History of Down & Feathers What is Down? What are Feathers? Buying Down Processing Down Fabrics
Buying natural bedding products involves many decisions that can be quite overwhelming. With all the variables involved in natural fill bedding, it can seem like the options are endless. DOWNLITE has put together several important topics to help you understand what to look for when buying natural bedding.
History of Down & Feathers
Many generations ago, some very clever entrepreneurs discovered that they could keep warm during the cold seasons by using a naturally occurring insulator found on waterfowl, such as geese and ducks. Today, down and feathers are a by-product of meat consumption. The geese and duck are mostly found in Europe and Asia, where they are more commonly eaten. By cleaning and sanitizing the down and feathers, they can be used as an insulator for bedding, as well as apparel.
What is Down?
Down is the light, fluffy coating clustered beneath the feathers of waterfowl that protect them from the elements. Most down can be found on the belly of geese and ducks, as this is the part that is exposed to water and must keep the bird warm. Down is a three dimensional cluster with thousands of tiny fibers, but no quill. In every pound of feathers, there are only four to five ounces of down. As nature’s most efficient insulator, down is warm, yet light and lofty. It takes 14 wool blankets to equal the temperature control of one down comforter. Additionally, down has the marvelous ability to breathe; lifting away perspiration so you don’t experience the clamminess which often occurs with synthetics.
What are Feathers?
Feathers have quills and are two-dimensional. They are the rigid plumage found on the outside of waterfowl, and can range in size from 5 cm to several inches. Smaller feathers are often used in bedding products such as feather beds, decorative pillows, and various feather and down blends. In bedding, feathers do provide some insulation, but are mostly used for support.
Duck vs. Goose
Although all birds have some feathers and down, virtually all down and feathers are harvested from geese and ducks. Geese, which are larger birds, generally have bigger down clusters. As a rule of thumb, the larger the bird and the colder the climate in which they live, the larger the down cluster and the higher the fill power of the down. High quality down can be found in both ducks and geese, as the age and climate of bird from different parts of the world dramatically effects its quality. Duck down and feathers are generally less expensive than goose down and feathers for two primary reasons: it’s perceived in the U.S. bedding market as slightly inferior in quality to geese, and the worldwide supply of duck far exceeds that of geese.
Grey vs. White
Down and feathers can come in various shades ranging from pure white to black-speckled grey. Typically, the industry has placed a premium on white feathers and down due to its ability to visually blend in better when filled into white bedding products. American perception has also reinforced this premium on white down over grey; however, there are many grades of grey down that rival the best white down, as color of the feathers and down has no relevance to its quality. Additionally, a newer trend abroad, is that consumers are favoring lighter colored bird meat and this is causing white down to become more available than in the past.
Buying Raw Down & Feathers
About 65% of the world’s production of feather and down comes from Asia, with the remaining source being mostly Eastern Europe. Generally, farmers sell the birds for their meat, and the down and feathers brokers will buy the raw merchandise to be sold to feather and down processors around the world. Supplies of goose and duck feathers and down are usually in greater quantity around the Chinese New Year due to consumption of the birds’ meat by consumers in Asia. Down supplies are a commodity that is sensitive to supply and demand not only from down bedding manufacturers, but also by down apparel and sleeping bag makers. Supply and demand rises and falls with consumer and manufacturer needs and can not be estimated with any reliance.
How are Down & Feathers Processed?
After the unwashed feathers and down are procured, they must be washed and processed for use in bedding and apparel. First, down and feathers are sent through huge washing machines that wash and rinse the raw goods to remove dirt, oil, and bacteria. The fill is then dried and sorted in large separating machines based on quality, feather size, etc.
As do many manufacturers of feather and down, we buy both washed and pre-washed product. Washed goods are imported and are available to use directly upon receipt into the U.S. Pre-washed product must be further processed once it has been received.
Due to the current requirements by the USDA, all of our feather and down that we import into the country must at least be pre-washed. Therefore, all goods have been washed for a minimum of one hour and then steam dried at temperatures ranging from 100 to 120 degrees Celsius for at least thirty minutes. By doing so, all of our fills are properly sterilized prior to entering the country.
In addition to requiring all product to at least be pre-washed, we require each of our vendors to be Certified by the USDA. By filling out a comprehensive application, the USDA certifies our vendors as meeting all requirements set by the USDA and Customs to import product into the U.S.
Fabrics Used in Making Bedding
Down and feather bedding can be made using a variety of fabrics for the outer material known as the ‘shell’ or ‘tick’. Typically, cotton is used because of its ability to easily wick moisture. Most fabrics used in down and feather bedding are bought in China due to their quality and the volume of textile mills and processing facilities there. Some of the finer shells are bought in Europe using German-milled fabrics but they are typically 3-4 times more expensive as their Chinese counterparts.
Shells can be made from using numerous fibers (cotton, rayon, silk) and weaves (Jacquard, Dobby, Damask, Sateen, Twill). The most important thing is that the surface facing the down and feathers is down proof. This is performed using a combination of: making the weave very dense, applying a special surface agent, or calenderizing.
The shells can also have additional surface interest (decoration) by several methods:
- Yarn-Dyed Fabric (The individual yarns are colored as a whole before weaving)
- Piece-Dyed Fabric (The fabric is colored as a whole after weaving)
- Prints (The fabric has a pattern printed on top after dyeing and weaving)
- Embroidery (The application of yarn, thread, or floss to a fabric)