Ever wondered what is a down pillow? Shopping for a new pillow can seem way more complicated than it needs to be. The range of materials used in making a pillow is sometimes overwhelming for new shoppers.
If you’ve been in the market for new pillows, you may be sick of it. You may wonder why you can’t simply grab the cheapest pillow on the shelf and go home.
But doing some research about what goes into your pillow can lead you to a better night’s sleep.
Here’s what you need to know about down, one of the most perennially popular pillow fillers, in case you’ve ever wondered about this type.
What is Down?
Before we can answer the question, “what is a down pillow?” we have to ask, “what is down?” The opposite of up? A grassy hill? An attempt to advance the football ten yards? Yes, yes, and yes.
But down also means the soft feathers of a bird’s undercoat. You see, ducks and geese have long, sleek feathers that repel water.
However, if you were to brush those feathers back against the grain, you would notice that there were shorter, fluffier feathers underneath.
You can see them most clearly on a chick whose topcoat hasn’t grown in yet. Birds need these to defend against cold weather because their waterproof topcoat isn’t very warm.
The down used in pillows comes from the back, wing, and chest of the animal. This down has been used as a filling for pillows and comforters since ancient times. To make down filling, manufacturers bind down together in bundles.
Tight bundles make the warm, slightly stiff filling found in a down coat or sleeping bag. Looser bundles are used in pillows and comforters.
What is a down pillow’s advantage over the one you got for $5 from a bargain bin ten years ago? Well, most cheap pillows are made of manmade fibers, normally either microfiber or polyester.
These synthetic materials will warp over time, leading to pillows that permanently look like plaster casts of your head.
Down pillows may be soft, but they don’t warp. All you have to do is roll over in the morning and give them a quick fluff.
It will also smell just like new because natural fibers are good at shedding odors. They have to be; have you ever smelled a goose? A synthetic pillow will eventually smell like years’ worth of night sweats.
A natural one only needs to be set next to an open window for ten minutes to smell like fresh air.
What Are Down Pillows Like?
Down pillows are soft and plush and conform easily to the shape of your head. They are sometimes described as feeling like clouds.
Down pillows are favored by people who shift frequently in their sleep because they are malleable and offer little resistance.
Why Down and Not Feather?
Duck or goose feathers are also used extensively in pillows and tend to be much cheaper than down.
The feathers used for pillows come from the bird’s back and wings. In general, down pillows are soft and feather pillows are firm.
Which you prefer will depend on what you like in a pillow. However, choosing between down and feather isn’t an either/or choice.
Most pillow manufacturers offer a range of down/feather blends to suit your preference. You can choose the level of conformity or resistance you like.
If you’ve ever looked closely at a pillow’s sell sheet, you’ve probably been perplexed by the term “fill power.” Fill power is a way of classifying the down clusters — that is, the individual feathers.
One single down cluster, washed, dried, and set on a table, looks like a fluffy, white dandelion seed.
A smaller fill power number represents smaller clusters. Small clusters break down easily during processing or use.
Over time, pillows with low fill power will lose what manufacturers call “loft” — that is, they will keep their shape less readily. They won’t mold into a headrest shape as synthetic pillows will, but eventually, they will become flatter and less fluffy.
The average pillow has a fill power between 500 and 800. It will last between fifteen and twenty years before it loses loft in a noticeable way.
Is Down Worth the Price?
A single quality down pillow can cost as much as ten times as much as an economical synthetic one. It is not the choice for a buyer on a budget.
However, it is worth noting that a down pillow can outlast a synthetic one by many years. Even when down pillows lose loft or become stained, they can be rejuvenated and re-cased by a dry cleaner.
Dry cleaners will not typically offer those services for pillows made from manmade fibers.
Cleaners rejuvenate pillows by taking out the filling and fluffing it between rotating brushes.
They use UV light and ozone to kill bacteria and any other microbes that are living in the fibers.
Then, when the dust and broken-down ends of fibers are sifted out, they add fresh down and put it in a new case.
The Difference Between Duck Down and Goose Down
Now that we’ve answered the question, “what is a down pillow?” in general terms, it’s time to think about what kind of animal your down comes from. You’ll notice very quickly that goose down is more expensive. This is mostly because it has a higher fill power. You probably know that goose feathers are bigger than duck feathers, so it stands to reason that their down clusters would be larger as well. The price of goose down is particularly high right now because goose down jackets are stylish.
Duck feathers are cheaper for another reason, which is that they sometimes have an odor. Geese are primarily a grazing species, but ducks are waterfowl and will eat all kinds of fish and mollusks. Occasionally, this can lead to an indelible odor in the down, which you will notice in the store.
Most down pillows are made of duck or goose down. You may occasionally see a swan’s down pillow.
This rare and very expensive option has the highest fill power of any commercially available down, which makes sense because it’s from the largest common waterfowl.
Swan’s down has been used as a luxury item for centuries. However, you are not likely to see it in the average bedding store.
When you see “down alternative” on a label, it can mean a number of things.
In most cases, the down alternative is a synthetic fiber of some sort that’s been cut into short lengths to mimic the behavior of down. The type and quality of the fiber will vary greatly.
Ask a knowledgeable salesperson before you make a decision. In most cases, natural down is the superior product, but down alternative has the advantage of being vegan and, in some cases, hypoallergenic.
Now that we’ve listed all the pros of down pillows, you’re probably wondering about the cons.
The most obvious one is the cost. Down pillows are normally more expensive than the synthetic, feather, or latex pillows. Down is the choice for people who are willing to pay more for comfort.
The down industry has also been a frequent target of criticism from animal rights groups.
Some down is harvested from animals that have been slaughtered for meat. However, some is harvested from living birds, in a process that critics call inhumane.
Hygiene and Allergies
Down pillows can cause allergic reactions in some people. Avoid down pillows if you are allergic to waterfowl.
If you suffer an allergic reaction but are not allergic to waterfowl, you may be reacting not to the down itself, but to dust mites living in the filler.
Some down pillows are not machine-washable, which can sometimes lead owners to put off cleaning them.
As we mentioned earlier, you can take your down pillows to a dry cleaner for a full-service rejuvenation. However, if your down pillow’s label says that it is machine-safe, there is a budget option.
Wash your pillow cold, and remember to put it in for two extra rinse cycles and two extra spin cycles. This is because down retains soap and water easily.
When it comes to cleaning, it is synthetic pillows that win. They pick up odors and bacteria more easily than natural fibers, but most of them are machine-safe and can be washed on a normal cold cycle.
Down pillows are not the cheapest choice, or the most convenient. However, it’s no mystery why so many people love them.
Their soft, plush texture and moldability all but guarantee a good night’s sleep. And, although synthetic pillows are the most economical choice, down pillows are more than their sticker price.
They’re long-lasting, warp-proof, and odor-resistant, and they can be rejuvenated if necessary. But perhaps that isn’t important.
Once you sleep on a high-quality down pillow for the first time, you’ll understand why it’s worth the price.