The Eiderdown Puffer


It is 8.30 at night and Àrni Örvarsson is blinking into the sunshine, sweat gathering in a line below his impressive blonde quiff.

“The sun is very high up right now,” he says, struggling to speak. “Actually, I think I’m going to have to move.”

It is late May in Iceland and the sun will not set again now for another two months. We are in the time of year known as the Midnight Sun. Twenty-four hours of daylight during which the sky becomes a kaleidoscope of reds, pinks of purples.

“It is very difficult to sleep,” Örvarsson says. “You have to have good blackout curtains.”

Örvarsson is sitting in his wooden summer shack on his farm in Hraun, in the snowy Fljót Valley in the high north of the country, between two fjords known as the Troll Peninsula. Hraun translates as ‘lava’ in English and is considered one of the harshest places to live in Iceland, itself the least-populated country in Europe.

Scattered among Hraun’s lava plains are many ruins of old farms and outhouses. Along the shore you can see evidence of fishing being conducted: there are fishermen’s lodgings, store rooms and areas for preparing fresh catch. 

But Örvarsson is not here for the fish. He is here for the ducks.

Eiderdown traps air and repels water like no other material on earth

Hraun is home to an eider sanctuary of some 3,500 nesting eider ducks – the eider being the seaduck whose feathers have given their name to the type of quilt we know as the eiderdown.

The down of the eider is one of the warmest natural fibres in the world. It is also one of the rarest, and therefore one of the most expensive. Just four metric tonnes are produced globally each year. 

The eider is a stout seabird with a passing resemblance to a penguin or puffin and is capable of diving 60 metres into Iceland’s freezing waters to retrieve mussels, clams and other shellfish. 

It can do this because its soft under feathers – with their unique combination of extreme lightness and insulation – protect it from Iceland’s brutal arctic conditions and the Atlantic’s cold, rough seas.

Eider ducks have co-existed with Icelanders since the 9th Century, ever since the island was settled. In 1847 legislation was passed to make them a protected species. It is illegal to hunt the common eider, or to sell its eggs.

The eider’s down is closely monitored, too. 

Since 1970 Icelandic law has required all eiderdown to be certified before it is exported. Time is booked with an inspector, who will come and check the down’s quality and weight, before any product can be filled. Once the inspector is satisfied, bags of down are sealed with wax to confirm their authenticity.

This legal status also means all eiderdown must be ethically harvested. 

While technological breakthroughs have seen Polartec, the NASA-developed Aerogel and other synthetic alternatives to down proliferate over recent years, natural down sourced from ducks or geese remains popular and is typically harvested after birds are slaughtered for their meat around 15 weeks after they’ve hatched. (Farmers may also pluck feathers while the birds are still alive, often multiple times during their lifespan, a process akin to ripping out human hair.)

Icelandic eiderdown, on the other hand, is all gathered as loose feathers.

Farmers must find and collect it by hand, from nests, with each nest containing an average of just 15 grams of down.

Eiders do not naturally nest in large colonies and their nests can be tough to find.

Breiðafjörður, a shallow bay some 50km wide and 125km long in the west of Iceland, contains 240 islands. Eider farmers travel between each one in small boats. 

Some nests are found in mosses and grasses along the shorelines. Others are high up in the Arctic tundra heath, gravel spits or krummholz – stunted, wind-blown trees.

Eiders start breeding at the end of March and produce one brood per season. “They go through hormonal changes, where their body temperature rises by two degrees,” Örvarsson explains. 

“This causes them to moult their down, creating a brood patch in which their body warmth is easily transferred to their eggs. The eiderdown is so insulating that it doesn’t allow their body warmth to escape, so they need to moult it. It’s the duck that keeps the eggs warm, not their down.”

“This is what distinguishes eiderdown from anything else on the planet,” he says. “It is a by-product of a completely natural process."

A single eiderdown feather

The eider duck sits on her eggs for between 25 and 28 days, during which time she may lose a third of her body weight.

Örvarsson moves into his summer hut each year in May. A week later, the annual task of gathering the down begins.

“We do three rounds,” he says. “We will gather maybe 70-80% of the down on the first round. And then on the next two rounds we will do the rest of the down. There is always much less then.”

Early June provides a window of opportunity that can’t be missed. “We have heavy snow here right now,” Örvarsson says. “We are in the snow-heaviest part of the country that is already a snow-heavy country. So right now we have dead grass everywhere. But by June 15, like clockwork, you will have grass that is yay-high” – he indicates with his hand – “like, half-a-metre? And you will just lose everything. You can’t see the ducks, you can’t see the nest, you can’t see the down.

“So we have to do it now.”

Despite the task ahead of them, it’s a social activity. “It’s like a family gathering when we collect,” Örvarsson says. “People say, ‘When can we come and collect? Can we come this week? Or next week?’ It will take ten of us maybe three or four days.”

He laughs.

“If I was alone, it would take me a week.”

From the Icelandic lava fields

Contrary to common belief, Örvarsson collects the down while the eiders are still nesting.

“Most ducks will actually move a little bit off the nests, we will gather the down and then they will come back again,” he says. “Some ducks are so calm that we actually have to gently lift them off the nest, take out the eggs carefully, put them aside, take the down and then replace it with hay.” In 2011 the University of Iceland carried out research that showed Örvarsson and his methods cause no harm to the ducks, the duck eggs or the nests.

“They will hatch between two and six eggs,” Örvarsson says. “Some will lay seven or eight, but that’s rare. All the eggs will hatch within an hour of each other. Within 24 hours those ducklings will be dry which means they can go out into the ocean. As soon as they hit the water they are in their element. They’re like ballerinas! They can dive, they can swim – all these things that they’ve never done before. Then the mother ducks will leave their nest.

“In the olden days, people used to collect the down after the ducks would leave with the ducklings. Now we actually see when the first ducklings hatch, and go around and gather everything. We know that most of the ducklings are just days away from hatching so we’re not interrupting any brooding or anything. If you wait until after the ducks leave to collect the down then it will be full of eggshells. And you would lose about 50% of the down. And it is terrible to clean out because it’s quite messy when the ducks and the ducklings leave, they scatter it all over and it just blows away.”

The phrase ‘light as a feather’ has become established in the English language as a way of describing the absolute physical limit of lightness, but in the case of eiderdown it feels strangely redundant. 

Just as Inuits have dozens of words for snow, when you hold eiderdown in your hands you get the sense that there should probably be more than one word for feather, too.

Put an eiderdown feather under a microscope and you will be confronted with something that hardly resembles a feather at all. Instead of a central shaft surrounded by a pattern of branching filaments or barbs, eider feathers are made up of countless soft threads that extend from a single point and latch onto each other with microscopic hooks. This creates a messy, chaotic structure that traps tiny pockets of air – which explains why it’s so warm.

Eiderdown has been gathered in Hraun since 1860, but its heritage goes back much further. When the Vikings settled in Iceland in 874 CE, they used eiderdown to insulate clothing and bedding against the unforgiving climate. Medieval tax inspectors used to accept eiderdown as a means of payment.

CW Shepherd, an English author who wrote a series of books on ornithology and nature, visited Vigur – the second-largest island of the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord in the Westfjords – in 1862 and described a farm being besieged by the eider birds.

‘On the ground, the house was fringed with ducks. On the turf slopes of the roof, we could see ducks; and a duck sat on the door-scraper… a windmill was infested; and so were all the outhouses, mounds, rocks and crevices. The ducks were everywhere.’

Today, it’s a different story. Eiderdown is one of the rarest and most precious materials on Earth.

After the eiderdown has been collected, the real work starts. At the end of June Örvarsson and his team move to a production facility located in Akureyri, an ice-free harbour town in northern Iceland and the fourth largest municipality outside Reykjavík. 

This is where they dry and clean the down, removing impurities like shell, dirt and twigs.

“After we collect it, we go and put it into a down house,” Örvarsson says. “Essentially, it’s just a bunch of racks hung up in the air. We have heat conductors, and we have a geothermal source. Volcano water, basically, at 55°C. We use about a tonne of this water per 24 hours. So it’s a lot of hot water. It goes through the heat conductors. So we use geothermal water and hydropower – everything we use is 100% sustainable.”

The down takes about a day to dry, hung along the racks. Then further cleaning takes place by hand. This removes about 30% of the debris.

“After that it goes through three more machines,” Örvarsson says. “All these machines are custom-made here in Iceland, just for this purpose. They don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

Each jacket is custom made and individually numbered

The first machine bakes the down at 130°C for four days to get rid of any insects and remaining debris. Next, it goes into a small tumbler, which can hold just 200 grams of down per cycle. The last machine cleans the feathers. But the product is still far from finished.

"Then we have to hand feather-clean," says Örvarsson. “Which takes a skilled worker around eight hours per kilo of down. And then after that we have to hand-wash the down. This is also a very tedious process because eiderdown is the only down in the world that is naturally hydrophobic. So it is very difficult to get wet. We have to use a specific temperature, and we have to use a specific custom-made soap that’s just made for us, and just made for eiderdown. And is very expensive.”

All this amounts to about 65 hours of manpower for every kilo of down. The whole process – ‘from nest to vest’ – takes about four months. Although there are four tonnes of eiderdown produced globally – including from countries such as Norway and Canada – Örvarsson is candid about the non-Icelandic stuff.

“It’s crap,” he says. “For want of a better word. Compared to what we’re doing. Just because of our methods of cleaning and drying. We have hot water flowing everywhere here in Iceland. And it’s basically free. So we have very good facilities to get us up to our high standards.”

The eider duck and its eggs might be protected by law from human poachers. But that doesn’t do much about the Arctic foxes, mink, seagulls, ravens and other wild predators. A single raven can steal 50 duck eggs in a day.

“They’re super-difficult to hunt because they’re just so smart,” says Örvarsson. “They have the same brain-to-body ratio as a chimpanzee.”

Happily, Örvarsson is smarter still.

He has initiated a scheme to teach the ravens to stop going after the eider eggs – and use vending machines instead. “We’re training the ravens to collect small pieces of plastic, put them into a coin slot, where a chute will open with dog food,” he says. “And they eat that instead.”

To facilitate this Örvarsson teamed up with the American hacker and writer Joshua Klein – now an Icelandic resident. (Klein’s TED Talk on building vending machines for birds, ‘The Intelligence of Crows’, is on YouTube.)

It’s all part of Örvarsson’s drive to maximise the ecological credentials of his farming.

“We don’t have to kill the foxes because we have fenced our area off, and we don’t have to kill the ravens because we feed them using ocean plastic. So it’s win-win."

From the land of fire and ice

If Örvarsson sounds like he’s a very modern kind of farmer, that’s because he is. He is the third generation in his family to get into the business, starting in 2017 when an injury put paid to a career in football, but he isn’t held back by the traditions of the past. The centuries-old eiderdown business was in need of a fresh perspective, and Örvarsson was just the person to provide it.

You won’t find him tramping over farmland or setting out in a boat to clamber around finding eider nests. He employs a rather more elegant solution.

“Instead of going on the quad bikes or walking around wasting fuel and time, I survey the area using drones,” he says.

It’s getting late now – not that you’d know it from the brightness of the sky.

Örvarsson will remain on duty for a while yet, keeping a watch over his eider. But at some point it will be time for bed.

“If you’re not used to the sun, it can be a total nightmare,” he smiles. “Not for me. I sleep like a baby.”