Saturday, November 16, 2013

From Duck to Bed: The definitive down comforter-making guide

For those of you who have no compulsion to read about how to create your own down comforters, I suggest reading something else for a week. I'm starting off from the butchering of ducks to the sewing of these comforters. This does go into some issues that some people might find offensive.

For others; I've not read a single blog on how to do this. I've read 1/2 page 'How To' that doesn't even get into how much feathers to use. This will be the guide on how to turn duck feathers into a warm and comfortable blanket that will give you years of use. I prefer to utilize as much as I can from our flock. They give their lives so we can eat and be warm. I figure it is the best way to honor their sacrifice.

How to Create a Feather Comforter from Your Own Feathers

Over the course of 3 months, Dave and I have processed 26 ducks that were hatched specifically for meat + feathers. All of them were Pekins, like the two shown here. They were hatched in April, brooded in our laundry room for two weeks and then had their own pen outside in the garage. Each day they were given free-range of the 40 acres; 5 pools in which to swim and all the All-Flock they needed to supplement their diet. After 4 months of growth, we started butchering them. 

It became apparent pretty quickly that a few things we had thought would work out fine didn't:

  1. The idea was to butchering, plucking and processing 4-6 ducks a weekend. Yeah, we ended up doing 2 a weekend. Killing takes less than a minute, plucking with the intent of saving the feathers takes about an hour a duck. Dressing them takes about 10 minutes. 
  2. The idea was to use a way to clean off pin feathers with wax. There's a youtube video of it. It works fine if you're not keeping the down of the duck, works horribly if a) it's hot outside and b) you're plucking 99% of the down off.  We ended up using a butane torch to singe off the remaining pin feathers and hairs. It takes less than a minute per duck. Remember to continuously keep your torch moving, or you'll start cooking the skin. 
  3. We probably should've waited until they were 5 months old due to feather growth. 
  4. Wait at least 1/2 an hour after you kill a duck before plucking. They will be in rigor, but it makes the plucking easier. Gently manipulate their wings and legs, then massage their breast to move the ATP from their muscle cells. This is the chemical that locks up a muscle and prevents it from moving after something has died. Also, keep their feet on and wait to dress them out AFTER you pluck. 

Plucking Ducks

Bags of feathers to be processed
In order to keep the feathers + down from the ducks, I plucked them one at a time until they were pretty much nude. Then Dave stepped in.  I did this outside, away from the wind and in full view of the ducks and geese. I was kinda wierd, because they'd come up and check out what I was doing.  I also played my ipod and sang mightily to Norah Jones and Patsy Cline while doing my thing. I think that was what they were more curious of, the singing and presence of Mom. 

In order to keep the feathers in the best condition possible, I used paper grocery bags in which to store them.  Why not plastic, you ask? Well they need to dry out a bit. Some of the feathers come with a bit of bodily fluid attached to them in their ends, plus ducks are known to bathe all the time. We corralled them for butcher about 2 hours after I let them out for the morning, so by then some of them have had their baths. This is a stack of bags in our laundry room waiting for me to pick through them. 

While plucking, I kept the feathers in one bag on my right side, and the bag with the down on my left. I learned to pluck feathers first from the breast, using my thumb and first finger to pluck just above the level of the down. Yep, you get a bit of down, but just a bit. While plucking a Pekin, you'll spot feathers that are a few shades more yellow than the others. They come out easy and should be thrown out. They are the start of blood feathers and have so much tissue w/them that they'll just rot and ruin a batch of feathers. 

You'll see these darker yellow feathers in specific areas: The neck, under each wing at the start of the breast and in the butt. If you have big fingers, invest in a good pair of pointy tweezers, or even needle-nosed pliers to help out with this plucking.  Once the feathers have been plucked from the breast, neck, and upper back. I start plucking the down and tossing it into the grocery bag on my right. They're easier to pluck and I pluck two passes on the duck, dump my down into the bag, rinse-wash-repeat. The feathers on the lower part of the duck are really soft, so I kept them with the down. Now that does not mean tail feathers, which were kept separate. 

I did try to pluck wing feathers of some of the ducks. You'll need to get at least some of the feathers off the wing so that you can get to the down. I would recommend that you get a basket or something  to put those types of rigid-quill type feathers in. I was stupid and just threw them in with the other feathers. Now I get to spend time picking them out of the box of feathers. 

Processing Feathers 

Plastic Storage bin with feathers.

In order to get at those rigid-quill feathers within a bag of soft nice warm feathers, I got a plastic storage bin with a lid and dumped the bag into it. 

Now remember: NO WIND! or you'll be picking feathers up all over your house. What you see here is the feathers off of two ducks - just the feathers. the down is in another bag.  

Those rigid-quill feathers are in there somewhere, so as I was washing the fabric that will make the cover, I picked through the box and got the bigger feathers out. 
Primary, secondary, coverts...big feathers
These can be saved as well. There is a small, but consistent demand for primary feathers among those who do re-enactments and such. I have been selling primary goose feathers to those who make their own arrows. A person who makes their own arrows is called a fletcher, and fletching is the process of making your own arrows. 

I've known persons who prefer 100% down comforters,  and that's fine. However, most commercially prepared comforters are a mix of down and feathers: Mostly about 40% down and 60% feathers.  The higher the price for a comforter, the higher the percentage of down to feather inside. 

a bag filled with down. 
I'm going for warmth and loft, so I will we doing about  a 70/40 mix or more. I intend on using the feathers + down of two ducks for each row in my comforter. The comforter itself is 60" square, so I intend on using the feathers + down of 6 - 8 ducks. I'll weigh it before and after filling to get a good gauge of how much is in there.  
the down is just soo light and fluffy that I do not intend on adding it to the box of feathers until I am ready to fill the comforter. 

I really could not think of a good way to wash the feathers before creating the comforters, so I intend on washing the entire comforter after it is sewn.  My fabric for the comforter is a 120" wide muslin purchased from the fabric store.  I cut it into a 61" wide piece, then sewed the two sides with 1/4" seam with a teeny stitch count per inch so that no feathers would leak out...hopefully.  Right now it resembles a big bag and is in the washer going through a wash cycle to make sure it is pre-shrunk.  I'm also washing a crib sized bag sewn in the same way with the dimensions of 31" wide by 60" long...again sewn like a big bag. 

Next Up: 

My intentions are to sew by hand (needle and thread, y'all) a channel 10" from the bottom of the bag with embroidery thread. I'll leave a bit open at one end so I can place the feathers inside. Then it will get sewn up. Another channel will be sewn up 10" from that one, feathers placed inside, then sewn...repeated until I am at the top end. Then after all the long tube-like channels are made, I'll sew channels perpendicular to those to make square baffles. 

Now, in order to control the flow of the feathers to the channel, I'm thinking of using recyled bread bags. I'll stuff them with the mixture of feather/down close it shut temporarily, stuff that end into the channel and squeeze until the feathers move from the bag into the channel. It's an idea, and it might not work. 

If I had a shop vac with a blower end, I'd put the feathers inside the vac (cleaned out before this) and use the vac to blow the feathers in, but I don't have a shop vac. 

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