The breast feathers of a goose have a unique capability. Geese often spend their time in waters just above freezing. Their ability to maintain their warmth is to a large degree based on the thick layer of fat that surrounds their bodies. But there’s also something special about their feathers.
The feathers on the bottom part of their bodies exposed to water (the rump and breast) have a unique physical characteristic supplemented by a chemical characteristic.
The physical characteristic is a web of feathers that hold and contain air-pockets. The chemical characteristic is derived from a gland toward their tail that they smear onto their “bottom” feathers that resists water penetration.
This is true for other waterfowl, including ducks, loons and any other water bird. But across all of them, goose down has demonstrated the best characteristics as it relates to the retention of heat and resistance to outside factors like cold. As a large bird it also yields a higher proportion of these bottom or “down” feathers.
Unfortunately, goose down is both expensive and somewhat limited in supply – but there are alternatives.
From Fowl to Flora
We’re going to explore alternative feathered fowl and plant materials that have the insulating power of goose down. The efficacy or ability of these materials to provide insulation will vary to some degree, and none will have the superior ability of goose down, but if you need the insulation and don’t have the geese you’ll need to improvise.
One thing to keep in mind as you collect alternatives to goose down is that you mostly likely will end up with a blended combination. It’s not like one type of alternative like milkweed or chicken breast feathers are going to provide the quantity you need for any application from pillows to comforters.
That gets back to the benefit of a large animal like a goose. One goose is going to provide more downy material than other birds and any plant. You need to think about collecting a variety of these alternative resources and combining them to provide your insulation alternative over a period of time.
Why you might need goose down or these other alternatives is related to the unique comfort and heat-retention properties of all of these materials. End uses include:
- Pillows Soft, feather pillows are comforting and insulating. You can take twin pieces of sewn-together cotton fabric and stuff with an assortment of these alternative insulators and produce pillows that are better than most sold in a store.
- Quilts and comforters. This isn’t about grandmas at the county fair in a quilting bee, although they would probably appreciate these alternatives. This is about understanding the basics of quilting and how stuffing and insulation alternatives can be incorporated. In fact, most quilters don’t use quilt down; they use chicken feathers for stuffing their quilts, but I won’t tell if you don’t tell.
- Sleeping bags, vests and other clothing like hats. It’s pretty easy to make a sleeping bag. Just make a quilt and sew in a zipper. But what makes a sleeping bag work is the stuffing. The same is true for a simple vest, and there are patterns for both. The same is also true for a hat or hood. We lose 40 percent of our body heat through our head. It’s important to do as your mother says and, during winter, “Wear a hat.”
- Mattresses. My great-grandfather lived and worked in a logging camp for five years back in the 1890s. He could have bought a mattress or bed roll, but knew they were inconsistent and generally low quality. He made his own from a variety of feathers, straw and some of the plant materials we’ll explore and sewed and quilted it himself with soft canvas.
- Dog bed. If you’re tentative about this whole process of using alternative materials as a down substitute, start by making a wonderful and soft bed for your dog. It’s easy to make and it’s the fundamental mattress concept where you mix a variety of materials from grasses to mixed feathers and natural sources like milkweed or other downy weeds.
Collecting and Storing Until Used
Collecting any type of stuffing material from goose down to milkweed takes time. You’re not going to assemble all of these materials in a day unless you are in the poultry processing business or have a small army of gatherers working the fields. To complicate matters further, natural sources vary by season. Cottonwood fluff shows up in early spring while the best milkweed fluff shows up in August and September. Other species of feathered fowl show up all year long, but the smaller the bird, the smaller the yield.
I actually use a large, small-mesh, netting material that I roughly sew into a bag shaped about the size of a 55-gallon drum. I hang it from the ceiling of my garage, although the ceiling in your attic or barn may work just as well. This is a very dry space and that’s what you want. I’ll often shake the bag and tumble it to get the seeds from the plant material to filter out or settle to the bottom. I’ll continue to fill it from time to time.
Store Bird Feathers and Plant Full Separately
As you continue your collection process, make sure you store your bird or fowl feathers separate from any plant-based fluff. You don’t want to incorporate small seeds into the crevices of your bird feathers. You’re going to want to try to reduce the seed content as much as possible, not preserve it in a web of duck down and chicken feathers.
I also have smaller versions of these bags that I’ll carry in a back pocket, and if I see a great source of plant-down, I stuff it in the bag and hang it from my belt for my walk home.
Types of Feathers
If you’re going to harvest feathers from various birds, there are certain feathers with different qualities.
- Wing feathers or quills. These feathers are the longest and largest and feature a heavy spine. Turkey quills were often used as primitive pens, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence may have been signed with this type of writing tool. They’re OK as insulation, but usually need to be cut or broken up and are best suited for mattresses or comforters They’re not good for pillows or any use that will have body pressure because the quills can actually press up like small spines or sticks and be uncomfortable. Tail feathers on many birds also have large quills.
Cape feathers. Cape feathers are a favorite of flyfishing fly-tiers and are sometimes referred to as hackle feathers. They run along the back and neck of the bird. They also have a spine, but it’s lighter and thinner. These can be used in any application, from pillows to an insulated hat, but are best mixed with other materials.
- Breast and rump feathers (down). On any bird, these are the premium feathers for insulation. Down feathers from waterfowl like geese, ducks and other water birds is the best, but all birds produce down feathers that are soft, fluffy and retain heat.
Persistence and Perseverance
This is one of those little, everyday things you just have to build into your daily activity. Whenever I go for a walk into the woods or along a trail I have my small, net bag on my belt. If I see some fluff from a plant that has suddenly shown up, I’ll stop and gather it in the bag. The good news is that it’s very light on my belt, and when I get home I dump it into my larger, gather bag in the rafters of my garage. Once again, I don’t mix them with my bird feather collection.
I do the same anytime with any waterfowl or poultry slaughter. The feathers are saved, and if I can I’ll try to separate the down from the rougher feathers like wing feather and cape feathers. It’s not as tedious as it sounds. It’s just another homesteader discipline you get used to doing.
Alternatives with Similar Properties
Okay, so if goose down is the gold standard, where do we go from here if goose down or other bird feathers are not available? Well, that’s where the plant option comes into play. We see these types of plants all the time. They create a soft, white downy fluff at various times of the year from spring through fall. They’re not the easiest to collect, but at times some of these plants produce prodigious amounts of alternative insulation. But it’s a good news / bad news scenario.
The Bad News
All of this plant fluff is designed to carry seeds in the wind, and the seeds are the problem. Plant seeds in a pillow are a good example. Seeds love warm, moist environments. They will quickly germinate when this happens. That could be a real problem with a pillow, especially if you sweat through the night due to a hot-spell in summer, or due to a wood-burning stove that’s a little too hot in winter.
The solution is to do the best you can to separate the seeds from the fluff in your collection bag by shaking it and let the seeds settle to the bottom or if they’re small enough, fall to the ground. Be careful. If it’s a weed, you may be planting a new harvest in an area you want to keep weed-free.
If it’s freezing outside, you could also set the pillow or quilt out for a few hours and the sprouts will quickly expire. If it’s very hot you could do the same. Once a seed has begun the germination process and is stopped either by cold or lack of moisture it will not germinate again.
The Allergy Factor
This applies to all downy materials including goose down. Some people are allergic to these materials. Others are more intolerant of plant-based fluff like cottonwood. If you or someone you know is allergic to either feathers or plant dander/fluff, cut up some old rags and clothing as stuffing for a pillow or comforter. It won’t be as soft or warm, but at least they won’t sneeze all night. There’s also that sheep-wool option that we’ll get to later.
Here are the specific plant alternatives you could consider as an alternative stuffing for insulation in bedding and clothing. Remember, this is a long-term collection process, although if you have enough help at the height of milkweed season you may do better than usual.
- Cotton. This is a highly regional plant, usually found in the South. It does grow wild and an enormous industry has emerged around it. The old seed problem was addressed by Eli Whitney when he invented the cotton gin to remove the seeds efficiently.
- Cottonwood trees. These are members of the Poplar family, and their fluff fills the air in spring. It seems impossible to harvest, but it will often catch and gather in grasses along roadsides and paths. In areas with a large grove of cottonwoods, the grass in fields looks like they’re covered in snow. An easy harvest if you’re not allergic.
Milkweed. Ubiquitous and mature in August to October depending on where you live. Patches of milkweed will often fill fields, and their fluff is easy to harvest, especially if you pick the mature pods and strip the fluff at home in your backyard or an outbuilding like a barn or woodshed. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in the kitchen.
- Cattails. Cattails are also easy to harvest in quantity, and if they are beginning to release their seeds, you can easily take the heads home and twist them to collect their fluffy dander.
- Thistle. Some varieties of thistle create a fluffy seed-delivery mechanism but be careful. They have thorns and must be picked delicately from the top of the flower.
As you wander your trails you’ll often see other plant varieties that take advantage of this feathery, fluffy seed-delivery mechanism. Depending on the quantity you encounter and your inclination, they’re worth adding to your fluff bag.
Putting it All Together
As autumn approaches and the chill comes into the night, it’s time to get serious about your insulation collection. By now you may have a few large bags hanging in the rafters, and it’s time to shake, combine, settle some seeds and think about what you’re going to do.
If you’re stuffing a mattress I’d recommend combining straw with some of your coarser, pin feathers and chopped quill feathers. Grasses abound and can be harvested green and dried, or you can wait until fall.
I don’t chop them up because the small, individual straws act like toothpicks in the mattress. Leave them long and mix them with other stuffing materials.
For pillows and quilts I’d lean toward the softer feathers and plant fluff. If by some chance you raise sheep, there is always the wool option as stuffing.
There are various quilting and batting techniques designed to keep the filling roughly in place and evenly distributed for mattresses, quilts and comforters. It makes a great comforter or quilt, although it can compress a bit if used in a pillow.
Washing is problematic and should be avoided, but exposure to freezing temperatures, breezes and the sun can solve a lot problems, from seed germination to odors to insects.
Hopefully we don’t spend too much of our time in this particular pursuit. But if you’ve never tried it, it’s a good skill to know.
What are other alternatives to goose down? Share your thoughts in the section below: