Down appears to be an immortal technology, at least to me—we’ve been eating birds for millennia, so it seemed only natural that we’d be wearing them for millennia as well. However, the down puffer coat as we know it today did not exist until the 1920s. Its origins can be traced back to an Australian alpinist named George Finch, who invented the “eiderdown coat” (shown below). It was a stark contrast to his mountain comrades’ attire, which largely consisted of wool, and he was derided for it. In 1940, Eddie Bauer jumped on board and patented the first down coat.
Norma Kamali, a fashion designer, designed the stylish, rather than merely utilitarian, down coat we know today in 1973. When she had to get out of her tent in the middle of the night to pee, she wrapped her sleeping bag across her shoulders to remain warm, discovering that the fluffy sleeping bag could also be worn as clothing. It’s named the Sleeping Bag Coat since that’s how it got its name.
Down jackets have gone a long way since Norma Kamali’s wearable sleeping bag, but at their core, they’re still the same: a highly warm garment made from goose or duck down, which are the soft, light under-feathers of birds that help keep them warm. Quality down is softer than conventional feathers and lacks the sharp, stiff quill that can pierce a coat’s shell.
By looking at the “fill power” of a hanfu jacket, you can tell if it has more fluffy down than poky feathers. Fill power is calculated by the amount of space an ounce of down takes up in a cylinder after it has been compressed. The higher the quality of down, the more space it takes up.
“It’s the loft in the feathers that traps dead airspace inside a garment, and dead airspace is actually what results in warmth,” says Corey Simpson, Patagonia’s communications manager. “So the higher the fill power, the more of that lofty feather and the less of the quill there is.” Fill power normally runs from 450 to 900 (see chart below), while that high range is costly and rarely used for most people (unless they’re climbing Mount Everest).
According to Laura Akita, category manager at The North Face, trapped air is what keeps you warm in any material, including wool and knits. “Down is a really efficient insulator, and something that especially [technical designers] want to employ since it can trap a lot of warmth at a very little weight,” says the author.
For a particularly warm coat, you’ll want high-quality down that can hold all of your body heat, allowing you to use your body’s natural furnace to keep warm. Unfortunately, fill power isn’t the only factor to consider when determining how warm a coat will be. Fill weight, on the other hand, measures how much the coat weighs, as opposed to fill power, which measures how much space the insulation takes up. A higher down weight (i.e., a heavier down coat) indicates that the coat contains more down fill, which usually correlates to a warmer product (see below).
This is why super-slim down jackets with high fill power are available; the jacket is constructed with very high quality down, but there isn’t a lot of it.
“The greatest approach to use weight factor is in combination with fill power,” says Tanya Domina, a professor of fashion merchandising and design at Central Michigan University. “More down with a lower fill power can be warmer than a greater fill power with less down in the coat.” “The higher the fill power, the better the insulation, but the amount of down in the product by weight influences this.” Both of these are higher, which is excellent for the coat’s warmth.”
Choose the Fill Power and Fill Weight that are right for you.
Not every store will tell you a coat’s down fill power, and even fewer will tell you how much it weighs. In this scenario, the best thing to do is to simply inquire. Email customer service, or if you live in a location where there is a quality store that sells winter coats, go in and talk to the employees.
You can judge a coat by its poofiness if you can’t or don’t want to talk to anyone (or if the people working there don’t know much about down). Deborah Beard, an associate professor of technical design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, believes that a thick, heavy jacket “will indicate you that they put more down in something.”
My puffy new winter coat, for example, has a 600 down fill power rating and weighs 834 grams. Even though the brand offers another 600 fill power coat that I prefer, I knew it wouldn’t be as warm because it’s considerably thinner and weights just 516 grams, even though the quality is the same.
My thicker coat (which I like to believe is poofy in a cute, retro manner) isn’t as compressible as my lighter coat, so it wouldn’t be the ideal choice if I were hiking, doing really active work that required a lot of agility (like skiing), or traveling regularly and needed to store it in luggage. But it’s an ideal alternative for me, as I’ll be commuting in New York City during the winter, when temperatures are expected to be below freezing.
In a colder climate, such as Chicago or Montreal, a commuter like me might need a poofy, heavy coat with a higher fill power, such as 650 or 700, depending on activity level and metabolism; in places like Seattle, where winter temperatures hover just below 50° F, people can get away with lower fill power—or, conversely, they could get something with a higher fill power but that weighs a lot less, like the cute coat I was eyeing but drew,
Consider the possibility of precipitation.
I chose a coat with a water-resistant shell because I live in a city with a moderately wet winter—it snows here—and because I live in a city with a moderately wet winter. It’s made of recycled nylon that’s been treated with a “DWR” (durable water resistant) treatment to withstand light to moderate rain. If you’re going to be fighting the occasional rain or snowstorm, look for a coat that advertises its water resistance, which is usually in the form of a coating on the coat’s shell or on the down itself within the coat.
According to Haskell Beckham, senior director of innovation at Columbia Sportswear, “if down gets wet, it clumps together in a moist mass and won’t regain its loft, thereby losing its warmth.” However, this is no longer the case. “There are a number of down items on the market that have been tweaked and treated in such a way that they no longer react like that.” So there’s a lot of water-resistant down—how that’s it’ll be branded,” he explains. In general, he says, if you’re not really active and have a water-resistant or waterproof shell, down will suffice.
Synthetic down, on the other hand, may be your best pick if you live in a particularly rainy area or if you’re particularly active and may sweat in your jacket.
Unfortunately, as fascinating and important as your coat’s insulation is, it does not determine how well a down jacket or coat performs. “It’s really about looking at the big picture because you don’t want to shop solely on the basis of fill power,” Simpson explains.
Is there a hood on the coat?
A coat without a hood may appear to be more stylish, but it will not keep you as warm as one with one. Consider a hood with drawstrings or other adjustability so that it fits tightly around your head in the wind or rain.
What’s the best way to fasten the jacket?
The famous Norma Kamali sleeping bag jacket has one major flaw: it only closes with a belt around the waist, if it ever shuts at all. Look for jackets that have zippers, preferably with a flap that extends beneath or over the zipper for extra weather protection. Cold air and moisture will enter a jacket with only buttons or snaps, or a cheaply built, exposed zipper.
What Is the Length of the Coat?
Unless you’re wearing ski pants, Beard recommends wearing a coat that’s long enough to cover your legs. Simpson concurs. “I’m going to want a longer parka length jacket that extends beyond my hips if I’m sitting on benches or walking lengthy blocks in windy, chilly conditions,” he says.
Is the Puffer a Long-Term Investment?
The answer to the question of how ethical and sustainable your puffer coat is is tricky. Finally, pick one that will endure for years and years, take good care of it, and don’t replace it unless it’s really necessary.
What Is the Price of the Coat?
Down coats that are more expensive are usually (but not always) of greater quality. To be designated a down product in the United States, down products must have a down-to-feather ratio of at least 75%. The higher the proportion, the higher the grade of down fill in the coat, and hence the coat is usually better. “Primarily, pricing points drive everything,” Beard explains. According to her, price dictates what’s in the coat—whether it’s a high-quality down or a low-cost synthetic—as well as how much of it is in the coat and how it’s made. Even yet, you can buy a very expensive coat from a luxury brand that based its prices on its designer cachet rather than the quality of its materials, so if you’re not sure, ask customer service about what makes it so amazing.