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More About The Myth Of Down

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For all of the years (now 52) that I have worked in the outdoor industry — first selling fiberfill insulation to the manufacturers and then becoming a manufacturer — I have been told, as has the general market place, that down (the under plumage of ducks and geese) is the best insulation in the world. In recent years I have come to disagree with that statement. Now I have more information about down. Recently a German company that processes down e mailed me information about their company and its history. As a result I have increased my knowledge of down.

The salesman that contacted me giving me prices for the various qualities eventually surprised me with the statement that they had 1000 cubic inch down. I was skeptical and he chose to send to me a pillow of approximately 3 ounces or a value of $44.00 plus his overnight air cost from Germany. What that tells me he is really looking for business since I am not, nor have I ever been (or will be), a user of down. I did notice that there are feathers mixed in the sample.

My plant manager for the past 28 years was with Marmot when I moved to Colorado and I hired him away. Kok is one of the brightest people I have ever met in the sewing business and am very grateful to have him as my plant manager. Kok was in charge of many areas of work at Marmot to include quality control of the down they received. So I showed him this sample and told him it is represented as 1000 cubic inch down. He took out a couple of clusters and said it wasn’t even 800 cubic inch down and explained to me why. I have never discussed down with him before because I had no reason too. He said in order to get 1000 cubic inch down the birds would need to be on steroids. He further told me that he never believed that Marmot received 800 cubic inch down or did he think there was any better than 650 cubic inch down was available. He then told me of a trick to show how down can be shown to increase its filling power. Marmot had a cylinder about 15 inches in diameter and they would put approximately one pound of down in the cylinder, then with a fiberglass rod spin the down and it would create static which would cause the clusters to increase in height, hence showing a greater volume than actually existed. Of course once it settled there went the cubic inch shown. I am sure that the companies that sell down products are very aware of this so they advise the customers to vigorously shake the product, but the down ultimately settles anyway.

I have a very good friend on many years since 1966 actually who was head of production for a company long gone from the industry named Holubar. In their heyday they were considered the best producer of down parkas, pants and sleeping bags in the country. They made baffled parkas and bibs that no other company made. I called Terry to find out about down and he told me at Holubar they only used 100 percent 550 cubic inch down back then and it was 100 percent down, versus now-a-days a blend of 75 percent down and 25 percent feathers is considered 100 percent down. The problem here is that you cannot ever know if the feather part is only 25 percent, and when I looked at the 3 ounces sent to me I found that all of the down varies from clusters about as big as a dime to about 2 inches long. According to Kok the cluster would have to be at least 4 inches long to reach 1000 cubic inch territory, and that is not about to happen.

It is my opinion that the many companies that have been touting down for all these years probably knew about the lofting qualities of down and the settling properties as well. Just like in the 1950’s when the auto makers would advertise their cars with 250 horse power engines and then 300 and 400 horse power, the down garment and sleeping bag makers came up with 600 plus fill power products as fast as they could, and then 700, 800, and 900. You would think the birds were growing down clusters like crazy to keep up with the need for larger and larger clusters. I always thought their claims bogus. Even back then the down processors couldn’t eliminate all of the feathers so the industry, I believe, through government directive which was desired by the manufacturer, had the blend put in place because they knew they couldn’t get a 100 percent product.

So we know that down does not perform at the temperatures assigned to the bags, doesn’t perform at all when it gets wet. The wetness needn’t come from the outside because when you are in a down bag the wetness in the down comes from the person in the bag. I know this to be fact because of the number of mountaineers I have spoken with who have told me in no uncertain terms that after about a week in cold dry conditions their bags start showing signs of ice buildup. This also happens with very densely packed polyester bags as was experienced by Will Steger when he used Sierra Designs made 15 pound Quallofil insulated bags on his expedition to the North Pole in 1985. They the bags according to Will gained 35 pounds of ice. He thought this would happen with down which is the reason he took them instead of down bags which he knew would ice up. I believe we now know that the fill power numbers that are published for down are in my opinion not only not accurate but cannot be proven.

Hence the myth of down.

After carefully examining the down that was sent to me some aspects of this down became obvious. It is not 1000 cubic inch down, the clusters are quite small. Again when Kok looked at the down clusters he said he still had bags that he acquired from Marmot that contain down that has much larger clusters. Those bags were made over 28 years ago; I know that since Kok has been with me 28 years. Twenty eight years ago the thought of 1000 cubic inch down did not exist. The clusters in the sample I received are also of very different sizes, mostly small. There is no continuity with regard to size.

I have been thinking about the various sizes that the companies have been promoting for years like 550, 600, 650, 700, 750, 800, 850 cubic inch lofting capability and how that relates to retaining heat. If these cubic inch numbers were true, I do not think so, but for the sake of discussion they are true, why the 850 fill power would be more efficient than the 550 fill power down, it isn’t. If the space allotted for the down in a sleeping bag baffle is, and here I have to suppose the size of the baffle that would apply to a zero degree rated bag with down fill. I will make the baffle 8 inches wide (what is visible on the outside of the bag) and 5 inches deep (what is between the shell and the lining). Suppose that the space is filled with 550 cubic inch down about 3 ounces worth. Now we fill the same space with 850 cubic inch down. But the fill capacity of the 850 cubic inch down suggest that we only need 2 ounces of down, due to the larger size down cluster if only it were true. As I see it while we have reduced the total weight of the bag by as much as 10 to 12 ounces due to less down per baffle we have also reduced the density of insulation in the bag and that tells me the bag with the 850 fill down is less efficient as an insulator for the following reasons. We have to take into consideration the simple fact that down does absorb the moisture from the body of the occupant of the bag. With the 550 fill down there is a greater amount of material in the fact that there is one ounce more of the down clusters to absorb the moisture than exists in the bag with 850 fill down. Therefore, the 850 fill down will collapse more quickly than the 550 fill down bag will because there is less down to absorb the moisture. The end result is a bag with less efficiency.

As I see it IF there were actually down clusters that were consistently of the various sizes that the companies making down bags advertise, and while I do believe there is a variation in the cluster sizes that can be graded like one grades eggs, I do not believe it is significant as judged by the theoretical 1000 fill power down sample I received from Germany. This tells me that there are different prices and not different sizes of clusters of consequence. I remember years ago when the Sunoco gas company had different blends of gas you could dial on the gas pump. The joke was one quality gas but six different prices. I think the same fits here.

As far as I know all of the down bags sold are made in China. I am aware of the fact that there are two or three companies in the US that make down bags. But they get their down from either China or Europe, but they also are subject to getting whatever their supplier choses to send them and I do not believe it is much different than what is sent to the US in finished bags or outerwear garments.
Buyer beware!!!!!!!!!!!

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