It’s an age old debate so I thought it would be useful to share some information about these two different types of quilt insulation. Comforter enthusiasts (I guess I can call myself one of those!) have been debating between natural down and synthetic (aka “down-alternative”) for decades now. What’s more, the debate forever continues with new lines of argument because science is continually producing new and interesting synthetics which are touted as the true down-killers! Still, the purists among us will forever fight back with the overriding argument that science will never outsmart mother nature. Or will it?….read on…
Some facts about down
As I stated on the homepage, many believe down is simply a bunch of feathers but it’s not true. Instead, down is the fluffy stuff that lies beneath the wings of a duck or goose and serves to keep it nice and warm even when it’s freezing outside. The type of down can typically be broken up into three categories:
- High quality goose down
– Regular goose down
– Duck down
The high quality goose down is usually a European variety (i.e. Hungarian, etc…) and it is very fine with the largest form of down clusters which maximize the weight to heat ratio. The regular goose down is similar but generally with smaller clusters so tends to be a bit heavier for the same level of heat retention. Duck down is the cheapest variety and while generally very good it simply does not possess the same qualities as goose down.
Manufacturers use the Fill Power measure to define how fluffy or lofty the down is. As an example a fill power of 600 means a single ounce of down will fill up a container measuring 600 cubic inches. So, the higher the fill power the “better” the down is. Sometimes you will see the down “grade” listed as a percentage. So, if you see 80% goose down then you know the rest is typically going to consist of feathers.
Below are some advantages and disadvantages of down:
Advantages of down
- It is breathable and will therefore enable moisture to find its way out which is a good thing.
- Ounce for ounce it is technically warmer than any form of synthetic material currently available. This is undisputed.
- Over time natural down will last longer than any mad made material. Assuming you take good care of it you’ll find that it’ll outlast any synthetic fiber over the long run.
- You can pack down as tightly as possible and it will still be able to fluff back up and retail its original loftiness and shape. Rarely will you see this happen with synthetics.
- It has an ability to wick away moisture from the body and keep you dry (useful if you were using it in a winter jacket for example).
Disadvantages of down
- Down may cause allergies to flare up on some sensitive individuals. While most all down you buy today has been properly sanitized and cleaned it will never be truly as hypo-allergenic as a man-made material. You can greatly reduce the risk of allergies by getting a quality down product which has been properly treated.
- When down gets wet it will no longer exhibit the excellent warmth to weight properties when it’s dry. Also, it takes a very long time to dry compared to any synthetic material. Of course, this should not be a problem with most comforters until it comes time to wash them. You really have to dry a comforter properly to ensure it works as good as when you first bought it.
- Speaking of washing, in most cases a down comforter will need much more care during the washing process and may even be dry clean only.
- Down is generally more expensive than synthetic.
Overall, down is and always will be a favorite among comforter experts and purists because synthetic will never be able to outmatch it in the weight to warmth ratio. Still, it comes at a price so you need to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Some facts about synthetic materials
Technology has advanced so far these days that the gap between down and synthetic materials is getting smaller. Science has enabled us to ‘copy’ the impressive properties of goose down with only a few sacrifices. When we talk about synthetic man-made materials we’re essentially referring to micro-fibers made from polyester or something similar. Manufacturers have been able to produce these tiny fibers in the shape of down clusters which allows them to retain heat much in the same way.
Some types of synthetic insulators (all brand names) you may have heard of include Thinsulate, Thermolite and Polarguard. Many of these were originally created for the outdoor-wear industry and then were ported over to the home bedding industry. You will also find them used in sleeping bags and mountaineering gear.
Below I’ve attempted to list some of the key advantages and disadvantages of synthetic comforters:
Advantages of synthetics
- After getting wet the synthetic material is very quick to dry. This can be a huge benefit when you’ve just washed your synthetic comforter.
- Even when it’s wet it still provides some form of insulation, unlike down. Now I know this is hardly relevant for a comforter and more relevant for outdoor applications but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
- Easier to maintain and care for versus down. Just pop them in the washer and hang up to dry.
- No allergens whatsoever. This may be huge if you are particularly sensitive to allergies.
- Last but not least, synthetic comforters are generally less expensive than their down counterparts.
Disadvantages of synthetics
- Difficult to really compress into a small package and then fluff up to retain its original shape. In fact, you’ll struggle to compress it into such a small space that you can do with down.
- Overall synthetic material has a lower weight to warmth ratio meaning it will be heavier than down while providing the same amount of warmth.
- Much less longevity than a properly cared for down comforter. The reason is that the synthetic clusters tend to break up rather quickly and therefore lose their important heat retaining properties.
So, which is best?
Unfortunately I wish there was simple answer to whether down or synthetic is “best”. Alas, not. You have to decide for yourself based on the information I listed above. Again, my preference is generally to go with down (specifically goose down) because unless you’re getting it wet regularly then it will simply perform better than synthetics. Yes you will have to pay a premium but well worth it in the long run.