The function of feathers and down, the outer covering of birds, is to insulate and protect; chicken, duck or geese feathers are commonly used in soft furnishings.

The feather has a central quill with soft fibres radiating from it; tiny feathers are called down, these are soft, fluffy and curly with barely any quill. The finest down grows closest to the bird’s skin and fills with air, making a nice warm jacket, whereas the larger feathers are longer and flatter and need to be ‘plumped up’ by the bird to head off cold air.

A handful of down is soft, fluffy and warm; if you squash it, it goes to nothing and then bounces straight back again as you release it. It doesn’t have the rigidity or sharpness of a quill.

As filling

* Choosing the right filling for the right place is vitally important. The whole point of a feather cushion is comfort – you need to be sitting in it, not on it. It needs to be squidgy  enough to fold itself around you, and should feel light. ‘Feather’ cushions need air within them to do their job properly and they will need to be plumped up regularly, i.e. every time they are used. If and when the filling does flatten it can be replaced in part or whole.


* Down cushions make the most comfortable filling for pillows, duvets  and mattress toppers–although expensive; the best come from goose or the eider duck. The ubiquitous eiderdown that, in my grandmothers’, and I suppose my mothers’ day, covered every bed in winter (and on Exmoor long into the sumer)  and was filled entirely with down from the eider duck; forever soft, warm and literally, light-as-a-feather

* Chicken feathers are the least expensive, readily available and the most commonly used. They are artificially curled to make them capable of trapping more air, and so long as they are smallish and curly in the beginning with a short soft quill they are fine, comfortable and can be mixed with a percentage of pure down, thereby gaining the best properties of both and balancing the cost.

* For seat cushions, it’s possible to find feather alone at the bottom end of the price range, but it’s really unsatisfactory.

* Most cushions have a mixture of down and feather. Down is light, fluffy and expensive, feather is heavier and less responsive but far less costly. The percentage of the filling components governs the price: you do though get what you pay for.

* Feather lacks responsiveness, so the higher the down content, the lighter the cushion will be and the easier it will be to plump up. So, whilst down–rich seat cushions need plumping more often than feather-rich ones, they are far easier to manage, they look better and last longer.

* When a cushion or a feather topper is sat on or laid upon, the air is pushed out and the feathers flatten. Only down and the smallest feathers really spring back; other feathers can be shaken back into shape, but after time they collapse and interlock with each other, so that the filling becomes flat and unresponsive.

* The standard mix is 85 % curled feather/15% down. These will become flat and uncomfortable in just a few years, but they can be re-filled fairly easily. However, if at all possible to increase the down content at this stage, then do. Or, take some of the filling out, save them for re-filling, meanwhile enjoy the newly gained space and air.

* Another problem with feather rich pads is that in response to a market that doesn’t want to be plumping cushions every day, they are being overfilled to make them firmer and fuller.  The huge problem with this is that there just isn’t the room for the feathery bits to catch the air, so they might stay in shape, but they are hard to sit on. The whole point of feather  and down cushion is that when you sit into them, they fit themselves around you; they are supposed to be comforting and comfortable, squashy and welcoming. These aren’t.

* I use a minimum of 45% down and 55% feather for sofa cushions and scatter cushions, and 85% down/ 15% feather for bed cushions – those that need to be light, fluffy and easy to move.

* There are other options for a firm seat, the best of which is a foam core with a down/ feather wrap, that remains firm but has a degree of give and softness.

As decoration

* The expression “ to have a feather in one’s cap” is to recognise a sense of achievement, or attainment;  common parlance for a job well done.

* Feather trimmings always carry a sense of the exotic – both because feathers look exotic and because to have a rare and beautiful feather on your hat was highly prized and regarded.

* Peacock feathers in all their beauty have long been inspirational for artists, fabric designers and colourists. The peacocks’ natural bearing is regal, and elicits an instinctive response of awe and respect; symbolic references include eternity, patience, kindness, good luck and peacefulness. The ‘eyes’ are particularly important, thought by some to symbolise stars, but more usually guardianship; the peacock is often painted on a door or at an entrance; and they can be quite fierce.

Luckily peacocks replace their feathers annually so they can be collected naturally.

* Milliners are the go – to resource for the most incredible feathers in every size, colour, pattern and even ready stitched trimmings, and beautifully pre-selected corsage combinations.

* We use feathers on lampshades and the occasional cushion, just because they bring a bit of lightness and frivolity into the space.

* A few feathers amongst good furnishings is never really amiss.

* Feathers do trap dust, so if possible attached them only to things that can be shaken, or dusted easily.

* Think of fun feathers as the fashion accessories that they are, and don’t expect them to last forever; use them knowing that you may or may not still want them next season; just enjoy them for what they are – light hearted and frivolous


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