has the advantage of durability: Properly cared for down gear can handle being stuffed and unstuffed hundreds of times, and can last a lifetime. Last but not least, down is comfortable; it is hard to beat the feeling of being enveloped in the light, soft warmth of down, and down’s higher breathability gives down gear a little broader comfort range than synthetics.
But what I have read about the horrific way down is harvested left me a more than a bit sick to my stomach.
Most down comes from what is known as “live plucked” birds. Live plucking means that, typically, geese and ducks are lifted by their necks, their legs are tied, and their feathers are pulled out in large chunks in a process that the industry refers to as “ripping” The birds struggle and panic, sometimes even breaking limbs in an attempt to escape. A 2009 Swedish television program, Kalla Fakta, produced a two part documentary on the topic of live-plucking in Hungary which revealed:
…birds on their backs screaming and struggling to free themselves from their tormentors as their down is ripped from their bodies at rapid speed. Afterwards, several birds are left paralyzed on the ground with large flesh wounds. The birds with big gaping wounds are then sewn back together with needle and thread on site by the workers themselves and without any anesthetic.
Birds are live-plucked for the first time at about ten weeks old, and are plucked again four to six times a year until they’re sent to slaughter at about four years old.
Ducks and geese are not the only birds raised for feathers. Others include fancy roosters (for feathers used as baits for fly fishermen, and for hair extensions) and ostriches. I could continue with additional incidents of this torture but I’ll spare you (and myself).
The documentary Kalla Fakta estimates that as much as 50-80% of the world’s down is from live plucked birds. Major producing countries are Hungary, Poland and China (which produces 80% of the world’s down). The documentary was widely aired in Europe, and as a result both the European Down and Feather Association and the China Feather and Down Industrial Association argued that the percentage is much smaller and that the live-plucked down is more expensive and mainly exported to Japan, where it is especially sought after. IKEA conducted its own investigation after the documentary, and verified the high numbers.
Live-plucking is illegal now in the E.U., but there are no sanctions to enforce the law. In the U.S., live-plucking is not an industry practice, but the U.S. imports down from the major down producing countries. Surprisingly, many companies actually highlight the fact that feathers used in their products are obtained from birds who are not killed, suggesting that live-plucking is the preferred alternative. The Daily Mail did a story on live-plucking in 2012 and asked many fashion brands about the source of the down used in their products – their response, or lack thereof, is telling.
Down does have an Achilles heel: moisture. Get your down jacket wet and you freeze. Wet down loses its loft and all of its ability to keep you warm – and it takes a long, long time to dry. Enter synthetics.
We are no fan of synthetic fibers, but the reality is that they are here to stay and they do make our lives easier in some ways. And synthetic insulation has not yet matched down for light weight and warmth, but it has some advantages – the biggest of which is that it keeps its warmth while wet. Because the synthetic fibers don’t absorb moisture, they do not change shape and consequently do not lose loft if they get wet. A soaking wet jacket or sleeping bag will never be comfortable or nearly as warm as a dry one, but at least a synthetic insulated bag will retain some insulating ability. It will also dry considerably quicker than down, which can take days to dry out in the backcountry. Another benefit is that synthetics, by virtue of the fact that they are man-made, are hypoallergenic and a good choice for people who are allergic to the dust that can accumulate in cheaper down. Though they vary in quality and consequently price, synthetics in general are less expensive than down and so provide a wider range of options for people who are on a budget. Finally, synthetics are relatively easy to care for. While washing a down sleeping bag takes a great deal of care and most of a day, synthetic gear can usually be machine washed and dried quickly either hanging or in the dryer.
Drawbacks are also part of the package: synthetics are not as light or packable as down. They also tend to be stiffer in feel and so not as comfortable in both clothing and sleeping bags. The other drawback is longevity. Repeated stuffing and un stuffing of synthetic fibers has the tendency to damage them and cause them to clump up, undermining even dispersion of insulation and causing cold spots.
There are a wide variety of synthetic insulation alternatives to down: PrimaLoft, Polarguard, Thermolite, Thinsulate, Thermoloft and Climashield are all alternatives to down and there are others. Synthetic insulation is essentially polyester threading that is molded into long single threads or short staples to mimic lofty down clusters. Thinner and lighter threads fill voids and trap warm air more effectively, while thicker strands sustain the loft and durability. But many of these products include such additions as “anti-microbial protection”, which adds to the chemical burden. Being made from crude oil and sitting in a landfill for centuries is also carries a certain gravitas.
Even with the hoopla about hydrophobic down (i.e., down that “features a molecular level polymer applied to individual down plumes during the finishing process at the nano level – a chemical that by the way one source said is one of those banned in the E.U.) which is encouraging people to reassess down as their preferred insulation. But I will search for non down products, despite my aversion to living with synthetic fibers. I don’t think the animals deserve these fates, nor is sufficient quantity produced currently to meet the growing demand for down.
 Ari Solomon, Down with the Truth, Huffington Post, Sept. 22, 2009
 Animal Welfare Institute, Down on the Goose and Duck Farm, 2009
 Boggan, Steve, “Feathers ripped from birds’ backs and gaping wounds sewn up with no pain relief: The barbaric cost of your winter coat”, Daily Mail.com, November 28, 2012.