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Down vs. Feather: What's The Difference?

by David Smith

At Down And Feather Company we realize not everyone is going to purchase their pillows from us. However, we do realize how personal pillows are and truly wish everyone would sleep better. So we figure if everyone understood the difference between feather pillows vs. down pillows, a "feather" and a "down cluster", and how feather pillows and down pillows and even feather and down pillows are different everyone would sleep well.

Down Vs Feather

The main difference between down and feathers is the part of the goose or duck they come from. Feathers are from a bird's outer layer (wings & back) while down is from the covering beneath this layer that is used for insulation. Down material will last longer, is more expensive and is softer while feather material will not last as long, contain quills and is less expensive. Feather and down blends don't last as long with some percentage of down added for support so they don't go flat. 

Down Clusters: What do they look like?

goose down feather image of a down cluster for comparison to a feather.

Down clusters are round and spherical as seen on the left. They look like the head of a dandelion, and depending on the quality of the down, are almost the same size. This 850 fill power Hungarian down cluster is the size of a US quarter.

This natural spherical shape is what gives a down pillow, down comforter, or down feather bed its loft. The loft comes from the down cluster constantly wanting to return to its naturally round shape. The more Hungarian down clusters you use to fill a pillow, known as fill weight and usually represented in ounces, the firmer the pillow will be.

Feathers: What do they look like?

goose down feather image of a goose feather for comparison to a down cluster.

Everyone knows what a feather looks like but this goose down feather is smaller than a US quarter . Goose down feathers are soft even though they have a spine down the center, called a quill, with hair like strands radiating from the quill like a sail or filament. Feathers, depending on the bird, help the bird fly, keep warm, and stay dry (so don't wash a feather pillow).

But when feathers are 'stuffed' into a pillow shell, over time, the quills start to align with each other and tend to lay flat. The effect on your pillow is that it too becomes flat. To combat this flattening of the pillow due to the aligning of the feathers, some companies add down clusters to keep the feathers from compacting and the feather pillow becoming hard.

What is the best down fill power? (feathers don't have a fill power rating)

cylinders of down image of goose down in cylinders to show fill power.

The rule of thumb is "the higher the fill power the higher the quality," so our ultra-premium  850 fill power is the finest and most consistent down fill available in the world. HOWEVER,

  1. Where is the down fill from? A region or is it a specie specific bird? ... is it (Hungarian, Canadian, European, Chinese geese)? If it doesn't say Hungarian then it isn't (think China?). Not everyone carries Hungarian white goose down because it's very expensive.
  2. How is it cleaned? How many times or steps in the cleaning process? One (1) time? Four (4) times?
  3. Where is it cleaned? At the point of origin or is it shipped to China for cleaning? We clean ours in the US.
  4. What percentage of the down is actually down cluster (50%, 75% or 95%)?

All of these elements and many more impact the quality of given a fill power from a given bird from a given region.

The higher the fill power the larger the down cluster, the larger the down cluster the higher the quality, the higher the quality the longer it will last and the higher it will loft and the more air it will trap therefore sleeping warmer.

How do I compare the different fill power?

Remember, the higher the fill power the higher the quality, but that does not mean that 650 or 750 fill power down fills are of inferior quality. 650, 750 and 850 fill power down clusters are considered premium quality down fills and anything less than 650 is typically considered commercial quality. Commercial quality down is typically used to fill furniture and stuffed toys for children.

650 vs. 750 vs. 850 fill power and what's the difference?

In addition to the larger down cluster being of higher quality it also came from a older bird. The smaller down clusters (650 fill power down cluster) come from smaller, less mature birds. It's all about supply and demand. 850 fill power down clusters are more expensive because there are fewer of them and most everyone wants only the finest quality. But keeping the bird alive long enough, many years, to produce such high quality is expensive, time consuming, and labor intensive.

Look for companies that specifically mention their treatment of the birds if you are concerned about how they acquire their down. All of our Hungarian white goose down is RDS certified under the responsible down standard. 

comparing the different fill powers image of down clusters next to a US quarter for size comparison.

850 Fill Power Ultra-premium Hungarian white goose down cluster.

850 fill power goose down shield

Considered by many the finest most luxurious fill in the world. 850 fill power Hungarian white goose down clusters are larger than a US quarter in size. Their enormous size and three-dimensional spherical shape make them the most resilient and longest-lasting down cluster. This largest of the down clusters is ideal for its ability to insulate when used in a down comforter or be resilient when used for our heirloom quality luxury down pillows and luxurious down mattress toppers. The best 850 fill power down pillows.

750 Fill Power Ultra-premium Hungarian white goose down cluster.

750 fill power goose down shield

This excellent quality Hungarian white goose down cluster can never be considered a compromise. It is much larger than a 650 fill power down cluster and therefore higher quality. It is also cleaned using a multi-step process to ensure the down can reach its maximum loft, meaning it will be more resilient and longer-lasting than a 650 fill power down cluster. The best 750 fill power down pillows.

650 Fill Power Ultra-premium Hungarian white goose down cluster.

650 fill power goose down shield

All natural and cleaned with soap and water to ensure it reaches it maximum loft, don’t let its smaller cluster size fool you. Allergen free and guaranteed hypo-allergenic. A resilient and versatile fill great for pillows, comforters, and down mattress toppers. The best 650 fill power down pillows.

What is the best design for my pillow?

Down pillows, as you might expect, can be very soft but just how soft is largely determined by the design and fill weight of the pillow. Fill weight is the number of ounces used to fill the pillow for a given density; soft, medium, firm or extra firm. The issue isn't the down cluster which as you might expect is very soft and very light but the shell they are stuffed into will greatly impact your pillows softness. Gusseted pillows typically sleep much softer and require more down for a given density level.

Enemies of feather and down fill:

Why does my pillow go flat and turn yellow? There are three things that destroy the feathers and down contained within your pillow.

  1. Compression - This one you really can't do anything about given that merely using the pillow compresses the down contained within the pillow. Compression, over time, slowly crushes the all natural fibers that make up the filaments that radiate from the center of a down cluster (see image of down cluster above).
  2. Moisture - The ultimate enemy of down is moisture. Whether that moisture comes from the down not being properly dried during manufacturing, from the humidity the down absorbs while sitting in the warehouse waiting for you to purchase it, or the moisture from improper cleaning (see Caring for your pillows).
  3. Oil - Slowly and surely the oils from your moisturizing creams, facial creams, and most importantly the oils from your skin will make their way through the pillow shell and be absorbed by the down fill. Aside from reducing the night creams or making sure you use both a pillow protector and pillow case, you can only slow down the process. The oils from your skin are also responsible for the yellowing of your pillow cases, pillow protectors, and pillow shells.

Top 10 ways to care for your down or feather pillow: (Maybe top 11 or so)

Your pillows may not last forever but lasting decades is not out of the question.

  1. Folding them, putting them in a headlock, and using them for pillow fights will impact the longevity of your pillows. You don't have to baby them but if you can avoid abusing them your pillow will reward you with years of consistent support.
  2. Feather pillows should not be washed. Feathers are designed by nature to help keep water off a bird's back, so please don't wash your feather pillows. Use a pillow protector or pillow case and wash that and send the actual pillow to a professional dry cleaner that has experience with cleaning down bedding.
  3. Down pillows can be washed, but you must make sure they are dried properly. Any moisture remaining on any of the down clusters will mold and mildew in less than 24 hours and your pillow will be ruined. So when you think it's done drying, dry it some more. Think in terms of hours, like 4 hours on medium heat, and not in terms of 36 - 48 minutes which would be a dryers normal cycle time. No, you don't need tennis balls.
  4. If you bathe or shower at night before you go to bed make sure your hair is dry.
  5. If you bathe or shower at night put on the moisturizing creams in the morning.
  6. Buy a pillow protector.
  7. Use a pillow case and wash it every weekend or whenever you strip the bed and wash the sheets.
  8. Oils don't destroy a pillow in days, weeks, or months, but rather in years. So anything you can do to prevent oils from getting to the down fill will prolong the life of your pillow.
  9. Moisture will destroy a pillow in days NOT weeks months or years. So anything you can do to prevent your pillow from trapping moisture will prolong the life of your pillow.
  10. If you live in a humid climate DON'T hang it out outside on a clothes line to "air it out".
  11. If you can smell it you already need a new pillow.