On a remote island in Breidafjordur Bay off the west coast of Iceland, a thousand-year-old harvest takes place — the hunt for elusive eiderdown, used to make some of the world’s best duvets and quilts.
The handpicked down sells for thousands of dollars a kilogram, catering to those looking for exclusive products.
Every summer, nearly 400 Icelandic farmers comb through hollow surfaces in the rock, on the sand or in the tall grass to unearth a few handfuls of the gray feathers of the polar duck.
“When there are eggs, we only take a part of the down, and when the eider has already left the nest, we take everything,” Erla Fridriksdottir, head of King Eider, one of the country’s main exporters, told reporters.
The eider, a sea duck from the subarctic oceans, leaves a trail behind consisting of a natural treasure: one of the warmest natural fibers on the planet, both light and highly insulating.
The female, with her dark brown plumage with black stripes — similar to that of a mallard, but slightly larger — releases the down from her breast and lines her nest with it to insulate it during incubation.
About 60 nests are needed to produce 1kg of down — a quilt needs between 600g and 1.6kg, depending on the quality chosen.
Worldwide, the annual harvest of eiderdown is no more than 4 tonnes, three-quarters of which comes from Iceland, by far the world’s largest producer, ahead of Canada and other countries bordering the Arctic.
There are five Icelandic companies exporting eiderdown, according to the Eider Farming Association, but about 15 companies in total involved in some capacity in its production.
On the island of Bjarneyjar, the tradition of searching for abandoned nests has been passed down for generations.
The local practice is said to have started in Iceland as Vikings from Norway settled on the island at the end of the ninth century.
Since 1847, the eider has been fully protected in Iceland, as hunting and picking its eggs are prohibited.
However, it still faces dangers, as predators such as seagulls, crows, eagles, minks and foxes eat the sea ducks or their eggs.
“We feel that the ducks like to have their nests close to us, where we are staying,” Jon Fridriksson, Erla’s brother, told reporters, adding that it could be a strategy to keep predators at bay.
Once harvested, the down is dried in the open air so it does not mold.
Then Fridriksdottir’s employees begin the first stage of sterilizing and cleaning the down in a huge oven at a temperature of 120°C for eight hours.
“When the down comes in here, it’s mostly going to be full of grass, eggshells and all kinds of things from the ocean ... and we put it in the oven to kill off any organism and it [the high temperature] also makes the grass brittle,” Pall Jonsson, in charge of the machines at the workshop in the nearby town of Stykkisholmur, told reporters.
In a second step, rotating machines remove other dirt from the down by pressing it against a thin wire mesh.
As a last touch, expert hands — which no technology has been able to replace for this process so far — do another thorough cleaning.
Even for the most experienced, it takes four to five hours to clean out a kilogram of down by hand. Finally, the down feathers are washed with water and disinfected, again by hand, before being wrung out and dried.
In addition to its rarity, the production of eiderdown — from its manual collection to its rigorous cleaning — helps explain its high price.
A simple duvet containing 800g of feathers is sold for about 640,000 Icelandic kronur (US$5,070).
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