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What is Down?

By J. Beam
Updated May 16, 2024
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Down is the layer of fine feathers found underneath the outer feathers of adult ducks, geese, and other water birds. This same layer of feathers is the only layer a baby bird has. These feathers provide birds with warmth and insulation, which is especially important to birds that spend a vast amount of time in water in colder climates. It is because of this insulation property that many products, such as blankets, comforters, sleeping bags, and jackets are made with down.

Down has many properties that make it an excellent additive to textile products. Though down can be packed tightly into small spaces, it is also able to trap air in its layers and provide thermal insulation. It is considered to be one of the best insulators against cold and is frequently used in outdoor gear such as sleeping bags, coats, and jackets. However superior its insulating properties are to synthetic filler, down falls short of superior in wet conditions because it loses its insulating properties when wet and does not dry quickly.

While down is a popular filler in outerwear, it is more commonly used in bed linens and pillows. In addition to its insulating properties, it is lightweight and thus cooler in warm weather. These attributes make down very popular as a filler for comforters. Many people prefer this type of bedding even though they can be impractical when it comes to washing. Most down comforters can not be washed in regular laundry detergent and great care must be taken when drying them. However, by placing a quality duvet cover over the comforter, the necessary frequency for washing will be greatly reduced.

In addition to natural down, some manufacturers produce alternatives. Down alternatives are generally made with polyester fibers that mimic the loft and insulation of the natural material. For some people, the preference of synthetic stems from a reduction in allergens, lower cost, and easier care. However, high quality down products rarely aggravate allergies and though more expensive, provide superior warmth.

Whether natural or synthetic, down bedding and pillows are by far favorites of many discriminating sleepers. Products made with this material are lightweight, warm, soft and comfortable. Pillows can be fluffed and re-fluffed to maintain comfort and stay cool while sleeping. When shopping for down products, check the manufacturers fill rating, which rates the fill power of the product. The higher the number, the better quality fill. Also look for products with tightly woven cotton outer shells to reduce potential allergens that can enter natural products.

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Discussion Comments

By myharley — On Apr 14, 2012

I always shy away from buying down clothing because of the inconvenience of keeping it clean.

There are so many advantages to wearing this, but I also like something I can throw in the washer and dryer frequently.

Once I had a down sweater that I just loved, but only wore a few times a year so I wouldn't have to spend the money to get it cleaned.

This was the warmest and softest sweater I owned though, and on really cold days there was nothing that kept me as warm as that sweater did.

By sunshined — On Apr 13, 2012

I had a down vest that I would wear under my coat in the winter for extra warmth. There is nothing like down to keep you warm without adding a lot of heavy bulk.

I made the mistake of washing this vest and it was never the same after that.

After a few years, I wore it so much it got a small hole in it. Even with a small hole, feathers were flying everywhere.

I decided it was time to get rid of it and buy myself a new down vest. This time I won't make the same mistake like I did before.

By cloudel — On Apr 13, 2012

My dad bought me a down sleeping bag before our big camping trip one year, and I loved it so much that I sometimes slept on it at home! It is the softest substance imaginable, and lying down on it instantly makes me sleepy.

Also, we went camping in October, when the nights and mornings were pretty chilly. The down sleeping bag kept me warm in spite of the low temperatures, and I hated getting out of it in the morning to go fishing.

When my family comes to my house to stay for an extended visit, I volunteer to use the sleeping bag and let them have my bed. They don't know that I get just as much good rest in the sleeping bag as I do in my bed.

By seag47 — On Apr 12, 2012

I do love the feel and warmth of down, but I hate not being able to wash and dry something that I use often. So, I always choose synthetic down.

That way, I get the benefits without the disadvantages. I have a down blanket that I use whenever I lie on the couch and watch television, and it needs to be washed every couple of weeks. Because it is synthetic, this is no problem at all.

I would hate to be afraid to clean my blanket. I have allergies to everything from pollen to regular old dust, and I would have major issues if I couldn't wash my blanket often.

By shell4life — On Apr 11, 2012

@truman12 – Some companies actually harvest the down by hand, and though this might sound harmless, it can be painful for the birds. I have seen videos of the poor bald birds strutting about afterward with spots of blood on their flesh.

Though some people might be against the killing of birds for food, I think that when they are humanely killed first and the meat and down are gathered afterward, it is much better for the birds. They don't feel a thing.

I would imagine that being plucked while conscious would be sort of like having your hairs individually yanked from your head over and over. This is why I don't like to think about down harvesting, and I avoid buying down products.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 11, 2012

I have a couple of down pillows that I love. My head never gets hot in the summer, and I get a good night's rest on the fluffy stuff.

I thought about getting a down comforter, but I know how obsessive I am about cleaning things often, and it just didn't seem practical. The down pillows are great, though, because I never have to wash a pillow. The pillowcases absorb any moisture that might be present, so I don't have to worry about airing them out.

I particularly love being able to fluff the pillows. I have had synthetic pillows before that fell flat after a year or so and could not be plumped up ever again.

By chivebasil — On Apr 11, 2012

I love down coats but down clothing is always so expensive and hard to clean. I saw a couple of coats last season that looked amazing but they were all way out of my price range. I'm working on getting there but I've go a long way to go.

By truman12 — On Apr 10, 2012
How is goose down harvested? There are so many things made of down these days. It seems like it would take a whole army of geese giving up their feathers just so we can have a comfortable night's sleep.

Seriously, does anyone know how well the geese are treated? Is it a sustainable practice done with some sense of responsibility for the animal or is it just like an industrial chicken farm?

By backdraft — On Apr 09, 2012

I have a goose down jacket that I absolutely love. It is so warm and soft. I live in Baltimore and we get some bitterly cold winters. I have had this jacket for years and it is all that I need to get me through even sub zero temperatures.

I also have a down comforter that is just as warm and comfortable. I don't know what it is about goose down but those little birds know how to grow a feather.

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