Eider down is rare, expensive, super insulating, and cruelty-free. What is eiderdown, though, and how can you be sure you’re getting the real deal?
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What is Eiderdown?
Eiderdown is the most insulating and expensive down. It comes from Icelandic sea ducks that shed the down naturally. These ducks live in arctic conditions, in the freezing cold sea, which is why they’ve evolved their incredibly insulating under-feathers.
While goose and regular duck down is also insulating and lofty, eider down is even more dense, strong, and insulating. The down has small barbs that trap air and increase wind resistance.
Eiderdown is springier than goose down or down from other ducks. It is extremely resistant to compression, which makes it durable and a great bedding material. It is also excellent for thermoregulation and weighs very little.
This means eiderdown is highly sought after for insulation for super lightweight technical wear in cold conditions, such as for climbing mountains.
Where does eider down come from?
Every year, Icelandic farmers collect a small amount of down from the nests of common Eider ducks on their land.
Because the birds use the down to insulate their own nests, conscientious farmers make sure to leave enough down to keep the birds’ eggs cozy in the nest. The down also helps to protect the birds from predators. Some farmers wait until the nests are empty for the breeding season before collecting the down.
These farmers in Iceland benefit financially from the down, meaning it is in their best interests to ensure the eider duck population remains stable (or increases). Collecting too much down would imperil the ducks and the farmers’ extra cash.
The Common Eider Duck is a large migratory sea duck that lives on the northern coasts of eastern Siberia, Europe and North America. Most (around 85-90%) of the eider down collected for use by humans comes from Iceland. The rest comes from ducks living on the northern coast of Canada.
Finding eider down is far from simple. Farmers have to track down individual nests and harvest the down by hand. In Iceland, the sea birds live on hundreds of tiny islands, with some collectors visiting dozens of islands by small boat to track down the nests that are often hidden on high rocks or in tall grass.
Each nest only contains 15-60 grams of down, meaning it can take a very long time and a lot of work in freezing conditions to find enough down to sell.
Is eider down ethical?
In a word, yes. Eiderdown is ethical.
If you like the idea of down bedding but can’t stomach the idea of goose or commercial duck down, eider down is the answer.
This down does not involve any cruelty to animals, isn’t a by-product of the meat industry, and is totally sustainable. The ducks voluntarily leave the down in their nests. So, unless humans collect it, the down will just blow away and decompose.
While technically not vegan, because it still comes from animals, eider down is as close as it gets and is far healthier and eco-friendly than synthetic vegan down alternatives.
How is eider down processed?
Eider down is a nesting material, meaning it is mixed in with larger feathers, seaweed, sticks, and other plant matter. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 percent of the weight of harvested down comprises these ‘contaminants’ rather than the down itself.
To clean the down, it is first baked in an oven at a low temperature of 120 degrees Celsius for eight hours. This makes it easier to pick out the debris.
Next, the down goes through special sorting machines, including a centrifuge, that filter the down to separate feathers and remaining debris. The down then undergoes a final check by hand to remove any last feathers. This check can take an experienced picker 4-5 hours to process just 1 kilogram of down.
When only down remains, it is washed, pressed, and dried.
How much does eider down cost?
Because eider down is collected in such small amounts, there’s a natural limit to how many genuine eiderdown duvets, pillows, and other down products can be made in a year.
Some estimates suggest only around 4 tons of eider down is available in any given year, which is only enough to fill a single cube van. It takes around 1,300 grams of eider down to stuff a medium warmth Queen-size comforter. Given these numbers, there are likely only 3,000 genuine eider down comforters made each year.
A true eider down duvet can cost in the region of $10,000-$20,000 for a Queen-size comforter. That’s not a typo.
So, despite growing up using the word eiderdown for the comforter at my (British, working class) grandparents’ house, I now know this couldn’t have been genuine eiderdown and was likely a duvet stuffed with synthetic polyester.
Raw eider down not yet picked over for debris and feathers can cost around $330 per kilogram.
How can you tell if eider down is the real deal?
Iceland has strict laws to protect eider ducks.
It is illegal in Iceland to hunt these ducks or sell their eggs. In addition, Iceland has stringent regulations for the final down product and brought in laws in 1970 to certify all eiderdown sold.
These laws include mandatory inspections of down fill before it goes into a final product. The checks look for the weight of the down and the quality.
Icelandic Eiderdown is trustworthy
If you buy an Icelandic eider down product, then, you can be sure it is genuine down that has undergone rigorous testing and comes from well-managed, wild sea birds. Legitimate eiderdown products even come with their own government issued certificate.
Unfortunately, most eider down comforters, duvets, and pillows are made with conventional cotton, semi-synthetic, or synthetic shells.
Thankfully, there is at least one company making genuine eiderdown duvets with organic cotton covers (GOTS certified).
Check out Hraun á Skaga here.