Down and feather pillows are the gold standard for comfort and appearance. They’re soft and snugly, easy to fluff up, and fill out a pillow cover in a more luxurious, satisfying way than synthetic inserts. They’re also renewable and biodegradable.
Polyester inserts are cost less, but they also look cheap, feel stiff, and drag down the character of the whole room.
But there are two big problems with down. In many countries, the way down is harvested poses ethical concerns. I’m not going into it here, but you can look it up. It’s not pleasant. European Union regulations guard animal welfare a little better than in many other places, but the situation isn’t ideal. Fortunately, there are higher standards that a number of companies adhere to.
The second problem is allergies. Down can harbor dust mites, which aggravate allergies and other immune system issues. If that’s an issue for you, you might prefer a synthetic or natural “down alternative” pillow filling.
So depending on what concerns you have about using down, there are a few solutions to consider.
The Responsible Down standard was established by the Textile Exchange, an international nonprofit organization “with the goal of reducing or reversing negative environmental and social issues create by the textile industry.”
In order for a product to meet the Responsible Down standards, all down in the product must come from birds who were provided with the Five Freedoms of the U.K. Farm Animal Welfare Council which include “Freedom from Discomfort” and “Freedom from Fear and Distress.” Products are labeled with the blue Responsible Down logo.
You can find pillows, bedding, and other home products that meet Responsible Down standards at:
- H&M Home (Worldwide)
- Scandia Home (U.S.)
- Daniadown (Western Canada and U.S.)
And a few others listed on the Responsible Down website.
Synthetic Down Alternative Pillow Fillings
Down alternative fillings are designed to have the loft and softness of real down and feathers. Because they were developed for people with allergies, you’ll often find them called “hypoallergenic pillows” or “allergy pillows.” The filling is typically microfiber fill, which is made of very thin filaments or tiny balls of polyester. It’s a generic product, but there are also propitiatory pillow fillings such as Primaloft and TCS® Down-Free.
The filling is nearly as light and soft as down, and it traps air well, which makes it good for holding warmth. These pillows aren’t as durable as down, though, and will flatten out or develop clumps and hollow spots that you can’t always fluff out of them. That said, throw pillows that aren’t slept on or leaned on much should last at least three years. Many also have a crinkly liner some people find annoying.
Natural Alternatives to Down
If you’re looking for something natural with a feel that’s close to down, you have a few choices. None of them will give you the same fluffy softness as down, but they fill out a pillow better than standard polyester and they’re more eco-friendly.
Millet hulls – While not nearly as light as down, millet hulls are one of the softest natural pillow fillings. They also provide good air circulation to keep your head cool. Millet pillows have a silky feel to their movement with a lot of give, which makes them nice to snuggle with. On the other hand, they offer less support than polyester or latex pillows. The Finnish company Ruskovilla makes millet hull pillows in three sizes.
Buckwheat hulls – These pillows are firmer and heavier than millet pillows, so they’re more supportive. Like millet hulls, they provide good air circulation. The downside is that they make a slight rustling sound.
Kapok – This material comes from the seed pods of the kapok tree, which grows in Central and South America. In addition to being relatively sustainable, it’s light, soft and luxurious, with a plush feeling similar to down or silk. The filling is clump-resistant, but the pillows tend to flatten and will need to be fluffed occasionally. Kapok is highly flammable, though, use caution. These are the pillows to leave laying by the hearth.
Wool – If you prefer a supportive, but springy pillow, wool might be your best choice. It’s warm, yet breathable and wicks away moisture, helping to regulate your body temperature. It’s also the most durable of all pillow fillings. The “scratchy” feel of wool won’t be a problem because the pillow will covered, usually with cotton.
If you’re looking for throw pillows or bed pillows with natural fillings, the Swiss company Europe & Nature has a variety of pillows made with millet, spelt, horsehair, and wool.
Do you use down throw pillow or is there another filling you prefer? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments!