Up with Down
We receive a number of questions about our down. Tech-savvy users want to know about the performance elements of our insulation materials. Values-driven customers often want to know the circumstances under which our down is harvested. Here to offer his always detailed eye to the discussion is our own Customer Service Gear Guru, Ken Larussa, with the skinny on down:
Despite the best efforts of chemists around the world, down continues to be the insulation of choice for those who require the best combination of warmth, weight and compressibility. The beauty of down—and what has proven so elusive for chemists to duplicate—is that down is a three-dimensional cluster which has the ability to trap a large volume of air within a very light structure. Down comes from the underbody of waterfowl, most often geese, ducks or swans. Since there aren’t many swans being raised commercially, and ducks provide an inferior grade of down (except perhaps for that elusive creature the Eider Duck). Patagonia—along with virtually every other manufacturer of quality down clothing—uses goose down exclusively. It is important t to note that these geese are raised for food, not down, and that all down is a byproduct of this food production. Almost all geese raised for commercial production come from either China or Eastern Europe. Because the best down comes from mature geese and because the Eastern Europeans prefer older and larger geese, the best down tends to come from Eastern Europe. The down is harvested and then separated into different grades depending on the quality of down.
Hit the jump for more details . . .
Down is graded according to fill power, which is defined as the volume of insulation (measured in cubic inches) produced by one ounce of down. The most commonly used fill-powers tend to start at about 550 and go up to somewhere to the 800-950 range. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical of the higher ratings. I remember back in the late 70s when the best down available was somewhere in the 600-650 range. All of a sudden the ratings seemed to jump up to 800 and beyond. Considering these geese are raised for food and not down I can’t help but wonder how we’re getting so much better down from the same geese.
One thing there is no controversy about is the cost of the upper end down. Because it is so expensive (high-end goose down being approx. 3X more expensive than low-grade counterparts), it is practical to use this down only in garments where weight is of primary concern. Here at Patagonia, we use 800-fill down in both the Down Sweater and the Down Parka, two pieces designed to give maximum warmth for minimum weight.
We use 700-fill down in the Down Jacket, and 650-fill in our sportswear and ski pieces, which are designed for the not-so-weight-conscious users. The important thing to remember is that a garment filled with high-fill-power down does not necessarily mean it is warmer than one using a lower fill power. For instance, M’s Down Sweater is filled with 3 ounces of 800-fill down, while the significantly more voluminous and puffy (and hence, warmer) M’s Down Jacket is filled with 6.77 ounces of 700-fill down. Thus the down jacket with 4739 cubic inches of insulation (6.77 x 700) has nearly twice the insulation of the sweater which has 2400 cubic inches (3 x 800), even though the sweater uses higher-fill-power down.
So, you may be asking yourself "If down is so great, what’s not to like?" And "why are companies like du Pont and Celanese Fortrel spending gazillions to find a polyester replacement for down?" The main reason to use synthetic insulation is because it absorbs far less water than down and hence dries much faster. Anyone who has ever hand washed a down sleeping bag or jacket can attest to the incredible amount of water down products can absorb. Polyester, on the other hand, absorbs almost none. Even so, the oft-repeated “Warm when wet” should probably be amended to: “keeps you alive but you still freeze your a@% off”. Hot tubs are warm when wet, jackets and sleeping bags aren’t, no matter what’s inside them. So whatever insulation you choose, the bottom line is: Keep It Dry. Don’t wear puffy stuff alone in the rain, seam seal your tent, use waterproof stuff sacks, use a pack cover, basically do whatever it takes to keep your stuff dry.
There are a few down-sides (so to speak) of synthetic fills. Down, as long as it’s treated with a modicum of respect, is much more durable than synthetic fills. My circa 1971 REI McKinley sleeping bag (containing over 2 lbs of 550 fill “prime northern silvergrey goose down”) with well over 1000 nights of use is still quite lofty and warm and still serves faithfully as my car camping bag. The issue with synthetics is that they’re far less compressible than down, an important factor for both the expedition user whose pack is already overloaded with gear and food, and the fastpacker whose tiny pack means everything must be as small and light as possible. Most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes and if you’re a gear junkie like me and have most everything in both down and synthetic versions, the decision is made based upon where you’re headed. For me, if the trip involves being on the water (river rafting, sea kayaking), then synthetic it is. Ditto if the trip is anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. If, on the other hand, I’m heading into Nevada, the Sierra, or any other place that is mostly dry and might be cold, then I’m all about down. What you choose is of course up to you, but just keep it dry and you’ll stay warm.