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Which is better: down or polyester fill?
Down is a classic stuffing for pillows, comforters, and duvets.
Although very comfortable, it has its drawbacks.
For a while now, down has been substituted with various types of cost-effective polyester fills designed to mimic the feel of down. Sometimes these are marketed as “down alternatives”.
Down aficionados claim that these polyester fills are poor substitutes for the superior feel of true down.
At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference. However, I’ve always been biased towards polyester (or other synthetic) fills. And here’s why.
Down may not actually be down
First a few definitions.
“Feathers” refer to the outer feathers, usually from a goose. “Down”, in contrast, are the softer feathers found under the outer tougher feathers.
Feathers have tough quills. No, these aren’t removed.
Many throw pillows are stuffed with feathers. Despite being contained by two or more cases, these sharp needle-like quills will work their way out and poke you in the back. Or the face.
In contrast to feathers, down creates a round cluster with fibers that radiate from the center. It’s this round cluster that gives down its loft and comfort.
The air pockets formed by the fibers of these clusters keep you warm.
So, feathers are bad, but down is good.
However, many bedding products marketed as “down” are not 100% down, but instead a mix of down plus feathers. Sometimes as much as 95% feathers!
Usually, you can tell by the price. Pillows of 100% down are typically over $150.
Real down has fill power
If you have your heart set on down, look for fill power.
This is not a measurement of firmness, but instead a measure of quality and how long the down will retain its loft before inevitably going flat. The higher the number the better.
The fill power also specifies how well the down insulates for warmth. This is probably not a consideration for a pillow, but definitely important for down jackets and sleeping bags.
Fill power ranges from 300 for feathers, to a maximum of 900 for high quality down.
Image by Pixabay on Pexels
What is down alternative?
Down alternative is a general term for a fill that resembles down.
It is usually made of polyester, but may also contain natural fiber, such as rayon.
One branded down alternative is PrimaLoft®, which was originally developed for the U.S. Army as a water-resistant alternative to goose down. It claims to insulate as well as down of 750 fill power.
Also included in this category are other polyester fiberfills used in pillows and comforters. This includes Dacron’s extensive line of fills, including my old favorite, Quallofil®.
There is a general consensus that down is superior to down alternative in terms of loft and durability. Except that unbranded down alternatives can be any type of fill, from low to high quality. There is no standard.
So, the comparison really isn’t fair.
|Down fill||Polyester fill|
– Real down has loft and comfort
– Strong heat insulator
– Natural, breathable material
– (Should be) machine-washable
– Loft and comfort like down
– Better for allergy sufferers
– Significantly less expensive than down
– Vegan-friendly, cruelty-free
– Often mislabeled feathers
– Bad for allergy sufferers
– May or may not be ethically sourced
– No consistent standard; unbranded fills of varying quality, breathability, and loft
Down is a natural, breathable material
Like most materials derived from nature, down is breathable.
Down alternative made of polyester may or may not be breathable. PrimaLoft® is considered breathable.
Down is pricy
Assuming you’ve read the fine print and know you’re getting 100% down, with no feather contamination, congratulations, you’ve just made an investment.
Yes, a high quality down pillow or duvet, with proper care, should last for years.
But bedding made of high-quality PrimaLoft® (or similar) should also last a long time, and at a much lower cost.
Down is not hypoallergenic
Even though I’m allergic to almost everything, I’m fine with feathers.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for many other allergy sufferers.
Considering the number of hours per day you spend in your bed, it’s important that it be free of allergens.
In contrast, if washed regularly (see below), polyester-based fills are hypoallergenic.
Can you machine-wash down?
Although many manufacturers will not recommend machine-washing, down comes from geese who spend their entire lives in and around water.
Indeed, machine-washing and drying will restore fill power, much as it does with polyester fills.
Especially for allergy sufferers, it’s important to regularly wash all bedding in hot water in order to remove all dust mites and other allergens.
(This assumes that the allergy sufferer in question is not allergic to feathers, to begin with.)
Note, that your duvet might not actually fit in your washing machine.
Down alternative made of polyester should always be washable. If it isn’t, I would question the quality of the stitching or fabric covering.
For pillows, make a habit of washing them in pairs to balance your machine.
And regardless of what type of pillow you have, don’t forget a pillow protective cover. Purchase one that blocks dust mites and allergens. You now won’t need to wash your pillow quite as often.
No birds died to make down alternative
Most of us don’t like to think about this, but to harvest the down, the geese must give their lives.
And yes, that’s the ethical way to source the down. (I could elaborate, but I think I’ll stop there…)
Most of the time, you won’t know where the down came from, and how the animals were treated, including the process for harvesting the down. Some watchdog organizations, as well as industry groups, are encouraging companies to be accountable for how their down is supplied.
Depending on your personal views, you may wish to stick with only ethically sourced down or skip it altogether.
Considering the value and comfort of down alternative, I’m happy to stick with polyester fills. If you haven’t tried one of the premium fills lately, you may be pleasantly surprised.
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