When it Comes to Insulation, Goose Down is the Champ. Here’s How to Find Natural Substitutes that are Just as Good.
There’s a reason Goose Down is found in so many sleeping bags, parkas and pillows. It has proven over centuries to be one of the best insulating materials to keep the heat in and keep the cold out. We call it “one of the best” because there is an insulating material that’s qualified as the best. It’s Eiderdown made from the breast feathers of the Eider Duck. Unfortunately, Eider Ducks are small and relatively rare. They’re Artic birds that are hard to find in most parts of the world. That makes Goose Down number 2 but it’s so prevalent and comes from such a large bird it has become the gold standard for insulation.
Why is it Called “Down?”
Down is the under-plumage of most birds. It commonly surrounds the breast area and is particularly dense on water birds like Loons, Ducks and especially Geese. These birds spend a lot of time in frigid water and the properties of the Down feathers help to protect the birds from the cold-water temperatures. They’re not even referred to as feathers, just Down. Feathers have a very visible spine especially the long, rigid quill feathers used for flight. Down has a very thin spine that is soft and pliable and hardly visible.
The actual name “Down” is derived from an ancient Norse word, “Dúnn.” It stands for the soft, under plumage of a bird.
What Makes Goose Down So Good?
Like a lot of things, there’s a whole bunch of science around insulation including Goose Down. Goose Down has something called high “Fill Power’ or loft. It’s an odd set of words that describe the springiness and air-pockets that form in clusters of Down feathers that trap the air that give Goose Down superior insulating properties. Down from other birds share similar properties but the Fill Power rating for Goose Down is the highest next to Eiderdown. You don’t hear much about Eider Down because the cost of an Eiderdown parka is about the price of a small car. And Goose Down is starting to climb in price as well.
What’s Up with Goose Down
A variety of factors are making Goose Down scarce and more expensive.
- Demand is high, and supply is limited.
- Most Down is imported from China, Poland and Hungary and is starting to cost more.
- Controversy surrounds Down harvesting especially in China where the Down is sometimes plucked from live birds, so they can continually regrow Down.
- Less expensive, synthetic substitutes have improved.
But we’re exploring alternatives to Goose Down for additional reasons: self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
If you live remotely in a wilderness area, can’t afford the costs of top-quality insulators, or if all of us face an off-grid environment and economy -alternatives to a lot of things are necessary including a way to keep warm in the winter. That’s why it’s worth considering other ways to approach insulation for mattresses, quilts, pillows, coats and even hats and gloves. If you’ve ever experienced the warmth of any of those items filled with Down, you’ll appreciate the value of finding effective alternatives.
Think in Terms of Alternative Combinations
One of the factors that made Goose Down a popular choice for insulation was the size of the source. Geese are very large birds and one Goose provides a good amount of Goose Down. But as you start to look at alternatives the size and quantity of material begins to diminish. There are some exceptions but for the most part, alternative sources are smaller. As a result, it can make things easier if you combine materials to fill larger items especially pillows and quilts. The combination will work together as long as they all share insulating properties.
Alternatives to Goose Down
If you live in a wilderness area, alternatives are not hard to find. You can even find some of them in urban areas but not so much. Let’s begin with the obvious.
All birds have Down on their breasts. The question is the size of the bird and the type.
Water birds are your best bet because they tend to be large and have denser layers of Down because of the amount of time they spend in the water. Birds to consider include ducks, swans, herons, cranes and loons. All of the Down on the bottom of these birds will deliver excellent insulation. They won’t have the Fill power of geese, but close.
Goose Down is very resilient and will bounce back after washing and drying, but Down from other birds can be less resilient. A standard practice is to avoid washing and put the Down item into a dryer with a damp rag to fluff and remove odors… assuming you have access to a dryer. Otherwise, air drying outdoors on a windy day in the sun comes a close second.
Terrestrial birds are also fair game. Turkeys, pheasants and chickens are both large and provide a good quantity of Down. The Down from terrestrial birds is not as fluffy and lacks some of the cling and loft of water birds, but the Down is still soft and has good insulation properties.
Medium-sized terrestrial birds include pigeons, doves, quail, grouse and crows. They too have Down but their size requires a good number of birds to fill an insulated hat or a pair of mittens let alone a parka or quilt. Then again, if the opportunity presents itself -harvest their Down. You can always add it to your other sources to expand your insulation combinations.
The Lowdown on Feathers
While flight feathers and hackle feathers (the feathers that cover the head, neck and back of a bird) don’t have the insulating qualities of Down, they have good insulating qualities that surpass most other materials. Don’t be hesitant to collect all of the feathers from a bird and mix them with Down to create a hybrid form of insulation. Many products you buy have this blend although quill feathers are usually chopped up to small pieces and used in mattresses and couch cushions.
It’s tempting to think that plants are a step down from Down, but parts of some plants have some surprising properties. But before we explore those properties it’s worth packing some supplies.
Collecting and Transporting Plant Sources as a Down Alternative
Unlike birds which we tend to bring home to pluck and butcher, plant alternatives for Goose Down are harvested far afield and in the wild. To do that you’ll need some simple equipment.
Either large plastic bags like kitchen-size garbage bags or gallon-size kitchen bags are your best bet. Carry more than one because you may find multiple sources that you either want to separate or further process when you get home.
A rucksack is a good way to carry your harvest as it accumulates, along with a water bottle and maybe something to snack on.
Plants change over the season but every season except Spring will present you with opportunities for an alternative Down harvest. The good news is that many of these plants produce fluffy Down alternatives in Autumn which is a good time to collect materials for a bit of pre-winter sewing.
You’ll also want to harvest any plant sources on a dry, sunny day. Rain, dew, fog and even high humidity will compromise plant sources as an insulator and once picked and packed into bags can be a bit hard to dry out.
There’s a Catch
The primary insulating material derived from plants is the fluff that serves to carry seeds on the wind. Many plants have this characteristic, but the stuff is not nearly as resilient as Down from any bird especially Geese and Eider Ducks.
As a result, plant-based alternatives to Goose Down are best used in emergencies or survival situations. At best they’ll get your through one season of cold weather, but you’ll probably need to go out annually to restock, resew or refurbish any clothes or bedding you’ve made with plant-based insulation. The good news is that they’re easy to find and forage.
There are also people who are allergic to various forms of plant fluff. If you or a family member are allergic to any of the plants we’re about to cover, you should probably stick with the birds. Unless you’re allergic to bird feathers too.
Plants that Provide Natural Insulation
The fluff that emerges from the Milkweed plants in late Summer and early Autumn is easy to find and gather and makes a very good insulator. In fact, there’s something called the “Milkweed Test.” If you grab a handful of Milkweed fluff and enclose it in your hand with a gentle fist, you’ll immediately feel your body heat returned to your skin. That’s a good message that Milkweed has good insulation properties and it works for other materials with the same properties.
Milkweed also introduces a challenge that many plants present. The fluff is a vehicle to deliver seed on the winds. Seeds can be a bad idea especially in a pillow. If you’ve ever woken in the night on a sweat-soaked pillow due to hot weather, an over-active wood-stove or a breaking fever you may be unintentionally germinating seeds. Seeds like a warm, moist environment to sprout and a warm, sweaty head can provide both. Take the time to crush the Milkweed fluff in a plastic bag to break the seeds loose and discard them while retaining the fluff. If you are improvising a pillow or quilt for emergency, short-term use the seeds won’t matter but in the long-term they could sprout, die, ferment and stink.
One Dandelion won’t fill a pillow but a field of them can give you a good amount. Better yet, even the smallest child can help with the Dandelion harvest and most find it to be fun. There will be seeds but they’re smaller than Milkweed, so you may not have quite the germination problem from perspiration. This is another example of a natural Down alternative source that can be combined with other sources to insulate.
Cottonwood trees are big and if you see a collection of Cottonwood fluff in the grass or clumped on the ground, you’re in luck. Gather what you can and add it to your mix.
Cottonwood trees present another advantage. Many plant sources for Down substitutes are carried on the wind. Cottonwood tree fluff is the best example. While it’s very difficult to climb to the top of a tall Cottonwood tree to harvest the seed fluff, banks of grass next to roads, paths and clearings will often act like screens or nets and capture Cottonwood fluff in clumps. It’s then easy to gather by the handful. It also has seeds that are difficult to remove, but they’re so small you just might get away with it for a while.
This is a great source of insulating fluff that shows up Autumn through Winter. Break the brown stalks apart and fluff the dander with your hands. If you find a good crop of Cattails you can easily fill a pillow or even a quilt. Better yet, you can drop the whole stalk top into a bag and comfortably tear apart and process at home.
When we think of goldenrod, we usually imagine the golden clusters of flowers in a field or maybe think of goldenrod tea. Some people sneeze. That usually happens in the fall when the goldenrod flowers go to seed and bloom out into goldenrod fluff. It’s easy to gather and like cattails, the goldenrod heads can be harvested whole and processed further at home. Actually, the backyard might be a better place.
Other Plant Possibilities
The rule is simple. If it fluffs, grab a handful and lightly squeeze it. If it returns warmth to your hand it’s a candidate for insulation. Take the time to smell it though. Insulating materials tend to come into close proximity to our bodies, our face and our nose. If it doesn’t smell good in the field, you don’t want it in your pillow or quilt all night.
Good news and bad news when it comes to washing natural goose Down alternatives. The good news is that goose Down alternatives from birds can be washed on a delicate cycle and then dried in the dryer or air-dried outside on a clothes line.
Fluff from plants is another story. They simply can’t and shouldn’t be washed. The fluff doesn’t have the resilient Fill power to bounce back after getting wet, and every seed in the mix will potentially germinate. Drying after washing in a clothes dryer won’t help either. The fluff will simply clump.
However, you can run clothing, quilts and pillows made with plant-based fluff in a clothes dryer or hang it on the line outside on a sunny, windy day to air it out and fluff it up a bit.
Storing These Natural Down Alternatives
As you accumulate these alternative materials you may need to store them for a while until you’ve gathered enough, or simply store them because you have too much.
The ideal storage area for these alternatives is a warm, dry place in a fine mesh bag or a bag made of soft netting to allow the air to circulate. High in the rafters of an attic or other part of a structure with low moisture is a good place to start. The key is to keep the down or the fluff as dry as possible and contained in a way that does not impart too much pressure to the material for a sustained period of time.
In a Perfect World…
If one Goose Down alternative stands above the rest, it’s Duck Down. As a water bird its down has the Fill Power to capture and hold heat while resisting the cold. It’s resilient and every species of duck delivers the same loft, cling and insulation. Other birds also will serve well with plants as an abundant backup in an emergency or survival situation but if you have to prioritize, you’ll be well served by the ducks. Even then, if you raise chickens… save the Down.