Inside Scoop: Down
Ever wonder how feathers make their way into sleeping bags and jackets?
With camping season upon us, we’re reaching for our summer sleeping bags and light down jackets to keep us warm in the high country and cozy around the campfire (that is, if you’re in an area without a fire ban). But how are down products made? What kind of standards are out there, helping ensure humans aren’t exploiting the environment and animals like geese and ducks?
Garret Nixxon, at the Feathered Friends Seattle Factory- photo courtesy of Feathered Friends
At the Seattle-based down specialty company Feathered Friends (which manufactures down sleeping bags, down apparel, down bedding, and more), their commitment to sustainability harvesting and processing down has stayed at the forefront of the company’s mission since its founding in 1972. They’ve created an example of how to responsibly source down, manufacture down products, and keep their products in shape for decades of adventure.
Garrett Nixon, Feathered Friends’ chief production officer, explains both responsible sourcing and durable construction play essential roles in how their products are made. “We make our gear to last,” he says. “One of the most sustainable things you can do is not purchase new gear every season and send old gear to the landfill. By sourcing the highest-quality materials and having exacting production standards, our products last many, many years. We love it when people tell us they have a 20 or even 30 year-old sleeping bag or jacket that still keeps them warm!”
photo courtesy of Feathered Friends
According to Nixon, “When it comes to sourcing down, we were one of the first brands to purchase and use RDS-certified down (today’s premier materials certification).” Acknowledging how collective work across the industry has paved the way for more and more companies to join in responsible sourcing, he adds, “A huge thanks goes out to the big guys like The North Face that had the resources to spearhead an initiative like this; it never would have come about without the pressure a company of that scale can apply.”
As you’re looking to upgrade or add down to your summer camping kit, keep the sourcing of down and construction of down garments in mind.
Sourcing and production
Just like it matters where your food comes from, it matters where your down comes from. Like vegetables at the grocery store have labels to help you identify its origin and growth circumstances, so too does down: some brands are making it easier and easier to tell exactly where down came from, how it was acquired, and the ways in which it’s been processed.
Feathered Friends purchases down domestically and also imports it directly from Europe—all of which is certified under the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), a series of guidelines and certifications created by the global nonprofit Textile Exchange. The organization aims to ensure down and feathers come from animals that have not been subjected to any unnecessary harm, and promotes climate action across the textile industry at large.
photo courtesy of Feathered Friends
“Standards like RDS have given us more insight into a supply chain that can feel opaque at times,” Nixon says. “We've always committed to sourcing the best down available, and increased transparency has made it easier for us to uphold that standard. … We only work with long-time, trusted suppliers, and test all of our down at IDFL labs to assure quality standards.” (IDFL is an international textile auditor.)
“Another sustainability advantage is having our own factory based in Seattle. We're able to use every bit of the materials that go into our products,” Nixon explains. “Contractors typically require you to ship 5-10% more material than a production run requires to account for recuts, flaws etc. if that material doesn't end up being used it often just becomes waste.”
Bags of down in storage- photo courtesy of Feathered Friends
To further promote transparency and consumer education, Feathered Friends employs a service called Down Tracker. Nixon explains, “Down Tracker started as a way to communicate to our customers information that we've always required from our suppliers.” How it works: they assign a unique identifier to each batch of down used, and when a product is made, they add the identifier to the product tag. The customer can then take that identifying code, enter it into the down tracker, and can see things like the country of origin, verified fill power, cluster count and other materials analysis.
Now, how does the down go from a bag of fluffy feathers to a warm jacket or sleeping bag? At Feathered Friends, the process is somewhat unique. “We usually fill sleeping bags and jackets after an order is placed. This guarantees that the down is in the best possible condition,” Nixon explains, adding a side note: “Brands that rely on outsourcing have to purchase in large quantities and given how bulky something like a down sleeping bag can be, they have to compress their product for shipping and storage. Down that is stored compressed for long periods of time loses its resiliency to loft.”
When Feathered Friends receive an order of down, it arrives in large bags. “Delivery day is kind of wild—a crew of folks stops what they're doing and all pitch in to help unload the down from the container and move it through our factory to the filling and storage areas. We go through the down quickly, but right after a large delivery we have bags of down stacked in every available space in our factory. When it's time to fill a sleeping bag or jacket, one of our stuffers takes a partially sewn shell and uses a vacuum-like machine to blow down into the product. The filling is done by weight (grams).”
At this point the down tracking number is attached to that product, Nixon says. “When we switch to a new batch of down, the tracking numbers get updated also.”
Feathered Friends makes a variety of products with a few different fill powers, so they tend to focus on one fill power at a time (e.g. 950 fill power sleeping bags, then 900 fill power jackets, etc.) After the sleeping bag or jacket is filled, it goes to the finishing station where it's sewn shut.
The pros, the cons
There’s an age-old debate among outdoorists: synthetic or down insulation? What’s best for you depends, of course, on the scope of your needs. Performance-wise, Nixon puts it simply: “The only time down becomes a liability is in extremely wet conditions, for all other purposes down is a better insulator, it's lighter, and more compressible.”
And in terms of comparing the impact of down and synthetic insulation on the environment, “Down is certainly a superior product from a sustainability perspective,” Nixon says. “At the end of life down can literally be buried in the dirt where it will rapidly biodegrade, you can't say that for a synthetic product.”
Synthetic insulation is made with polyester fibers that are designed to replicate the qualities of down (even when/despite getting wet). These polyester fibers are originally created from petroleum, though now you can sometimes find recycled synthetic insulation, as in products like what’s included in Rab’s Cirrus Flex 2.0 line, Columbia’s Three Forks Black Dot Jacket, and The North Face’s line of Thermoball jackets and vests.
Sewing a jacket closed after it's been filled with down- photo courtesy of Feathered Friends
Caring for down products
Keep your gear clean. Folks often fear washing down products—it's an unfounded fear! “Body oils are naturally acidic so any sweat that makes it into your insulation can start breaking down the protein structure of the down plumes,” explains Nixon. “Fortunately this is a slow process, so if you're diligent about washing your down products they will last for many years and perform better for it.”
There are a few tricks that help with a proper clean. Always check the washing and care information for your down product, usually detailed on its tags or the product’s website (Feathered Friends has a washing and care section that doles some useful info). In summary:
- When washing, use a mild, non-detergent soap and warm water
- If using a washing machine, only use front-loading machines (don’t use top-loading washers with agitators; they’ll damage products)
- Turn sleeping bags and jackets inside out, per Feathered Friends’ website: water will escape through the lining material more easily than it will through the water resistant or waterproof shell material during the spin cycle
- When air drying, lay items flat (air dry only in warm, dry weather)
- Always finish in a dryer, (only large front-loading dryer) set to medium heat (a too-small dryer risks damaging larger products like comforters and sleeping bags)
- Periodically go through the item and manually break up the clumps of down that form during the wash process
- Avoid mildew by ensuring your items are completely dry before storing them
Don't store down products compressed. Most down products come with breathable cotton storage sacks that should be used when storing sleeping bags for the long term, and garments like jackets and vests should be hung up when not in use (not left in a stuff sack).
Also: periodically replenishing DWR finishes will help maintain product performance over time.
“There's always something ‘new’ and exciting out there,” Nixon says. “Oftentimes it doesn't live up to the initial hype but we're constantly testing new fabrics and ideas that we can incorporate into our line.”
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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