Now that I’ve started off this post with one of the worst puns of all time, let’s begin.
There are three types of down that we have to become comfortable with first. Natal down, body down and powder down (yes, the word down will begin to lose all meaning soon. Please bear with me.) Natal down is primarily found on birds in their younger development, while body down is what is found underneath the contour feathers on birds when they have reached adolescence. Body down provides the warmth for the animal, trapping heat that the body gives off and storing it between the bristles of the feathers. Other than trapping warmth, the feathers offer some sort of water protection and buoyancy for waterfowl.
Human use of down began in several places all at once. There are records of it being sold to the Dutch from the Russians in the 1600s, being labeled as “bird down” while Norwegian cultures began using it for insulation as early as the 1890s. The Norwegian cultures harvest Eiderdown primarily, following strict guidelines for the harvesting of the feathers. However, the most common species (these days) to collect down from is Canadian geese. There are regulations that restrict the collection of feathers from these animals, though the majority of its cultivation comes from birds that are killed for their meat.
Since the majority of my experience with down comes from my work at REI, a lot of my knowledge is based around what the down does for the wearer. Often, especially in outdoor circles, down is measured in fill. This is a measure of the number of cubic inches displaced by an ounce of given feathers. The higher the feather’s fill power, the more those feathers will store heat from the source (in this case, jackets and coats). At REI, you will often hear terms like “550-fill” or “700-fill” thrown around with careless abandon by the employees. In light of a longer explanation, the down fill dictates the type of feathers that are used. In 550-fill coats, the feathers are larger and have less spaces between the fibers in which to store heat. In 800-fill coats, the feathers are much finer with more spaces for heat to be trapped (they also weigh quite a bit less, and are favored for lightweight gear and cold-weather conditions).
One of the major drawbacks surrounding down insulation is the inability for it to remain warm if it gets wet. It will lose the ability to insulate almost completely, making a waterproof (or at least water resistant) layer on the outside almost mandatory. A lot of companies will add at the very least a DWR coating – durable water repellent – or, if they’re on the more expensive side, a full GORE-TEX layer on the outside. But that’s another aspect of clothing that we’ll have to explore sometime in the future.
Regardless, we have a decent understanding of how down functions as an insulator (and a very brief history of the beginning of down as a tradable material). Now I get to show you some of my favorite jackets I’ve seen recently, along with some point about what make them stand out in my mind.
When someone asks me, usually at work, “what’s your favorite parka?” I simply have to respond with this. It’s quite a bit above the bar for everyone’s average winter coat, but the construction warrants the rather extreme price tag. Featuring a top-of-the-line GORE-TEX outer shell, 800-fill down insulation and a length that reaches down to the middle of the thigh.
Essentially, this is the warmest city-built parka that Arc’teryx offers. Well worth the nearly $900 price tag, this is easily going to be my top recommendation for the winter months.
One of the few coats I feel that people should actually pay full-price for, the Patagonia Down Hoodie is a beautifully-made coat with one of the most ironclad guarantees in the outdoor industry. As I said in my previous post, Patagonia is one of the few brands with a conscious as large as their warehouses. Featuring an 800-fill Advanced Global Traceable Down, this coat shows that the buyer *does* care about where the materials come from.
The traceable down standard ensures that none of the feathers found in the coat are force-fed or live-plucked (two practices which unethical suppliers will do to get more feathers out of more birds faster).
Marmot was started in 1974 by a local resident to Grand Junction, Colorado, and two students from the University of Santa Cruz, who wanted to make their own adventure/mountaineering gear. The rest, they say, is history.
This jacket wears beautifully, keeping the wind easily at bay and providing a good shelter from snow and (to a lesser degree) light rain. The quilted down adds a bit of interest to the casual eye, and the larger-than-average collar helps with blocking out the wind. Overall, I absolutely love this coat, though I do need to wear it more often.
So truth be told, I worked at The North Face for about a year and a half. It was a fine place to work, but nothing really to write home about. However, most of my product knowledge when it comes to insulation and cold-weather wear comes from that place. My education started there.
While this coat might be one of the more colorful ones on this list, I love the retro-inspired color-blocked pattern and relaxed fit, making this the perfect jacket to layer when the mercury falls even further than usual during Michigan winters. However, this coat is different from the three above it in more ways than just the colors.
This coat features a synthetic down insulation, not an organically-sourced animal down like the Thorsen, Down Hoodie or Burdell Jacket. Synthetic down works under the same principals as organic down, but rather it is made of recycled water bottles which are spun into fibers which trap heat in the same manner as organic down. The main advantage to a coat like this is that, when it gets wet, it retains the ability to insulate.
Last but not least, the final entry on this list isn’t a coat in the slightest.
Rumple was founded in 2013 the simple goal to make the lightest, warmest blankets around. The solution was to make their blankets out of down. High loft, easily compressible down – as I said above – retains an unbelievable amount of heat. These blankets (I have one, as do my two sisters) have managed to make car camping, hammocking and sitting on the lawns of Calvin University some of the warmest and most enjoyable outdoor experiences I’ve ever had.
As always, thank you so much for reading! From a brief overview of down as a material, it’s potential substitutes (the HMLYN Parka) and one of the more, extravagant, uses of down have I hope to have inspired an interest in one of the world’s oldest insulatory materials. Later, I want to write several blogs about the history of fleece (another common insulation), the production of synthetic insulations – in greater detail – and some of my other favorites for the season.
But the weather is going to change soon, and this blog has to change with the seasons. Spring outfits, more writings on masculinity and how to cultivate it, adventures I take with friends, and lots of other random things. I need to spend some more time really refining what I want this blog to be about, and hopefully you’ll stay along for the ride!