I have a goose-down jacket, which I really like because it is so light and warm, but I’m wondering if they have to kill the goose to get the feathers.
—Jim Neiber, via email
Geese aren’t sheep. Their feathers are plucked only after the goose has been slaughtered, harvested for its liver and meat. Down insulation is simply an efficient use of a byproduct, one that is no more likely to raise the bile of PETA than the making of bologna.
The liver is the most prized part of the goose, being sold for upwards of $200 a pound as foie gras, or fatty liver. Ancient Egyptians learned that they could fatten migratory waterfowl such as geese and ducks by force feeding them. A gorged bird can have a plump, buttery liver up to 12 times larger than normal, producing up to three pounds of the organ coveted by the gastronome. For centuries, the French (and now the Chinese) have used a similar fattening process called gavage, or to gorge, where they place a tube in the bird’s throat and shovel down the groceries. Up to four pounds of grain mash are pumped into the bird two to three times a day. Here in America, we have a similar process, except we call it Happy Meal and practice on small children instead of birds. When the goose reaches maximum plumpness, it gets axed. The bird’s proverbial golden egg, its liver, goes to the cannery, the unctuous flesh is peddled at market and the down is sold as insulation.
Feeling faint? Consider eiderdown. This insulation from the wild eider duck of Iceland is plucked from the female’s breasts or gathered from the nest lining, where the soft feathers protect the young birds from the Arctic cold. In this case the bird is not harmed and the feathers are collected only after the chicks have left the nest.
Eiderdown, although from ducks, which typically do not produce down that can compete with that from a goose, is highly compressible yet has fantastic loft and a unique hook design that interlocks the plumes, minimizing shifting, the bane of all feather insulation. Shamans even claim that eiderdown can heal. Eiderdown is rare and spendy. Less than 9,000 pounds are produced annually and one nest produces just half an ounce — there are more Ferraris than eiderdown jackets. Usually reserved for luxury comforters, eiderdown broke into the climbing world in 1982 when a Russian team wore BASK eiderdown parkas on Everest.
Both goose and duck down is valued for its fill power. Outside the world of smut, fill power is the amount of cubic inches one ounce of down can occupy. The higher the fill power, the better the down will insulate. Down with a fill power of 600 or greater is excellent, and 700 is standard in the climbing industry, where you can find claims as high as 850.
You may notice over time that your down jacket or sleeping bag has lost some of its loft. Loft reduction doesn’t mean that the plumage has collapsed. Down, like the stubble on your chin, is made from keratin, a tough fibrous protein with a nearly infinite shelf life: Feathers thousands of years old have been found in Egyptian tombs. Rather, down loses loft because your body grease is coating it. A washing can restore it, or ruin it if you do it wrong.
Hand wash a down jacket or bag in a bathtub filled with warm water. Use a gentle soap like Ivory Flakes or a special down soap, available at most climbing shops. Submerge the item and carefully knead the down. Washing is easy; rinsing and drying, like cheating on your taxes, take a lot of time to do right. Rinse the bag in warm water two, three or more times until you are certain it is fully rinsed. Drain the tub, then fold the jacket or bag, and carefully press out the water. Lift the sopping thing out of the tub, set it in a washing machine, and run the spin cycle to centrifuge out most of the water. Toss it in a dryer, and dry on low, checking often to make sure the bag isn’t getting hot. When the down clumps, gently pull the clumps apart. Finish with a two- or three-day air dry. Hibachi!
This Gear Guy question appeared in Rock and Ice issue 160 (June 2007).
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