Thousand Year Old Tradition: Iceland Eiderdown

There are hundreds of experiences you can have in Iceland.  But few compare to being in the wild, watching nature do its thing.  From whale watching to lambing to Iceland Eiderdown farming, it’s truly incredible to witness first hand.  So come along with us as we share our full on experience with an eider duck farmer!

Everything You Need to Know About Eider Ducks

Although they are formally called Common Eider Ducks, they are really special birds.  Their formal species name is Somateria Mollissima, which translates to “softest down body.”  Male eiders are black and white with a slightly green nape of the neck.  Whereas, female eiders are brown but still very distinct from other birds.  Both range between 20-28 inches long and are typically 1.8-6.7 lbs each (largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere).  They can fly up to 70 mph and dive down up to 65 feet!

More often then not, they are called, “sea-ducks” because they spend the majority of their days on the ocean.  Next, you’ll often recognize an eider duck by the sound they make… To illustrate, the male eider does a very distinct “ah-whoo” sound.  Whereas the female eider still does a “quack.”

Contrary to popular belief too, eider ducks do not mate for life.  Typically they find a new partner each year.  However, they are creatures of habit and return to the same breeding grounds each year.  Why?  Well, eider ducks are colony breeders.  Which means they share the responsibility.  For example, a female may jump between nests if she sees another female leave her nest.  And sometimes if a female doesn’t feel fit to keep her eggs warm, she may give away her eggs to another nest.

Fun Facts About Eider Ducks:

  • Eider females will often return to the same oceanside area or island she was originally hatched.
  • Female eider chooses the nest spot.
  • Male eiders main job is during the winter and he must protect the female so she can eat as much as possible!
  • The female takes feathers from her chest to make the nest.  Which is exactly how the Iceland eiderdown is created!
  • Furthermore, she also does not eat for the 25-28 days she is sitting on the nest.
  • In addition, the females also protect their nests by covering and sometimes pooping on them if they get scared and need to leave.  As if to make their eggs less desirable to predators.  Pretty freaking smart birds!
  • 1847 is the year Iceland made eider ducks a protected species.

The Magic of Iceland Eiderdown

If you want to snuggle under true luxury, then it doesn’t get better than Iceland eiderdown!  The blankets, comforters, duvets, and pillows that are made from the eider duck nests are truly the softest in the world!!  Especially because they do not have rigid quills that poke through things.

Unlike other down options like goose or other ducks, eiderdown is a sustainable product in everyway.  Because they are never ever harmed for their feathers.  In fact, it’s kind of a magical process!  For instance, the female eider plucks the feathers from her breast.  She does this to make the warmest and most comfy place possible for her eggs.

Moreover, the time and care the farmer takes towards the ducks is extraordinary.  From preparing, protecting, the thorough cleaning and sorting process of the actual eiderdown is so intense.  Plus the intricate last steps of creating the final results of pillows and comforters.

1,000 Year Old Icelandic Tradition

Without a doubt, traditions in Iceland run deep.  Iceland has always been a country that uses everything, it is not a culture of waste.  Furthermore, it is also a land that for thousands of years prides itself on taking great care of their animals and an endless respect for landscapes.  Thus, 1,000 years ago begins the history of Iceland eiderdown farming…

Winters in Iceland are cold and dark and to survive those long winters, Icelanders developed a special relationship with the eider ducks.  The farmers kept them safe during their nesting season, building safe havens and keeping predators away.  And in return, the eider ducks gave them their down to create warm soft blankets.  Therefore, Icelanders remained warm and alive during those incredibly cold winters.

The eider ducks live in Iceland year round, but primarily live in the ocean.  However, they come to land in April and then begin nesting in May (but does depend on the weather in Iceland).  Typically the birds lay between 3-6 eggs.  Because they are colony based, birds a female may not have the energy to hatch the eggs so she would move the eggs to another nest.  Thus some nests could have like 12 eggs!

Eiderdown Farms in Iceland

Although there are several Iceland eiderdown farms throughout the west, north, and east parts of Iceland, we want to support folks who vibe at the same level we do and uphold an American-style standard.  Our Iceland Wedding Planner team hand picked a special farmer to work with and get to know.  His passion, patience, education, care of the birds, and the quality of products were outstanding.

After all, if you’re spending the big bucks to take home a unique souvenir from Iceland you want it to have a story, be of the highest quality and be around for years to come.  Therefore, Helgi Thorsteinsson the owner of Eiderdown Comforters in Vopnafjörður is the perfect choice!

Firstly, Helgi is 3rd generation in eider duck farming… It all begins with his grandparents buying the farm in 1929.  At the time it was only sheep farming.  Secondly, they noticed on their property down by the ocean there was an island with a few nests (12-15).  So they consulted a man from the Westfjords on what to do…

Thirdly, they followed the directions to a tee.  For example, they were told to build fences and create shelters to break the wind for the birds.  Over the years it continued to grow slowly with the help of their 8 children.  The following decades Helgi’s father takes over and it grows to 350-400 nests and now in his generation it is around 2,500 nests!  Pretty darn impressive!!

Responsibilities of an Eiderdown Farmer

Helgi prides himself on ensuring his birds are well taken care of and that he offers a superior end product to his customers.  But what does it take each season to make that happen?  Firstly, it begins with creating specific areas for the eider ducks to come to.  Secondly, it is the responsibility of the Iceland eiderdown farmer to build shelters.  Thirdly, the focus transitions to protecting.

Creating Safe Haven Islands

When Helgi’s grandfather began the Iceland eiderdown farm there was only one island with a few nests.  Over the decades, they expanded the areas and created more islands.  Why islands?  Easy access for the eiders and their ducklings to go in and out from.  After all they are truly “sea ducks!”  Maybe even an element of “safety” also comes with it too, who knows what those cute little birds think!

Building Shelters

Creating an environment where the ducks feel safe is a priority of the Iceland eiderdown farmers.  So what does that look like?  First, it begins in the fall with cleaning the old nest areas of seaweed and other unwanted items.  Second, then the maintaining and building of shelters continues both in fall and early spring before the eider ducks arrive.  Often the shelters are made from cut wood, old tires, rocks, or washed up driftwood.

Third, then Helgi puts down fresh hay to make it ready for the females to pick a spot.  Also, the fresh hay gives a good base before the female eider plucks the feathers from her chest.  Lastly, one of the important aspects in building the shelters is to ensure they have privacy.  Eiders want to feel safe and secure while they nest.

Protecting the Birds, Nests and Ducklings

Unfortunately the eider ducks in Iceland have many predators such as the following: Ravens, Great Skuas, Seagulls, Minks, and Arctic Foxes.  Therefore, it is extremely important to the survival of the birds, eggs, and ducklings that the Iceland eiderdown farmer is actively defending them.  How is that done you might wonder?

Well, first he makes the islands as secure as he can in regards to ensuring sheep cannot come in.  Next, he puts up flags and scarecrows to hopefully keep flying predators away.  Then to be a successful eiderdown farmer you also need to be a good tracker or have one or two on your team.  Because the foxes and minks will surely take any chance hey can to hunt the ducks, steal the eggs and eat the ducklings.

So daily, Helgi is walking his property and scouting on scopes from afar to track them to ensure his herd of eider ducks are safe.  This could mean shooting the predators if they come near the birds or their nests.  Remember, the eider ducks are defenseless against who their predators are.  So this is a 1,000 year old responsibility and an act the farmer must carry out in order to protect them.

Collecting Icelandic Eiderdown

Certainly every farm has a different approach to how and when they collect the Iceland eiderdown.  To illustrate, Helgi’s way is going a few days before the eggs hatch (20-26 days of the 28 day mark) to switch it out with fresh hay.  Why does he do that?  Because the hay allows the eggs to be turned easier by the female, especially towards the end of the incubation period.

The female eider must continuously turn the eggs to make sure the duckling inside develops.  For example, if an egg were to be broken the other eggs… Whether by predator or by accident in the nest, the other eggs could be affected by getting “glued” together if the eiderdown stays.  But with the fresh hay it does not get glued together and the female can continue to turn the eggs easily.

When Helgi goes in to collect, he brings 2 bags with him.  For instance, one of fresh hay and the other for the Iceland eiderdown.  He approaches each nest very slowly and carefully on his knees.  Next, he gently picks up the eggs, sets them down to do the switch.  Then he places the eggs back into the nest.  Certainly, he never does all of the nests at one time, only 30-100 maybe per day during that time period because he does not want the colony to feel “robbed” in any way.  Therefore, there is a delicate balance that must come into play.

Eider Duck Down 6 Stages of Processing

High quality Iceland eiderdown doesn’t have actual feathers.  So wait, what does that mean? Basically there is not a quill to poke at you.  Also, it means what the female is plucking from her chest is the actual “down.”  Nonetheless, it does not mean the nests are feather free because they are not and that is where the intricate processing timeline comes into play…

1st Step: Drying Rack

Once Helgi returns from the collecting the Iceland eiderdown, he will lay it out on a drying rack.  The idea is to have a first sort and drying it out.  Plus if it’s super wet, he can add heat through the bottom.

2nd Step: Washing & High Heat Disinfecting

Following the first step, the Iceland eiderdown is moved into the formal processing room.  Thereafter, it goes into the first machine in which washes and heats the down to at least 120 degrees.  It is in that machine for 12 hours.  Without a doubt, using machines to thoroughly clean and process the eiderdown, adds to the cleanliness and longer life of the final product.

3rd Step: Additional Cleaning at High Heat 

Directly after the first machine, the eiderdown is moved to the next.  This next machine does an additional cleaning for24 hours at an even higher heat (125 degrees).  Thus, it ensures all bugs are dead and also starts sifting out foreign materials from the down.

4th Step: Sifting Machine

The last formal machine the Iceland eiderdown is process through is another sifting machine.  For example, this will take away any debris within the down such as feathers, hay, etc.

5th Step: Hand Wash

Later, the final steps are completed on demand when orders come in.  In short, Helgi will take the amount of eiderdown he needs to fulfill the order and hand washes it a final time.

6th Step: Hand Picking

Lastly the final step in Iceland eiderdown farming is creating unique products for you!  Helgi personally sits down to hand pick the down specifically for his customers comforters, duvets and pillows.  Essentially this means he takes any feathers or quills that snuck through and ensures he only makes his products from high quality down.

Why Eiderdown is 100% Worth the Cost

Likely, you now understand why Iceland eiderdown is worth every penny it costs.  From the hundreds of labor intensive hours and weeks that are involved overall to the intricate 6 step cleaning process all the way to making your desired product…  In fact, it all adds up in crafting this unique sustainable lifetime product for you.  To illustrate further, it takes 60-70 nests to create around 1 kilogram.  Which then translates to around 2 adult size pillows.  Further, the products are fully certified by the Eiderdown Association (Æðarræktarfélag Íslands) as well.

How to Buy Eiderdown Comforters & Pillows

In conclusion, the best way to buy an Iceland eiderdown product is directly with the farmer.  No reason to have a middle man involved.  Hence, why we have shared with you Helgi’s farm and process today.  Buying a comforter, duvet or pillows of any size from Eiderdown Comforters will not disappoint!  As a matter of fact, he offers both Cotton or Silk-blends in all of his products.  Furthermore, you can have your pick on sizes too!

Finally, one of the many things our Iceland Wedding Planner team loved about Helgi was that he was passionate about the history of the farm and sharing his knowledge.  So as you plan your Iceland self-drive adventure, heading to Northeast Iceland or driving through Vopnafjörður contact in advance for a museum visit!  What  incredible memory and keepsake to take home from your Iceland adventure wedding or honeymoon!!

© 2021, Photos by Miss Ann (DBA Iceland Wedding Planner / Your Adventure Wedding), All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Thousand Year Old Tradition: Iceland Eiderdown

  1. A great story about a duck I have never heard of. I’ve heard of down but not this particular duck. Thanks for the interesting story.

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