About eiderdown “from the horse’s mouth”

A detailed review by an industry expert
for a curious reader

Jon Sveinsson (Iceland)

Eiderdown is a rare commodity

All the eiderdown collected world-wide per year could be packed into one medium-sized truck. The amount of goose down produced in the world during the same time is several thousand tons – enough to fill several seagoing vessels.

Iceland is the unsurpassed world leader in eiderdown harvesting: no other country collects as much down or has as many people employed in the down business as does Iceland. Yet, the total amount of eiderdown collected in Iceland does not exceed 3,000 kilograms.

This number has remained constant over the course of centuries because the eider population of Iceland has a long time ago reached its maximum, which is between 600 and 900 thousand birds. Iceland simply cannot support more eiders as the population size is limited by environmental factors: nesting sites and the available food. One cannot breed the eiders artificially to obtain the down as they produce quality down only during the nesting period, with the females themselves plucking it out of their breasts and bellies to line the nest. The down obtained from a dead eider has nothing to do with the true eiderdown so much valued around the world.

The eiders in Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón), Iceland

 

The eiders nest in many circumpolar countries, i.e. in the countries around the Arctic Circle. Iceland, however, remains the only country which permanently produces a high volume of eider down. The only exception is Canada, where 150kg of down is collected annually. Up to the middle of the 20th century, a fairly large amount of eiderdown was obtained in Norway but now only several dozen kilograms are gathered there each year. The Norwegians, however, make the most out of this amount, using it all for making blankets. Russia, too, used to collect eiderdown on the industrial scale (hundreds of kilograms per year) but at this time the total amount of down gathered does not exceed several dozen kilograms, and all of it is used to make goods sold to the domestic market.

Even though eiderdown articles last for a long time – up to twenty years if correctly cared for – it is obvious that at the current rates of production the world’s demand for eiderdown cannot be met. Down blankets do wear out over time so we can reasonably suppose that annual input into the eiderdown market is only able to replace the articles that have come to the end of their lifspan.

There is another interesting thing we can conclude from this: the total number of eiderdown articles in use around the world is likely to remain constant rather than increase. That means that, if the number of people wishing to buy a down blanket or some other eiderdown article goes up, most of them would have to show a little restraint in their desires as there simply isn’t enough eiderdown to go around.

A shortage of eiderdown results in there being many counterfeit articles, the same as with other things that are in short supply. In Japan, one of the world’s main markets for eiderdown items, the main problem is the sale of forged “eiderdown” things filled with cheap home-spun down that resembles the original in color but comes nowhere near to it in quality.

Will the eiderdown become cheaper if more of it is gathered? Remember that diamonds are constantly extracted from the earth but that does not make old diamonds lose their value that remains high forever. The number of diamonds in use world-wide keeps on increasing while their value does not go down.

Eiderdown’s unique properties

Unlike that of domestic birds, eiderdown originates in wild nature.  Eiderdown is one of two types of down obtained from a wild bird; another type that has recently been discovered is the down of the Barnacle goose, about which a similar article is to be written soon. Every June the female eider – a large wild duck that spends most of its life at sea – comes ashore to make a nest that she lines with her down. As soon as the eggs hatch she returns to the sea with her young. If not for the need to breed the eider would spend her entire life in the cold waters of northern seas, from which it obtains food.

Eiderdown comes from live birds that leave it in the nest naturally; they are not killed and plucked the way it is done with domestic fowl. The thought that the bird is likely still alive and well somewhere in the ocean while her down fills the blanket that keeps you warm during long winter nights is a wonderful one indeed.

Because of hormonal changes during the laying of eggs each female lines her nest with dark-grey and practically weightless, soft and unbelievably cohesive down in the amount of just over fifteen grams. To produce one kilogram of clean eiderdown one needs the content of about sixty-seven nests. While plucking the down for her nest the female eider exposes a part of her belly through which she provides heat for incubating the clutch. At the same time, the down with which the nest is lined provides thermal insulation. The female eider produces the down for her nest every year for the duration of her reproductive life, which is close to twenty years on average.

 

Of those that enter the market in any significant quantity, the eiderdown is the only down (except that of the Barnacle goose, which was only recently discovered) that is obtained only from the females while the males produce none of it. The down of domestic fowl, on the other hand, is obtained from both males and females.

Since the eiderdown is produced only by nesting females, it is also the only type of down (except the down of the Barnacle goose that has comparable characteristics) obtained only from mature individuals. It is so because the eider starts laying eggs at the age of three to five, and that’s when she begins lining her nest with down. The down from mature birds is considered fully “ripe”, i.e. its qualities have fully stabilized.

The eiderdown is the only kind of down (besides Barnacle goose down), of those that enter the market in any significant quantity, that comes from just one part of the bird’s body. The female plucks this down from the lower part of her breast and her belly. This results in the eiderdown, which is from the same source, being of consistently high quality.

The eiderdown contains nothing but down because feathers from the belly that may be present there are large and thus can be removed manually or by a machine, thus providing a blanket filling that contains no feathers at all.

A cheap substitute for eiderdown – the down of domestic geese – totally lacks these unique properties.

Goose down usually is a by-product of the meat industry. All the goose down obtained as a by-product of meat comes from young individuals that can be used for food but have not yet developed full plumage, which means that their down is not of high quality. Raising geese only for the sake of down and feather, when these are gathered only once, after the bird is slaughtered, is not profitable because the prices paid for the down of domestic birds are quite low. This dilemma has resulted in the somewhat creepy practice of plucking domestic geese live because mature individuals produce fully developed high quality down that sells for considerably more. Only plucking the down off the geese every year for several years economically justifies the production since mature and aged birds are of no use as a source of meat.

Unlike the eider, all other types of down come from different parts of the bird’s body, which makes the down quality inconsistent. For instance, the down from a goose’s neck contains short and sharp feathers that are able to cut through the fabric of down jackets, thus resulting in goose down filling gradually falling out of the item stuffed with it. Farmers who raise geese try to sell all the down obtained from their birds, not just the part from their bellies. Companies that wash down feathers buy the domestic bird down and, in turn, supply it to the manufacturers of consumer goods. The consumer goods market prefers low price over high quality, and nobody is willing to pay extra for the choice down from the bird’s belly, and the down sold is usually a “mixed salad” quality-wise. Light fabric is used to keep the weight of the items down, so the material is vulnerable to being punctured by needle-like feathers from the bird’s neck, after which the down works its way out through the holes.

Domestic bird down is always sold with a certain proportion of feathers in the mixture. Naturally, its price goes up as it is cleaned of feathers but it never comes even close to the value of eiderdown.

Eiderdown lets one sleep in a warm cloud

The eiderdown is a delicate and subtle material of grey color the look of which reminds one of a soft cloud that can be touched, and which has a lower specific density than other materials used as blanket fillers. The eiderdown structure is so fine that it can only be photographed with a high-resolution electron microscope. That’s the only way to see the details. All the lightness and subtlety of eiderdown can be seen in just one fluff, which, being 2.5 cm across, weighs only two milligrams. Half a million of such fluffs are in one kilogram of eiderdown! Each one consists of several very fine filaments originating from the centre and forming a ball. Then these balls connect like “Velcro”, forming a three-dimensional network.

If one is to handle other types of down, they will fall apart into separate pieces that fly off in different directions. Eiderdown, however, behaves as one solid mass since its fluffs are interconnected. Other than the eiderdown, of those downs offered on the market, only the recently discovered Barnacle goose one has similar properties. Such a structure enables the eiderdown to hold air, which results in superb insulating properties. Because the material is so light, a smaller quantity of it can be used per unit of area of the blanket than with goose down. This allows the blanket to be lighter than if it was filled with other, more traditional materials. One of the criteria for bedding quality is that it is light and airy, which makes it much more comfortable for their owners. That’s why the eiderdown has been so highly valued for hundreds of years.

 

Eider down has unique thermal insulating properties because the eiders live in the sea near the Arctic Circle, in the toughest of conditions. The eider, a warm-blooded creature, produces the down as its best natural protection against penetrating cold. In the winter the water temperature may drop below zero, with the sea not freezing only because its water contains salt. These are the conditions under which the eider needs to survive since the ocean is what provides it with food, and that answers the question of why the eider needs strong protection such as the one its down affords. Humans learned to use the superb qualities of eiderdown for their benefit by making exclusive items out of it.

Eider down controls temperature and humidity much better than other materials. Eider down blankets, unlike those made of dense and quite heavy goose down or synthetic materials, can “breathe”, letting out the excess of heat and moisture from the body. The person sleeping under the blanket made from cheap down constantly wakes up in the middle of the night, sweaty and short of air, and in the morning gets up tired as if he or she has not slept at all. Under the eiderdown blanket, however, its owner sleeps quietly and peacefully, warm and dry, because the excess heat and moisture are taken away from the body. That’s why the eiderdown is the most comfortable blanket filler presently known, and that’s why it has been so much in demand for hundreds of years.

Like the eiderdown, silk too has thermo- and moisture-controlling properties. That’s why these two natural materials go together and complement each other so well in blankets.

Even under modern, entirely comfortable living conditions the eiderdown remains as desirable as one thousand years ago. No synthetic material can give one this unique feeling.

Icelandic traditions of down harvesting

“Harvesting” eiderdown has been a traditional Icelandic trade for several centuries. The custom to gather eiderdown appeared in Iceland after the Norwegian sailors came and settled there in the 9th century. According to the tradition, it originated from the Sunnmore region of Norway, where the eiderdown has been gathered from ancient times. Since there are no forests in Iceland, the sailors had no materials with which to repair their ships. Soon the ships became unusable, making it impossible for the sailors to return home. The sailors thus had no choice but to become settlers. While in isolation, they managed not only to preserve, for over one thousand years, their native language but kept and developed to perfection the tradition of gathering and cleaning eiderdown and making blankets out of it.

Comprehensive protection of various species of animals was introduced in Iceland, separated from the continent, rather early. Down harvesters soon adapted to it and started following the principles of ecological purity and safety in their work long before the word “ecology” appeared.

The eiderdown in the nest is intertwined with plant and seaweed fragments. In order to clean this down the Icelanders developed quite a sophisticated technology of dry-processing it. Hand processing of eiderdown using special devices started in Iceland in 1690, while the first machines for doing so were invented only in 1947.

All these things together – comprehensive legal protection of the eider and the invention of down cleaning technology – helped to preserve the Icelandic eiderdown industry.

Iceland has over three hundred and fifty eiderdown harvesters. Sometimes they are called “eider farmers” but this name does not exactly reflect the nature of their work: eiderdown harvesting is in no way a variety of farming. Eiderdown harvesters are land owners, each of which gathers eiderdown from eider nests located on his or her property. Such eider nesting colonies are located either along the coastline or on small privately-owned islands.

Eider down harvesting on the Miðhús Farm islands

 

An average gatherer harvests no more than five kilograms of down per year, and only exceptional ones collect several dozen kilograms. The total Icelandic down production of three tons is compiled of many small batches received from numerous down-gathering land owners. Practically all the down collected in Iceland is exported after cleaning, which consists of removing the remains of plants and seaweeds by the dry method.

Iceland exports one-third of its clean down to German-speaking Europe and two-thirds to Japan, where it is used to make the bedding that can be seen on the trade platform Rakuten Global, which is the Japanese equivalent of Amazon.

In Iceland the eiderdown taken from the nests is replaced by hay. According to recent studies, this practice harms neither the female nor her clutch of eggs. Eiderdown gathering is an example of a renewable and an ecologically sustainable harvest. If not, the eider population in Iceland would have eventually disappeared, as it has happened in the countries where all the down and eggs were taken from the nests, thus threatening the very existence of the species. In Iceland, on the other hand, the eider has been legally protected for many centuries, with no egg collection or hunting allowed, and with special measures taken to protect the places where the eiders nest.

Once in a while, the nesting season turns out to be particularly rainy. In such a case it is in the eider’s benefit to have nest down replaced by dry hay because this restores thermal insulation of the nest material which was lost because of excess humidity. This helps the bird to preserve energy that would otherwise have been wasted on drying the down lining using the duck’s own body heat. It is possible that the bird that found herself in such a situation had already attempted to collect surrounding plants and use them to cover the down lining to avoid direct contact of the eggs with damp down. Such an attempt was hardly likely to be successful if the surrounding vegetation was also soaked. If the gatherer replaces damp down with dry hay, it helps the bird to incubate the clutch without losses. If not for the gathering of the eiderdown with its replacement by other materials, some eggs could die from overcooling and the bird would succeed in only hatching some of these while some females would have just abandoned the nests to save their own lives, thus having wasted the entire nesting season.

Each down gatherer takes special measures to protect his nesting colony from ruin by predators which include mink, fox, raven and seagull. Thanks to these protective measures in Iceland the eiders have, over many generations, become so used to support from people that they try to nest near human settlements. Down collectors often observe that, when seagulls are being shot off near eider nests, the eiders form a crowd around the shooter instead of flying away, as other wild birds would. The eiders know that shooting is done for their protection, not to harm them.

Even though the Icelandic eider is a wild species that spends most of its life at sea, it has become incredibly clever; some will even allow themselves to be touched while sitting on the eggs. During the down collection the bird will only go a short distance away from the nest but soon returns while the gatherer is doing his or her work. Because the eiders in Iceland have been under human protection for many hundreds of years, their behavior is fundamentally different from that of the eiders in other countries where it is considered a game bird and hunted. Outside of Iceland the eider is as suspicious of Man as are other wild animals. There are more eiders in Iceland than there would have been without human interference into the natural process; it is a consequence of the total prohibition of hunting and of special measures to protect individual nesting colonies. In Iceland Man and the eiders live in a mutually beneficial symbiosis.

About the author

Jon Sveinsson:

– processes eiderdown using his own unique technology;

– is a wholesale exporter of eiderdown since 1989;

– designs, manufacturers and carries out retail sales of eiderdown articles;

– is a third generation eiderdown harvester at Miðhús (Iceland);

– eiderdown has been harvested, processed and sold under the Miðhús trademark every season since the beginning of the 20th century. The down was, however, collected, cleaned and used for making blankets at Miðhús from the time Iceland was populated around the middle of the 9th century.

The Miðhús Farm was bought by Inga, Jon’s maternal grandmother, in 1939. Inga’s elder sister, Finnboga, came to Miðhús in 1907, married the land owner and took over his business. At this moment Miðhús is owned by Olina Kristin, the mother and teacher of Jon. She is still actively involved in the business.

Jon Sveinsson is the only entrepreneur in Iceland who, in addition to processing the eiderdown by the dry method (that is, cleaning it of straw, moss and seaweed), also practices washing it. After the eiderdown has been cleaned by the dry method, it is manually washed, a small amount at a time, and rinsed repeatedly; it takes about 400 liters of pure water to wash one kilogram of eiderdown. A special combination of chemicals, soap to wash off the impurities, as well as an anti-fungal composition added at the last stage of washing are used to prevent the down from getting infected with mould when it is already inside the blanket.

In the course of many years of his own research and development Jon Sveinsson has succeeded in having his product meet the requirements of the Japanese industrial standard for washed down, which is one of the strictest of the world’s current standards. But even the Japanese practice the mechanical washing of eiderdown, which makes the down lose its characteristics: it becomes easily separable and lumpy, like the domestic goose down. If, however, the manual washing procedure developed by Jon Sveinsson is used, the down keeps all of its unique properties. On this parameter the eiderdown supplied by Jon Sveinsson far exceeds Japan-certified products.

Miðhús eiderdown is our bread, our life, our love

 

© 1999 Miðhús