The Lowdown On Goose Down

Geese haven't changed much in the past 50 years, but goose down jackets certainly have.

The Lowdown On Goose Down

Photo from KUIU Website - KUIU Superdown Collection

Goose down jackets are a staple for hardcore outdoorsmen and women who enjoy warm, lightweight, packable outerwear. But the down jacket you see hikers and backpackers wearing today is a far cry from the jacket your grandfather wore back in the 1940s.

Sure, a goose is still a goose. And down is still down. But innovators being what they are, many companies are now producing the best goose down jackets ever made using a variety of new technologies. If you’re not cashing in on the newly revived love of goose down jackets, you should do some research of your own to see how down can bolster your bottom line.


All About Down

As a little background, down is the under plumage that geese, ducks and other waterfowl have to keep them warm and dry. Down isn’t to be confused with feathers, with are the colored, outermost layer of a goose or duck. Feathers have quills, while down does not.

Goose down is the finest lightweight insulator known, natural or synthetic. (That is, with the exception of eiderdown, which comes from eider ducks and isn’t widely available.) Down clusters create thousands of tiny air pockets, with provide the superior insulating ability for which down is famous.

Along with its high insulative qualities, down is also very breathable compared to many other materials used to make jackets and other outdoor gear. Down’s natural design wicks water away through filaments while retaining the warmth in the air pockets.

Most of the goose down produced today comes from China, with a small percentage coming from Europe. However, the part of the world where the goose lived has no relation to the quality of the down or the jacket made from the down.

Eddie Bauer, an early outdoor retailer, produced the first down jacket after nearly freezing to death on a hike in 1935. While fishing in Alaska, Bauer was carrying a heavy load of steelhead and began to fall behind his fishing partner on the trail. He became hypothermic, but fortunately had a revolver with him and was able to fire it to alert his partner that he was in trouble. Had he been by himself, it’s quite possible he would have perished that frigid January day.

Later Bauer realized that what he needed was a really breathable, warm jacket that he wouldn’t have to remove when working strenuously in very cold conditions. He later made a pattern for a goose down jacket that he thought would fit him, acquired the down and had a seamstress sew it for him.

The resulting jacket became a huge hit, as did the subsequent renditions over the next nearly 80 years. In fact, Bauer’s goose down jacket, patented in 1940, would become his most successful product, taking his business from a local storefront to a nationally recognized brand.


Jacket Ups & Downs

Since the 1940s when Bauer introduced his jacket, many companies have jumped into the goose down outerwear business with varying levels of success. Since the thermal quality of down is so incredibly high, down jackets became a staple for many serious outdoors lovers.

Of course, down jackets came in different levels of quality, so jackets began to be rated by “fill-power” in order for customers to determine how warm a particular jacket would be. Down plumes have millions of filaments that provide pockets for warm air — a concept called “loft.” Fill power measures that loft by taking an ounce of down and seeing how many cubic inches it takes up. If it takes up 600 inches, it has 600-fill power. At the top end, 1,000-fill power is as high as the scale goes, representing the warmest jacket — and typically the most expensive.

While down might have been the best material for insulation at the time, it certainly wasn’t perfect. When down jackets got really wet, they tended to stay really wet for a long time. And that greatly reduced the thermal quality. Down would also clump when wet, leaving cold spots with no down in that section.

Combine that with the fact that many down jackets look “poofy” because of their baffles (pockets sewn throughout the jacket that keep the down from all migrating to one place). In the 1970s and ’80s, the baffles were considered cool by many outdoors enthusiasts, even something of a status symbol. But the new, thin look favored by many pushed “poofy” aside in favor of slimmer designs. 

As a result, many seemed to turn their back on down products, opting for new, breathable manmade fabrics for their outerwear — mostly mixes of polyester and spandex, and fill made of polyester or other manmade fibers. But goose down was far from dead. And recent down products utilizing new technologies and materials have made it popular once again.


New Innovations

New innovations in goose down and goose down materials have once again thrust down into the forefront of cold-weather outdoor wear. That’s despite all of the fantastic nylon/spandex mix products currently on the market. Let’s take a look at a few of these innovations in goose down.

While hydrophobic down sounds like it comes from a goose with rabies, in reality it mostly solves the water problems associated with down jackets — namely the loss of insulative quality when very wet. Nearly everyone who has ever owned a down jacket has seen the down clump up within the baffles when wet, then take hours to finally dry out. With hydrophobic down, that’s largely a problem of the past.

While still goose down, hydrophobic down has been treated with a durable water repellent that enables the down to resist water longer, dry more quickly and retain loft when damp. Consequently, jackets made from it perform better in damp conditions than their regular down ancestors.

Jackets using hydrophobic down are generally more expensive than conventional down jackets. But with the additional selling point of keeping outdoor adventurers dry when other down jackets won’t, adding some jackets using this material to your sales inventory is probably a very good idea.

Down proof jackets address another problem that down jackets have historically had — the fact that feathers and other materials always seem to escape and get on clothing, furniture and other places you don’t want it. “Down proof” is actually kind of a misleading term, since a down cluster won’t leak through fabric. But tiny pieces of broken-down clusters, known as “fiber,” and small feathers with pointy ends will work their way through your outer and inner jacket fabric.

Down proof fabrics don’t let such materials work their way through, mostly eliminating the mess that inevitably begins to occur when a down jacket gets older. I say “mostly” because all fabrics labeled “down proof,” even the most expensive ones, will leak some amount of material over time. The best jackets in this category use down proof fabrics that leak the least while still offering breathability and/or water resistance.

Note that down experts recommend that you never pull a feather out of a down jacket when you see its tip protruding through. Doing so widens the hole that the feather came through, which makes it easier for more to exit there in the future.

Many top manufacturers now make down jackets with down proof outer fabric in the design. Having this option available for your customers gives you another avenue for profiting from down.

Seamless down jackets are the current top-of-the-line innovation in goose down outerwear. These jackets are made with a relatively new insulation called Thindown, which Eddie Bauer had exclusive rights for through 2018. Now other companies are using the material and making some great-looking, warm jackets from it.

In a nutshell, Thindown is big sheets of down that are bound together and pressed into a soft, light layer and wrapped in a scrim liner. Rather than being used to fill individual baffled sections as is done in old-style down jackets, the solid sheet is designed to stick in place without baffles or quilting.

The result is a goose down jacket that doesn’t look like a down jacket. It’s also a warmer jacket, as wearers don’t get the empty pockets that occur when the down bunches up in old-style down jackets.

Note that seamless down jackets are quite pricey. But customers — especially younger, fitter ones — are often willing to pay the extra price for the modern, trim look these jackets offer.

If you’re thinking that surely goose down technology has come as far as it possibly can, you’ll need to think again. In January 2019, DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Natural Insulation Products Inc. announced a collaboration to create a new category of insulation utilizing time-proven goose down.

“We are pleased to partner with DuPont, the creator of some of the world’s most outstanding fibers, to bring together ‘the best of science and the best of nature’ to create the next evolution of down fabrics,” Ronie Reuben, the inventor of Thindown, said in the press release announcing the partnership.

The two brands are exploring new ways to seamlessly combine Sorona fiber — a high-performance fiber made from renewable plant-based ingredients — and goose down using the proprietary process from Thindown to create a whole new category of a blended down insulated fabric.

Researchers hope the combination will deliver greater warmth and breathability, while adding drape and stretch for more ease of movement. Additionally, with the use of bio-based Sonora fibers, the collaboration will hopefully yield a more sustainable insulating material option versus traditional down.

Look for big announcements coming from those companies soon. It’s likely they’ll come up with a material that leads to even more goose down-based jackets your customers will love — and that you’ll love selling to them.

Sidebar: Not Just For Jackets

Jackets aren’t the only products that take advantage of goose down’s extreme softness and fantastic insulating properties. A quick Google search shows that down pillows and comforters are also wildly popular and are considered a luxury by many who have probably never stepped foot into the great outdoors. Down proof comforters and pillows are especially popular, since much less material is shed from them.

If your store carries household items as well as outdoor recreational products, having goose down comforters and pillows in your inventory might add a few more dollars to your bottom line, courtesy of the lowly goose.


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