How to

3 November 2016

Keeping Warm - Down vs. Synthetic Insulation

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Buying a jacket is no small matter. There are countless features, hidden pockets, and materials to analyse in your search for the perfect outerwear. Bear in mind that a jacket can last for years to come, and choosing a good one you will save you money and effort in the long run. When faced with freezing temperatures or unseasonable weather, insulated jackets are the way to go. The extra layer of fibres or feathers gives the wearer extra body warmth to combat the elements, something that a simple waterproof layer can’t do. In choosing an insulated jacket the real question is: down or synthetic? It all comes down to functionality.

To Compare: Waterproof

The two types of insulated jacket, synthetic and down, are just not comparable in wet weather. With down filler, the body is enclosed by warm air pockets and natural feathers as filler. The interior filler blocks air movement from pocket to pocket, keeping the wearer cosily surrounded by warm air and reducing the flow of heat. Down loses its warming qualities when worn in the rain, as the tiny air pockets between interior fibres collapse once wet. Unfortunately, if a down jacket becomes completely soaked, the interior down may not regain its warming properties. On the other hand, a synthetic jacket is largely unaffected by rain, retaining its insulating properties regardless of the damp. Manmade materials often dry quickly even after getting wet thanks to their synthetic nature.

To Compare: Warmth

When it comes to warmth, down trumps synthetic hands down. As down originates from animal life, there’s no question that it will retain its warmth and stand up to the elements. With this warmth comes less breathability. Down is compressible, easily fitting into small jackets while still providing a decent amount of warmth. Manmade fillers cannot offer the same warmth as down unless very bulky. Lab-made polyfibre filler does provide warmth, but with added breathability. This is where synthetic material shines, in giving freedom of movement and fitting into a niche market. For physical activity, a down jacket is a big mistake. Any heat generated by your body will be contained within the jacket. Heat loss is greater with synthetic insulation, making it an ideal jacket for temperate, rainy days or during physical exertion.

Understanding Down

In order to be classified as down insulation, two types of filler are used: down and feathers. Down is a type of fluffy feather that sits closer to the body beneath regular feathers. The combination is necessary as regular feathers do not have loft (fluffiness) on their own.  Fill power is the quantifiable measure of the loft of a down product measured in grams. A higher fill power means that a jacket is able to resist cold. Another thing to understand about down insulation is that a high percentage of down (80-90%) to feathers (20-10%) is ideal. The insulating properties of down are seen in nature from animals needing warmth, like water fowl, geese, and ducks.

There are many reasons to love synthetic; foremost among them is the fact that no animals are harmed at any point in manufacturing. However, it’s beneficial to have both types as a part of your cold weather wardrobe, alternating from down to synthetic as the weather changes. On cold days, grab your down jacket. Rainy days you’ll grab your synthetic jacket. On cold, rainy days, wear both for maximum protection from the elements. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).