Down vs Feather Pillows – Detailed Comparison 2020

Down and feathers are being used in a variety of different items, pillows and down comforters are some of the product categories that are Down vs Feather Pillows witnessing an increasing usage of these two types of fillings over the recent years. Consumers are taking a keen interest in these products due to the hypoallergenic preferences for pillows and other bedding products on the part of the consumers.

These two fillings are considered as natural, and with the growth of interest in organic materials, the interest in the use of down and feathers has been increasing rapidly. As a result of the growth in the residential as well as commercial sector all over the world, people are opting for better furnishings top match their interior designs and down and feather are proving to be suitable as fillings in pillows, cushions, etc. to allow for a high level of comfort and catering to the modern consumer requirements of being non-synthetic. As more and more demand for eco-friendly products is emerging globally, the use of down and feathers in pillows is witnessing a sharp rise.

Origins of Down and Feathers

The origins of both down and feathers are described below:

Down

Waterfowl are birds that live near water bodies and have got warm coatings on their skin, which protect them from Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020 the cold in their surroundings. These waterfowl consist of birds like goose, swan, or duck. The ‘down’ is the ‘undercoating’ of these birds and consists of very fluffy and light filaments that grow out from a central quill point. This arrangement creates a structure that is essentially in 3D, and it traps air inside to provide a kind of insulation to the birds. The body heat gets trapped and does not escape due to the presence of the trapped air, which provides insulation. The main purpose of such an undercoating for the birds is to provide protection to them against the elements and keep them warm regardless of the temperature in the surroundings. As a result of the natural ability of the down to protect the birds from cold, and due to its hypoallergenic nature, natural origin and softness,  its use is being propagated for use in pillows and many other products, and as mentioned earlier has resulted in a rising demand for down pillows on the part of the consumers.

According to the Guide to the labeling of products from the Competition Bureau of Canada, as the down and feathers have the same origin, a certain allowable quantity of feathers in allowed in the ‘down’ or ‘commercial down.’ The main reason for labeling the down material as such is to reinforce the fact and to show to the consumer that all down material will have at least a small number of feathers mixed in it and that 100% down material is usually not available (Government of Canada, 2000).  Similar definitions exist for the labeling of down in other countries as well. In the United States, any product that has got at least 70% down clusters can be labeled as ‘down.’ However, the minimum down cluster percentage needs to be mentioned clearly and cannot have tolerance of greater than 5% (Federal Trade Commission, 2014). Down clusters, once ready to be used as fillings, are spherical or round. They resemble a dandelion head, and as different types of down obtained from different sources have different levels of quality, are nonetheless, of the same size in every lot. To have an idea of the size of the clusters, a Hungarian down cluster that has got a Fill power of 850 is no larger than a US quarter. The Hungarian goose down is one of the best in the world and is obtained from Hungarian geese. Fill power denotes the amount of space in cubic inches that an ounce of the down material occupies. Higher fill power will yield larger clusters. The larger clusters last longer than the smaller ones and also provide a higher degree of softness as compared to their smaller counterparts.

Geographical Sources of Down

Most of the down used in pillows and other bedding as well as other products are sourced from China, and a major part of the Chinese down originates from ducks. According to the American Down and Feather Council, down is washed before being used for pillows and other products. It gets thoroughly sanitized by going through the cycle of washing and rinsing to remove the bacteria, dirt, and oil. Then, it is dried at a high temperature. After the drying process, down is separated into lots according to the quality levels. Before shipment from one country to another, al Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020 the sanitization procedures need to be completed (ADFC, 2020).  Besides China, Down is also sourced from other countries such as the US, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the European Union. Ducks and geese are, however, not raised purely to obtain down, and instead, they are also used for getting meat, eggs, and foie gras. Similar to the link between the veal industry (calves) and the dairy industry, there are links between the down industry and the foie gras industry); foie gras is fatty liver, which is obtained by force-feeding the duck and geese.

Sustainability of Down Fill

According to the American Council for Down and Feathers (ADFC), down fill provides a natural choice for a sustainable consumer lifestyle. An LCA analysis (Life Cycle Assessment) conducted on the impact of down material tested it against polyester in 5 different environmental areas. These were ecosystems, human health, increasing energy demand, resources, and climate change. Results showed an 85-97% lower impact for down as compared to polyester in all the categories that were analyzed.  In terms of climate change, it was found that down has 18 times less (i.e., only 1/18) of impact as compared to that of the polyester fill (ADFC, 2020b). An infographic on the down industry is available at the Council’s website at this link. The LCA described above was researched and produced by Long Trail Sustainability (LTS), which is a 3rd party, independent institution that specializes in LCAs, and the research was commissioned by International Down and Feather Bureau (IDFB). The sustainability impact of the down material in comparison to the polyester material is thus, proven to be lower.

Factors Determining Quality of Down

A single down cluster has got many fluffy and light filaments that grow out of a quill point at the center. Down is, therefore, a natural product and has got a three-dimensional (3D) structure. There is also a kind of down that is still underdeveloped, and it is made out of soft and fluffy barbs coming out from a sheath. This type of down is called nestling down. The main difference between this regular down and nestling down is that while the former has got quills, the latter does not. The plumage consisting of soft barbs and quips is called Plumule, whereas down clusters could be consisting of regular down, nestling down, or even plumules. It is al; so important to find out which species of birds the down originates from. Goose down is considered better than duck down. Its fill power measures the loft or the fluffiness of the down material, and this is related to the ability of the down to provide insulation. It is measured in cubic inches per ounce. A down material with higher fill power ends up providing better insulation as well as a loft. The cleanliness of the down material can be estimated by looking at its Oxygen number, which is found by soaking the down material in water. Then measurements are made for the organic material.  Oxygen number needs to be as low a number as possible. Very clean down samples usually have their Oxygen number in the range of Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020 1.6 to 3.2. The maximum Oxygen number allowed for down is 10 (IDFB, 2020).

The turbidity of the down material is another factor to consider. It helps to determine if dirt or dust, which could be either organic or inorganic is present in the down material.  Down material under consideration is soaked in water and then agitated. The water is subjected to the clarity test. The level of clarity required by both the US as well as European standards is at least 300 mm. However, very clean samples have a clarity value of 550 mm or more.

Maintenance of Down Material

Clean and care instructions provided by the manufacturers of down material used in the pillow need to be followed properly.  In case, the down pillow is being cleaned at home, it must be ensured that the washing machine does not contain a center agitator. This can inflict serious damage to the down pillow. After washing and cleaning, the fluff or the loft of the down material is gone. The pillow has to be fluffed.  This can be done by placing the down pillow in the dryer at low heat and also placing a few new tennis balls along with the pillow.  The tennis balls tend to allow the down pillow to increase its loft as it tumble dries. The down filling is prevented from clumping as the drying process goes on.

Down Extraction Methods

The down is obtained from the waterfowl in three different ways, and these are as follows:

Post Mortem

Waterfowl like ducks and geese are first slaughtered or killed for their meat and their internal organs. The internal organs are used as foie gras. Then, the birds are scalded in hot water for 2 to 3 minutes so that first, the feathers are removed, and then the down is also removed by machine or manually.

Live Plucking

In this case, the goose or the duck is not killed, and it is held down by the wings or by their necks. Then the feathers are torn from their skin. The skin gets ripped in the process, and the birds are left to recover in the next six to 7 weeks, after which the process is repeated. This ultimately leads to the death of the birds due to trauma, or they are Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020 killed or slaughtered for meat at a later stage. This method has been criticized widely by organizations working against cruelty to animals.

Gathering

The Gathering process involves the removal of feathers as well as down, which has become ripe as a result of molting for geese and ducks. This is also termed as a combing or brushing action that removes the down as well as the feathers which are already on their way to falling out. However, many people criticize this method because it is not technically possible for hundreds or thousands of waterfowl to have their down and feathers molted at the same time, and even if it does occur, not all of them will be at the same stage or level of molting.  The reason is that the feathers and accompanying down usually mature at different times for different birds. This will result in the gathering process become similar to ‘live plucking’ at least in a partial manner. According to a study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), regardless of whether the waterfowl are ‘gathered’ or ‘live-plucked,’ they both result in the birds getting their bones dislocated or broken while many die because of suffocation. Moreover, the skin gets torn, and the wings start to hang (European Food Safety Authority, 2010).

Most manufacturers prefer to source ‘post-mortem.’ obtained down, and as such, the meat and egg industry is closely linked to the post-mortem method of obtaining down. Ethical manufacturers would always investigate that the birds have not gone through gathering or live-plucking before being subjected to the post-mortem method.

Feathers

There is no difference between the origins and sources of down and feathers, and all the text mentioned above about down with regards to the origin, sources, and extraction methods applies to feathers as well. The softness, as well as the quality of the feathers, are different for different feathers. The reason is that each feature has got a different structure. Some feathers are very soft and offer a lot of resilience, while others might not be that soft or resilient. The softer ones are more expensive, and therefore, pillows that use sift feathers are higher priced as compared to those that use softer ones. As described in the section for down, the feathers are also obtained from waterfowl like goose and duck as they are better and softer as compared to those obtained from the land fowl.

Feathers are unique to birds, and they have evolved into biological structures that are not just impressive but also exist in many colors as well as forms. Feathers possess an intricate microstructure, and their anatomy at the microscopic level is indicative of their properties.  On many birds, there is an interlocking Velcro-like structure that enables the feathers to be very flexible, smooth as well as resilient. The functionality, as well as the properties of the feathers, are closely related to the biological structure they possess, which in turn is related to how they went through the evolutionary process over centuries. Feathers are composed of protein beta-keratin. The diversity amongst the feathers in different birds is due to the small modifications during evolution in the basic branching structure aiming to perform certain different functions. Feathers can be subdivided into many categories, which include wing feathers, tail feathers, and contour feathers (Thompson, 2013).

Feather Size

Just like the fill power in the case of down is an important criterion to judge the quality of down, in the case of the Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020 feathers, the size of the feathers plays an important role in determining their quality.  The feathers on the waterfowl like geese and ducks are the outer covering of these birds. The feathers have got quills, and thus, they repel water, and also, they provide the bird with the ability to fly. Down, on the other hand, is located under the protective covering of the birds, and it is very fluffy and light.  The birds get insulated from cold with the help of the down. As feathers protect the birds, in the case of pillows and other bedding, they are an ideal way of providing strength and support, which add to the durability of the pillows as well.  These are also used in decorative cushions. One has to be careful about the use of very large feathers in pillows as this could create the additional problem of the quills poking out after breaking the ticking. Therefore, large feathers despite being soft are not used in the pillows. One way to ensure that the feather quills will ultimately not stick out of the pillow is to use a thicker covering on the pillow. Some people prefer, however, to use feather pillows that have got feather filling, but the outer fill is down. In either of these cases, the quills will not poke outwards.

Properties of Down Pillows

The properties of down and feathers are different, and therefore, the feather pillows and down pillows behave differently. The properties of down pillows are described below:

Softness

The structure of the town has got a very fluffy appearance. It is made up of plumules from which very soft fibers spread in all directions.  This gives the down a cluster type structure and also makes it ideal for insulation. The same structure is responsible for the loft or fluffiness in a down pillow, which also gives it a lot of volumes. Thus, down pillows are very soft as a result of the structure of the down clusters. Larger clusters will make the pillow even softer. Similarly, the more the Fill power of the down, the volume of the down will be higher as measured in cubic inches per ounce, and the pillow will be softer.

Fill Power

Fill power normally ranges from 550 to 850 for down pillows. For a good quality down pillow, the fill power can be Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020 anywhere in the range of 650 to 850.  The down pillow that has got 850 Fill power will be very fluffy and will give a very softy and luxurious feel. It will have larger down clusters that are obtained from larger and more matured birds. Goose down, in comparison to duck down normally, has got more Fill power. This is true because, in terms of size, geese are larger than ducks.  However, as the Fill power of these goose down, pillows are higher, they are also priced more than the pillows made out of duck down.

Fill Weight

Fill weight provides a way to assess the firmness of the down pillow.  Fill weight needs to be lower to ensure that the pillow will be soft while a higher Fill weight will mean that it will provide more support to sleep on and will be on the firmer side.  Fill weight is the number of ounces in the pillow that are used to fill for a certain density, which could be soft, medium, or firm. More than the down clusters themselves, the shell of the pillow in which they are inserted will also determine the level of firmness, though. Gusseted down pillows allow for a softer feel; however, they require more down at a given level of density.

Origin Affects Properties

The origin of the down will also affect the properties of the down pillow. Down from Eastern Europe, especially from Hungary, is considered very high-quality as the birds there are large and mature. They have got more natural as well as a more humane environment as compared to many other places. Certifications like Responsible Down Standard (RDS) (Luppino, 2020), confirm that there has been no live-plucking of birds. RDS is a global as well as an independent standard (Responsibledown, 2020). Another standard, Bluesign, confirms environmental and worker standards, can help to qualify the down, as well in terms of responsible and sustainable sourcing (Bluesign, 2019).

Longevity

Down pillows last for a very long time. A typical life span for a down pillow is 5 to 10 years, provided they are washed and cleaned every six months. The down clusters are soft and get compressed when one puts his/her head on them, but they spring back when the head is removed. This way, they can maintain their life, fluffiness, and volume for a very long time.

Properties of Feather Pillows

The feather pillows exhibit different properties as compared to the down pillows, and these are described below: Down vs Feather Pillows - Complete Guide & Detailed Comparison 2020

Softness

Feather pillows are not as soft as the down pillows. The reason is that the feathers have got quills that have a tubular structure, and they are not naturally made out of soft material. Feathers are supposed to enable the birds to fly and also to provide them with protection. They carry the light part of the wings and therefore are not very soft by themselves. Due to the presence of the quills, the feather pillows tend to provide very good support to the sleeper as he lays his/her head on them but will not appear to be as soft as the down pillows.

Loft

The feather pillows do not have the kind of volume, fluffiness, and loft that the down pillows have. Instead, once the sleeper pouts his/her head on them, they get compressed and stay compressed and flat. The feather pillows do not have clusters, and this factor contributes to the lack of fluff as well. The feather pillows need to be fluffed up manually in the night as well as in the morning. The feather pillows have a feeling of crispiness due to the presence of the quills.

Cooler Sleep

The feathers in a bird do not keep the bird insulated from the cold temperature. This task is done by the down, which keeps the bird warm even in cold temperatures. Therefore, the feather pillows do not trap body heat as the down pillows do, and the feather pillows will, therefore, sleep cooler as compared to the down pillows. If someone sleeps hot in the night or wants to select a pillow for warmer climates, a feather pillow will allow for a cooler sleep.

Affordability

In comparison to the down pillows, the feather pillows are generally cheaper. In case, the pillow is filled with both feathers and down, the pillow with more feathers as compared to down will be priced more affordably.

Maintenance: Down and Feather Pillows

The maintenance for down or feather pillows is pretty much the same. Down or feather pillows easily fit inside the washing machine, and after washing, they will get their fluff back after the drying process. They are also cleaned thoroughly and emerge out of the washing machine fully cleaned and looking as good as new. For a long lifespan for the down pillows, cleaning and washing every six months are recommended; however, the frequency can be increased depending on the usage or the yellowing of the pillow due to oils and sweat. For washing, both hot or cold water could be used; however, some shrinkage is likely if hot water is used. It is recommended to wash two down or feather pillows at one time so that the washer is balanced on the spin cycle. It is good to use the fastest spin speed, and an extra rinse cycle can always be added to ensure proper drying. Only non-chlorine bleach can be used for whitening, and the use of fabric softener is not recommended. Once washed, the drying needs to be done for a few hours, at least until all odor and lumping is gone. If they are not completely dry, mold could appear within 24 hours. While drying, a few new tennis balls or dryer balls can be used.

Down Pillows

Pros

  • Down pillows are very soft.
  • Down pillows insulate and keep the body heat trapped.
  • Down pillows have a very nice loft and fluff easily.
  • Down gets compressed when a person lays his/her head on it but gets back its loft when the head is pulled away.
  • Down pillows maintain their volume for long.
  • Down pillows have long lifespans, and it is normal to use one for 5 to 10 years.
  • They can be washed and dried.
  • They are naturally hypoallergenic.
  • The drying process brings back the fluffiness of the down pillow.

Cons

  • Down pillows are spoiled by moisture or even sweat.
  • It is not recommended to sleep on them after taking a bath at night as the moisture left on the skin could end up spoiling them.
  • The drying process for down pillows could take hours after they are washed.
  • They succumb to the application of pressure in the long run.
  • The down clusters absorb oils from facial creams, moisturizing creams, as well as oils from the skin, which ends up spoiling them.
  • Down pillows might not be suitable for babies and toddlers.
  • Down pillows could cause allergies to some people.

Feather Pillows

Pros

  • Feather pillows provide very good support while sleeping.
  • As compared to synthetic pillows, the feather pillows will last longer.
  • The feather pillow conforms to the shape of the head and the neck.
  • They are very light and can be taken along while traveling.
  • They can be washed in a washing machine and dried.

Cons

  • Feather pillows might carry an odor for some people. This could be a result of the chemicals used to clean or sanitize the feathers during the manufacturing process.
  • Hard parts of the feathers, i.e., quills, could start to poke and come out through the pillow covers with time.
  • The feather pillow might not offer the necessary support for people who have neck problems.
  • Some people might have allergy issues related to the use of feathers.
Comparison Table
Feature Down Pillows Feather Pillows
Softness Down pillows are softer than feather pillows as they have got down very soft clusters. Feather pillows are not as soft as down pillows.
Loft/Fluffiness Down pillows are lofty, and the l; oft comes back after the applied pressure is released. Feather pillows get compressed and do not regain their loft easily unless manually fluffed.
Volume The down pillows are more voluminous. Feather pillows do not have volume due to the absence of loft and fluffiness.
Budget Down pillows are pricier than feather pillows Feather pillows are cheaper and more affordable
Support Down pillows are soft, so the support level is low Feather pillows provide support to the head and neck
Washing Down pillows can be washed in a washing machine Feather pillows can be machine washed
Drying The drying process takes hours after washing The drying process takes long
Odor They give smell when moist with oil or water Moisture and oils could cause them to turn yellow and give out an odor
Hypoallergenic Down pillows are hypoallergenic Feather pillows are hypoallergenic
Allergies Some people develop allergies for Down pillows Some people might have allergy issues with feather pillows
Poking No poking due to soft round clusters The danger of poking is always there and increases with time

Conclusion

While both down and feather pillows are made out of the materials obtained from waterfowl, down pillows are softer than the feather pillows. Feather pillows provide better support. Down pillows provide insulation and also fluff back nicely after use or even after washing. They have a very long lifespan. Feather pillows have lesser loft and volume and tend to become harder with time due to compression. They need to be manually fluffed. Both down and feather pillows are easily cleaned and are machine washable. They need to be dried properly after every wash as moisture and oils left in the pillows can spoil them and make them give an odor.

References

ADFC. (2020a). American Down and Feather Council – The ADFC Seal of Approval. American Down and Feather Council. https://downandfeathercouncil.com/

ADFC. (2020b). Sustainability – American Down and Feather Council. American Down and Feather Council. https://downandfeathercouncil.com/sustainability/

Bluesign. (2019). bluesign® – solutions and services for a sustainable textile industry. Bluesign.Com. https://www.bluesign.com/en

European Food Safety Authority. (2010). Scientific Opinion on the practice of harvesting (collecting) feathers from live geese for down production. EFSA Journal, 8(11), 1886. https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1886

Federal Trade Commission. (2014, October 2). Down…But Not Out: Advertising and Labeling of Feather Down. Federal Trade Commission. https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/downbut-not-out-advertising-labeling-feather-down-0

Government of Canada, I. (2000, March 1). Guide to the Labelling of Down and Feathers. Www.Competitionbureau.Gc.Ca. https://www.competitionbureau.gc.ca/eic/site/cb-bc.nsf/eng/01237.html#IV-1

IDFB. (2020). About Down & Feather. International Down and Feather Bureau. https://idfb.net/about-down-feather

Kawada, T., Kuroyanagi, J., Okazaki, F., Taniguchi, M., Nakayama, H., Suda, N., Abiko, S., Kaneco, S., Nishimura, N., & Shimada, Y. (2019). An Integrative Evaluation Method for the Biological Safety of Down and Feather Materials. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 20(6). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20061434

Luppino, R. (2020). WHAT DOES “RESPONSIBLE DOWN” REALLY MEAN? Textile Exchange. https://textileexchange.org/what-does-responsible-down-really-mean/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw4f35BRDBARIsAPePBHyLm_LtjxgIFaTtOp8Tgvvst7QGtm54qEw_bHqgpt1MoelmKgQsr3AaApifEALw_wcB

Nistor, E., Nistor, G., Bampidis, V., & Christodoulou, V. (2005). Geese and ducks feathers and down. Research Gate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328791797_Geese_and_ducks_feathers_and_down#fullTextFileContent

Responsibledown. (2020). Home. Responsible Down Standard; Responsibledown.org. https://responsibledown.org/

Thompson, M. (2013, December 18). Everything You Need To Know About Feathers. Bird Academy • The Cornell Lab; The Cornell Lab. https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/

TMR. (2020, March 9). Down and Feather Market Trends and Research Insights by 2027. Www.Transparencymarketresearch.Com. https://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/pressrelease/down-feather-market.htm

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