We meet the farmer nurturing Iceland’s very soft-power darling – its eider ducks – by modernising the industry and boosting profits.
Every spring on Iceland’s sub-Arctic Troll Peninsula, plump eider ducks lay eggs in nests that they line with their feathers. About a month later, fluffy ducklings hatch, starting life on what is comfortably some of the world’s most valuable down.
When they are ready to fledge, their mothers will teach them to dive, fly and leave their nests for new shores. That’s when Árni Örvarsson and the eiderdown foragers he employs move in to collect the soft, rare down left behind in the 4,500 nests that they protect. “It’s the lightest feather per volume, the most insulating in the world and the only down that’s naturally hydrophobic,” says Örvarsson, who runs Icelandic Eider. For generations the family-run farm has protected these ducks and gathered their soft bounty but it’s only now that Örvarsson sees a chance for the homespun industry to take flight and professionalise.
It helps that eiderdown is an ideal material for today’s climate. Unlike the down-collection techniques that in recent years have unleashed a slew of bad press against clothing manufacturers, there’s no culling or live-plucking involved in collecting eiderdown, which has been used in duvets and coats since Viking settlers employed it to ride out Iceland’s bitter winters. That’s useful in a market where consumers are clamouring for premium, cruelty-free products like never before.
Before they get their hands on the feathers, however, the farmers work to protect the nests from predators such as foxes and mink. While following the age-old techniques of his partner’s family business, Örvarsson is now trying to upend the longstanding economics of his trade in order to win himself and his competitors a share of eiderdown’s profits that’s higher than the 10 per cent that they currently receive. Iceland accounts for about 80 per cent of the world’s eiderdown (the rest comes from a handful of places including Norway and Canada) and while last year it exported down worth about €4.4m, the combined value of clothing and duvets that use Icelandic eiderdown sold around the world is more than €44m, according to Statistics Iceland.
This gulf between export and sales is due to the fact that about 90 per cent of the down that’s gathered in Iceland is sold untreated. According to Örvarsson, buyers, often in Japan and Germany, import cheap, raw down, wash it and use it in products sold at a hefty profit.
What’s more, the price of eiderdown has failed to keep pace with inflation during the past 20 years: prices are now lower in real terms than they were at the turn of the century, says Statistics Iceland. That’s partly because, says Örvarsson, “most people collect with their families for fun, sell it to an exporter and then go back to their day jobs”. Another factor is that most farms and collectors don’t have the facilities to treat and process the eiderdown.
In order to claw back some of those profits, Örvarsson, a former professional footballer who returned home at 23 from the Faroe Islands when his career was truncated by a back injury, has decided to process Icelandic Eider’s down in-house. While his company is already one of the world’s five largest sellers (despite harvesting only a light-sounding 65kg of down each year), it has also started buying down from nearby farms in the hope of professionalising the industry and boosting collectors’ profits.
“You can almost think of eiderdown as the cocaine of Iceland,” says Örvarsson. “We’re providing the finest in the world but most of it gets sent to Japan or Germany in big black garbage bags. Producers end up getting a small percentage of the market value, which is in turn making the industry as a whole disappear.”
In a building powered entirely by hydropower and geothermal energy, the men and women of Icelandic Eider spend about 70 hours processing each 1kg bag of eiderdown. The down is then stuffed into the duvets that the company has been making for several years.
The intensive labour involved in processing eiderdown means that depending on size, weight and whether they are made from fine-spun cotton or silk, eiderdown duvets that can fetch tens of thousands of euros apiece. Icelandic duvets often sell for tens of thousands of euros abroad, even though in many cases these high-priced products labelled “Icelandic eiderdown” contain as little as 10 per cent of the prized feathers because of looser regulation outside Iceland. The other 90 per cent? Goose down, or another inferior filling.
The company’s next step will be a collaboration with partners in Europe to grow eiderdown’s consumer base, says Örvarsson. He adds that Icelandic Eider currently has four projects in the works with companies abroad. Tie-ups with Danish clothing brands Nordisk and Härkila have already been announced.
“For our outdoor market, sustainable and natural has been essential before it became a thing in fashion and politics,” says Valdemar Bardram, ceo of Härkila, whose products come with a life expectancy of more than 10 years. “Adding eiderdown will definitely improve the sustainability offering, as it has a significantly longer expectancy.” Bardram adds that creating clothing that reuses eiderdown while only exchanging the shell of the product might also be an option.
Just like its Danish partners, Icelandic Eider is also focusing on outdoor gear alongside its duvets. The brand is launching a collection later this year in collaboration with travel photojournalist Chris Burkard, who met Örvarsson while cycling across Iceland. “I visited his production centre and saw how the material expands, how it’s naturally water repellent and how light it is,” says Burkard. “It has the wherewithal to become extremely useful.” Just as attractive, the photographer adds, is the 1,200-year-long story behind people’s use of eiderdown to protect themselves in the harshest environments. “As consumers, we’re constantly reinventing the wheel. But this has been out there forever.”
Burkard exaggerates – but only slightly. Icelanders have used eiderdown to keep warm in biting temperatures since about 800ad, when the first Vikings landed on the island’s ink-black volcanic beaches. Folk tales say that without eiderdown, the settler ancestors of modern Icelanders may not have survived the country’s unrelenting winters. If companies such as Icelandic Eider succeed in their mission to bolster and protect the supply chain of clean eiderdown, the Icelanders of today may yet safeguard the craft for generations to come.
Natural materials on the market
Yak wool: Yak-fibre wool comes from the undercoat that grows beneath the bovine’s shaggy hair. Found in the Himalayas, Tibet and Mongolia, the coat protects yaks during extreme winters and is shed in spring. Tengri, launched by Nancy Johnston in 2014, connects Mongolian herders who produce yak wool with UK craftspeople.
Mongolian cashmere: Harvesters search for a specific breed of goat whose wool is second to none. Oyuna is a London-based brand, which has partnered with the Sustainable Fibre Alliance to produce ethical cashmere in an environmentally friendly way that safeguards the livelihoods of the herding communities and protects the fragile environments in which they live.
Peace silk: The ethics of silk production – silkworms’ cocoons are boiled in order to obtain silk strands – have long been contested. Peace Silk, however, leaves the worms to hatch, which yields shorter strands. This makes it more expensive too. Mother of Pearl created an ethical-silk capsule collection for Net-A-Porter in 2019.
Camel hair: Camel hair’s hollow structure regulates the temperature of the wearer better than many other textiles. It’s gathered in spring from the Bactrian camel (native to China and Mongolia) as it moults its thick winter coat. Italian fashion brand Max Mara collects camel hair by hand to spin into fabric for its Manuela coat.