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Down pillows are stuffed with soft down feathers, usually taken from geese or ducks. They are typically very soft and warm, and they tend to hold onto their supportive properties, called loft, over time. Products stuffed with down are often considered a symbol of luxury, and as such, they can be more expensive than conventionally stuffed bedding.
Down feathers are especially soft feathers found on the undersides of birds, beneath the outer layer of larger, more rugged, feathers. Their small, interlocking fibers serve to insulate the birds' bodies from cold temperatures and moisture. When used in pillows, it interlocks with itself to hold warm air close to the user’s head. This characteristic provides a lot of warmth, making it ideal for those living in colder climates.
It is important to note that a down pillow is not the same as a feather pillow. While down is a type of feather, feather pillows are filled with feathers from the outer layer of a bird's body that help birds fly. As a result, these feathers are flat and have a stiff quill in the middle. Pillows that are stuffed with regular feathers tend to lose their structure easily and can poke out of the pillow case more often; down, by comparison, is three dimensional and better holds its shape over time. Down and feather blends are also available that provide some of the lift provided by down, but are less expensive.
Some people are allergic to feathers and down, particularly the fine, powdery particles that some types of down can produce. Feathers that are not cleaned completely can also cause problems. For most people, it's more likely that dust mites or mold in a pillow will cause allergies. Hypoallergenic versions are available, as are covers designed to prevent particles from escaping from inside the pillow. People who are very sensitive, however, may sleep better on bedding filled with synthetic stuffing.
Most of the down used in pillows comes from geese or ducks. Goose down is typically preferred over duck because it is usually larger, so fewer feathers are required to fill the same space. Age is also a factor in determining which type of down is best, since an older duck’s down will be bigger and better than that of a younger goose. The best down is widely considered to come from the eider duck; the down from this species is collected from the birds' nesting areas in Iceland, Scandinavia, and Siberia.
There is some controversy about where the feathers for down pillows originate. Like that from the eider duck, some is harvested when the birds molt. Most is taken from the bodies of birds that have been slaughtered for meat. Some may also come from live plucking; although this is illegal in the US and Europe, most down comes from China, where the practice is permitted. Consumers who are concerned about the source of the down should consider where the feathers originate and if the manufacturer offers any informaton about how the down is collected.
The most common pillow designs are single-shell and dual-shell, which describes how many layers of fabric are between the filling and the surface. Single-shell pillows are not as durable as dual-shell because oil from the user’s hair and face can more easily penetrate the down and degrade it, but they are also typically less expensive than other designs. Some pillows contain inner chambers of down or feathers, which may provide extra lift or better cradle the user's head.
No matter which type of filling is used, it's a good idea to use a pillow protector as well as a pillow case. These extra layers help keep the filling clean and dry, and they can be removed and washed regularly.
Pillows in good condition with no rips or holes in the fabric can be safely machine washed using a mild detergent, or one formulated specifically for down products. Damaged or worn pillows can be spot cleaned using soap and water along with a soft rag.
Drying down pillows properly is also important, since moisture can cause mold or mildew to grow very quickly. They can be air dried on a clothes line in the sun for an entire day or longer, until fully dry. They can also be dried in an electric dryer that has a cool tumble dry setting; this will require several hours of drying time. Tennis balls can be placed alongside the pillows to prevent bunching. It's important to use a low head when machine drying, as high temperatures can damage the feathers.
People who cannot or prefer not to sleep on down bedding do have alternatives. Those looking for natural fillers can choose cotton or wool, which are generally found to support the head well. These stuffings tend to be relatively firm, which not all sleepers find comfortable, and they also flatten down more quickly than other materials. Buckwheat is another option for very firm, cool support, but some people don't like the noise the hulls make.
A number of synthetic options are available as well, including polyester, latex, and memory foam. Polyester pillows are usually inexpensive and easy to clean, but don't always offer the support that sleepers need. Some are stuffed with a form of polyester that has been specially designed to have the same softness and loft of down; these pillows tend to be more expensive, however.
Latex is considered one of the best materials for people who have allergies, and these pillows offer good support, but they aren't as soft as down and new pillows can have an unpleasant smell. Memory foam pillows also provide good head and neck support, but the material is quite dense and not all users find them comfortable. Both latex and memory foam pillows tend to be relatively expensive, especially when compared to basic polyester.
My husband and I received two beautiful Hungarian goose down pillows as a wedding gift. I didn't know enough to put pillow protectors over them and now they're soiled (turns out I married a drooler!).
How do I go about washing them? Do I do it myself or do they require professional cleaning?
Growing up, I had an old feather down pillow in blue ticking. I remember lying in bed pulling the little white feathers out of the side seams. It was flat, weighed about five pounds, and made crinkling noises when you turned your head. Down pillows have come a long way since then!
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