You don’t know down. You probably think it’s just a pile of duck feathers that turns useless when it’s wet, an archaic material that hasn’t changed much since the days of wool hiking skirts and rain gear made from seal pelts. But that’s not how Seattle does down.
When Carol and Peter Hickner formed Feathered Friends on Capitol Hill in 1972, “the best down sleeping bags were worse than the worst ones now,” says Carol. They began mostly as a repair operation, patching unraveling nylon bags until they figured they might as well make better-quality products themselves. They used parachute and sail by-products to hold the fluffy feathers, and their first bags used five pounds of down or more—that was considered lightweight. (Today some use as little as one pound.)
The Hickners picked the Feathered Friends name on a whim when filing for a business license, never expecting that they were in for four decades of people mistaking it for a bird shop.
“People call and ask if we really use the birds that the sleeping bags are named after”—the Raven, the Swallow, the Hummingbird. “That would take a lot of hummingbirds,” says Carol.
Eventually branching into puffy coats, Feathered Friends began outfitting mountaineering expeditions in the late 1980s, attracting world-class guides who liked to work in their shop in the off-season. Their suits, which turn the wearer into a puffy Michelin Man, have been to the top of Everest and K2, their bags tweaked with feedback from explorers sleeping at 40 degrees below zero. Everyone from badass mountaineers to New England driveway shovelers like the big baffles, which trap more heat.
After a failed foray into Chinese manufacturing, all Feathered Friends products are once again made in Seattle, the patterns cut with a hot knife to prevent fraying. Expedition suits are still custom made, as are some bizarre bedding requests they don’t ask too many questions about (room-sized down comforter, anyone?). They see a bump every time someone calls their puffy the “best down jacket” and boosts their SEO online. Few best-of lists leave them out.
But after 44 years of stitching, selling, and embracing the new traceable, responsible down standard popular throughout the industry, there’s one thing the Hickners still have to explain: Down is compatible with rain. Really.
“It’s more difficult to get down wet than you think,” says Carol, explaining that in most situations down bags dry faster with a pint of water poured on them than a synthetic-filled one; those synthetic polyesters are hydrophilic, while geese lived in the wet when they were using the down.
“You can toss our bag in a pond and it will float,” says Peter. “That was originally our testing lab. Not very high tech, but it worked.”