The weird magic of eiderdown

In Iceland, the harvesting of these precious feathers has created a peculiar bond between human and duck. What can this unique relationship teach us?

By Edward Posnett

In Ísafjörður, the capital of Iceland’s remote Westfjords region, a Lutheran pastor compared eiderdown to cocaine. “I sometimes think that we are like the coca farmers in Colombia,” he said. “We [the down harvesters] get a fraction of the price when the product hits the streets of Tokyo. This is the finest down in the world and we are exporting it in black garbage bags.”

It is difficult to describe the weight of eiderdown in a language in which the epitome of lightness is a feather. Unlike a feather’s ordered barbs arranged around a solid shaft, under a microscope, eiderdown offers a portrait of chaos: hundreds of soft threads branch out from a single point, twisting around one another. Upon each thread are countless small hooks, which allow the down to cling to itself, trapping pockets of air and warmth.

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