Geese and Chickens Part One — A Visit to the International Down and Feathers Lab


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  
Geek alert, this magnified photo of goose down (and a feather or two) is a warning of what follows.

Geek alert! This magnified photo of goose down (and a feather or two) is a warning of what follows.

It all began with Mountain Equipment (ME), the UK gear maker who recently began importing their excellent softgoods line to the States. ME’s “Down Codex” program is designed to track bird plumage insulation from the animal all the way to your sleeping bag or other “end use,” so you know what you’re buying (quality control) and how the animals were treated in getting you the goods (animal welfare).

Interestingly, one of the UK guys at Mountain Equipment told me that his impression is that consumers in Western Europe are much more concerned about the animal welfare part of this than those of us in North America. I don’t know if that’s really true, but have to say his impression got my attention. How about you WildSnowers? Any of you concerned with tracking how that down in your jacket is obtained? One interesting factoid regarding all this is that most down is actually a byproduct of the food industry (about 96% of the value of a goose is the meat). Because of that, how the birds are treated for food production is where the issues may be; force feeding and that sort of thing.

Having thus recently become interested in feathers, I got in a conversation with ME and they suggested a visit to the International Down and Feathers Lab (IDFL) to check out how down is tested and standardized — the “quality” part of the Codex equation. IDFL’s world headquarters are in Salt Lake City (with facilities around the world), so during Outdoor Retailer I spent a few hours getting the tour. Fascinating. Check it all out below (click images to enlarge).

The IDFL complex comprises a few buildings in a residential area near the Salt Lake City core.

The IDFL complex comprises a few buildings in a residential area near the Salt Lake City core.

When you walk in the door, you know these guys are serious about waterfowl.

When you walk in the door, you know these guys are serious about waterfowl.

Down sample for evaluation.

Due to legal labeling requirements, IDFL receives thousands of samples for evaluation. Testing the super fill down used by the outdoor industry is just a small part of what they do -- but to us an important part!

Garment sample for fill evaluation.

Along with bagged samples, retail-ready down-filled garments are evaluated for truth in labeling, fill power, fill weight and more. This is done by essentially reverse engineering the garment by removing most of the stitching and emptying the fill into a container. We wanted to see that done on a perfectly good Arcteryx puffy, thinking when they weren't looking we could stuff the jacket in a backpack and make off with it before the poor thing was destroyed. Alas, the only thing we could snitch was this pink travesty with a fake fur hood ruff. Yet I have to say, I look quite good in it. It's become my IDFL signature piece -- perfect for an espresso in Bolzano.

Smaller down samples lined up for content evaluation.

Smaller down samples lined up for content evaluation and more. Larger samples are tested for fill power. This is where if you try to slip chicken feathers into a 'down' filled product, you get busted.

In this lab they measure how much dirt is in the down, and check that it's been sterilized.

In this lab they measure how much dirt is in the down, and check that it's been sterilized by doing an 'oxygen' test for organic matter. One constant question about down is how do you wash it? I asked these total experts. They told me 'you can wash down a hundred times (if you do it correctly) with no damage.' What does 'correctly' mean? Just use regular laundry detergent, and rinse well while taking extra care not to damage the garment or sleeping bag with the weight of the wet down. I also asked about the special 'down washes' available. The IDFL guys said they're not much different than regular laundry detergent, only they rinse out easier due to some additives.

Small pillows are stitched up to test the down or fill proof-ness of fabrics.

Small pillows are stitched up to test the down (or synthetic fill) proof-ness of fabrics. The pillows are placed in a rubbing machine, tortured in a 'punch test' machine, and pummeled in a contraption that resembles a ball mill in an ore processing facility. The IDFL guys told me that it's quite a challenge to make super-lightweight fabric that's truly down proof, and this kind of testing is key to research and development. They said the fabric tests are a huge part of what they do, and an immense amount of work since multiple tests are required.

Pillow in the rubbing machine. Any fill material that exits is counted and evaluated.

Pillow in the rubbing machine to test how down proof the fabric is. Any fill material that exits is counted and evaluated.

Upon observation of test results, the fabric is scored.

Upon observation of test results, the fabric is scored.

Thirty minutes of pillow whacking in the ball mill testing for how fill proof the fabric is.

Thirty minutes of pillow whacking in the ball mill testing for how fill-proof the fabric is.

Content analysis is also a big part of IDFL's testing and evaluation.

Content analysis is also a big part of IDFL's testing and evaluation. This is all done by amazingly talented 'counters' who tweeze and sort the different fill components (feathers, down clumps, trash, etc.). Since down is a 'non homogeneous natural product,' this sort of evaluation is super important to perform on every batch, unlike synthetic fills that can be manufactured in nearly identical mass quantity. (Though synthetic fills also must be tested to one degree or another).

The test everyone talks about turns out to be just one part of the total equation.

Fill power. The test everyone talks about turns out to be just one part of the total equation -- but nonetheless super important. This is the test that says to us consumers 'here is the real stuff!' First step is 'conditioning' the down. The moisture content has to be adjusted and the down is fluffed to a consistent degree. This step is done by steaming then drying, or tumble drying. Consistency is key. While conditioning methods vary, the same fill power test is used around the world. Known at the 'Lorch' test, it simply involves filling a cylinder with down, placing a weight on top, and seeing how much the down compresses.

Lorch test is named after the laboratory supply company that makes the plastic cylinder.

Lorch test is named after the laboratory supply company that makes the plastic cylinder.

Lorch cylinder with top on and the weight compressing the down, a simple rod indexes on a ruler.

Lorch cylinder with top on and the weight compressing the standard 30 grams of down, a simple rod indexes on a ruler. This ruler is scaled for down or feathers with lesser fill power.

The good stuff scale for the Lorch test.

The good stuff scale for the Lorch test, yeah, it goes to 900. Kind of like an amp that goes to eleven since most 'premium high fill down' is around 800, and true 900 fill is said to be difficult to reliably separate from a down harvest, thus pricey and in some cases perhaps more of a PR and marketing story than reality.

I love museums. IDFL has a nice bunch of artifacts from various aspects of human insulation.

I love museums. IDFL has a nice bunch of artifacts from various aspects of human insulation.

Next, Part Two is an essay on down fill standards, or lack thereof in the outdoor industry.

As it were, we recommend a quality down puff jacket for backcountry skiing in all but the wettest climates. Get ready for winter and shop for it!

Comments

8 Responses to “Geese and Chickens Part One — A Visit to the International Down and Feathers Lab”

  1. Jack August 29th, 2012 3:06 pm

    Wow! It is officially silly-season when this (great) article went uncommented for so long. Lou, I love the sheer dogged, determined industrial empiricism of it all. We will measure it in a repeatable way under hoods and in glove boxes with pictures of our kids taped to the side. When I buy something rated “700″ I will have faith and confidence.

  2. Bar Barrique August 29th, 2012 9:16 pm

    It’s interesting that in an era where synthetics have proved to be the best option for hiking/backcountry skiing etc, down still has a place. Maybe not the perfect all round insulation, but; it works great for many applications.

  3. Lou Dawson August 29th, 2012 9:24 pm

    Jack, thanks for your comment! Our style here at WildSnow does result in substantive posts that are not comment bait. I’m comfortable with that. This IDFL tour post will stand the test of time, and be there when people want the inside story on down testing. Bar, yeah, down is pretty amazing stuff…

    And Jack, when you buy something rated “700,” you might consider if that confidence is misplaced or not. As how do you know the actual batch of down was tested independently? That’s what tomorrow’s post is about.

    Lou

  4. Skian August 30th, 2012 7:20 am

    Great write up Lou, I have constantly heard that you can only really get 900 or above fill from plucking live birds? that you dont get little lemurians runnng around nest picking out only the finest feathers. Any way to qualify that one? Also been told the euro birds are older and therefor more developed down to feather ratio’s so higher loft for volume which would mean less down fill is less weight of the overall garment for a high loft return. Also heard that the down in europe is a byproduct of food production and the asian down is primarily a byproduct of garment? Any type of followup on these details would be appreciated. I figure you might have a straight forward contact now to ask these questions.

  5. Skian August 30th, 2012 7:25 am

    @ bar synthetics don’t rule the world. They have their place. Down and wool both have proven long standing additional benefits over petroleum for years. In dry environments you just cant beat them. In wet environments more to be said for synthetics. Technology weather natural or manmade needs to be positioned for the user and the environments. Thats why we don’t just have one…

  6. Lou Dawson August 30th, 2012 7:41 am

    Hey Skian, I’ll see about those questions. A couple of the experts I met might weigh in here on those issues.

    The thing to remember about down is that when they pluck a bird, alive or dead, it makes a big pile of mixed up feathers and down. Then that stuff is separated with an industrial process involving air currents. From what I understand, if this process is taken to the n’th degree they can come up with “900″ fill down, but since doing so results in down that’s nearly or exactly the same thing as 850+ ( considering that the Lorch test has a tolerance range, and also, not every tiny bit of down is tested, only batches), calling the super high-fill stuff 850+ is much more fair to the consumer as it honors the tollerance range of the Lorch test as well as the down separation process.

    Also, since 900 is the practical limit of how fluffy down can be in the Lorch test, to claim that number it would seem to me a company would need their down much more carefully tested, and in smaller batches so they could catch variations. Again, meaning the “850+” designation would seem more honest, simply meaning the down fill power falls somewhere between 850 and 900.

    Nonetheless, just as with PR stories such as truck towing capacity or binding “DIN” values, the temptation to call down fill “1000 !!!!!” fill is always there.

    The message here I’m trying to convey to the consumer is twofold:

    1. 800+ down is virtually the same thing as 900.

    2. How has the company determined the fill power they are claiming; is there any accountability or third-party certification process?

  7. Skian August 30th, 2012 7:54 am

    +1 on this article. like to see this continue.

  8. Lou Dawson August 30th, 2012 8:18 am

    In my comment above, I wrote “800+” instead of “850+” Either way, that or 900 are premium downs with amazing fill power, but “850+” is most surly the same thing as “900″ in any practical sense.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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