The world’s lightest, warmest and most expensive down
By Meg Lukens Noonan2 October 2018
Just south of the Arctic Circle, a few dedicated Norwegians are keeping the tradition of sustainable eiderdown farming alive – and are making some of the world’s most coveted duvets.
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The Vega Archipelago is a mosaic of 6,500 islands, islets and reefs (Credit: Meg Lukens Noonan)
An annual homecoming
Every April, Hildegunn Nordum and her husband Erik, plus several members of their extended family, leave mainland Norway and head for their spring and summer homes on Lånan, a tiny, nearly flat and otherwise uninhabited island in the Vega Archipelago, a mosaic of 6,500 islands, islets and reefs just south of the Arctic Circle.
From Vega, the chain’s mountainous main island, it is an often rough boat trip of about an hour or so across the frigid Norwegian Sea out to Lånan. Some years, Nordum and her cousins arrive to find the wooden dock still glazed with ice and the treeless island still blanketed with snow. But they are not deterred: they have a job to do.
An eiderdown duvet can sell for more than $15,000 (Credit: Meg Lukens Noonan)
A special relationship
The eight to 10 islanders who return each year are known as fuglevokterne (bird keepers). And like their ancestors – who lived year-round on Lånan until about 40 years ago, when jobs in industry, the closure of schools and ferry lines, and the promise of modern conveniences lured them away – their mission is to provide shelter and protection to the hundreds of common eiders (large sea ducks that inhabit the far north coasts of Europe, North America and Russia) that come ashore to nest every May.
These guardians are rewarded with what is left behind in the abandoned nests once the eggs hatch: pillows of fluffy, grey eiderdown – the world’s lightest, warmest and most expensive down. By summer’s end, Nordum and the others will have collected and cleaned enough to make a dozen or more luxurious duvets. Nordum’s top-end model, lofty enough to tame the bitterest winter, sells for more than $15,000.
The Vega Archipelago has earned a 2004 Unesco World Heritage Site designation (Credit: Meg Lukens Noonan)
A centuries-old tradition
The unique relationship between bird and human earned the Vega Archipelago, where sustainable eiderdown farming has been going on for centuries, a 2004 Unesco World Heritage Site designation. Unesco officials made special note of the contribution of women to the age-old practice. The men fished and farmed, and the ‘eider wives’, as they were called, were responsible for tending to the ducks and gathering the down.
The tradition continues with the women of Lånan, who do the bulk of the eider-related work. And Nordum, who was born on the island and lived there until she was 16, also serves as general manager of Utværet Lånan, the company that sells and markets the duvets.
Eiderdown is considered the ultimate fill in the bedding world, in part because of its unique construction. Unlike the dense domestic goose and duck down commonly used in duvets and pillows (and harvested chiefly as by-products of the food industry), eiderdown’s individual plumules have microscopic, Velcro-like hooks that cause the tufts to cling to each other, forming an airy, breathable, highly insulating – yet nearly weightless – mass.
The cohesiveness of the down means it stays put; there’s no shifting inside the duvet cover, while its remarkable elasticity allows it to spring back to its initial loft no matter how many times it is compressed. The duvets can be passed down for generations. Scientists have found remnants of eiderdown in Viking-era graves.
Adding to the fluff’s allure is its scarcity; it is often said the world’s total annual eiderdown harvest could fit in one small lorry.
In early May, the eiders come ashore and select their temporary homes (Credit: Arne Naevra and Torgeir Beck Lande)
Waiting and watching
Before the ducks arrive, the island crew readies the roughly 1,000 rustic stone and wood bird shelters scattered around Lånan and its satellite islets and skerries. After repairs are made, each is lined with dried seaweed. In early May, the eiders come ashore and select their temporary homes – often the same ones they used in previous years. On the nest, the mother duck pulls the precious down from her own breast to insulate her speckled grey-green eggs.
During the nearly month-long incubation period, Nordum and her cousins visit every nest twice a day, always taking pains not to disturb the ducks. They shoo away predators – gulls are notorious egg thieves – and speak softly to the birds.
It takes three weeks to clean 1kg of eiderdown (Credit: Nature Picture Library/Alamy)
Everything by hand
Once the eggs hatch and the ducks have left the nest for good, the bird keepers collect the airy puffs left behind. Then Nordum and her cousins start the painstaking cleaning process; first picking larger bits of seaweed and shell out of each down mass by hand, then sifting it through a primitive stringed device called a harp. There are machines capable of processing the delicate down; Iceland, which produces the majority of the global eiderdown supply, mechanised its production in the 1950s.
But the Lånan fuglevokterne prefer the old ways. It takes three weeks to clean 1kg of down – the fluff from about 65 nests. That’s roughly the amount used to fill a single duvet.
“We want to do everything by hand,” Nordum said. “I think machines bend the individual plumules and create an inferior product.”
Visits to Lånan during nesting season are limited but a few guests are welcome (Credit: Meg Lukens Noonan)
Joining the bird keepers
Visits to Lånan during nesting season are limited, but Hildegunn and Erik do host up to six people overnight who want to sample the life of the fuglevokterne. Guests participate in the gathering and cleaning of the down. They also fish with Erik and join the island crew for dinner under the late-evening Arctic sun. Naturally, the guestrooms are outfitted with eiderdown duvets.
In July, after the ducks have left, scheduled excursion boats bring day trippers from Vega Island to Lånan twice weekly for a tour, demonstrations and a stop in the island barn, which also serves as a shop and a small museum. Meanwhile, armchair eider enthusiasts can sponsor a bird shelter; benefactors get photos and news about the duck nesting in ‘their’ house.
In the fishing village of Nes on Vega, there’s an eider museum (Credit: robertharding/Alamy)
Something to be proud of
In the fishing village of Nes on Vega (pictured), which is about 19 miles from Lånan and accessible by ferry from the mainland, there’s a larger eider museum, the E-Huset, housed in an old wharf trading post.
In May 2019, a new World Heritage Visitor Centre will open on a small island connected to Vega by a footbridge. The Vega Verdensarvsenter will have exhibits about the remarkable relationship between humans and eider ducks, and the lives of the fuglevokterne.
And, the Unesco designation has put a welcome spotlight on the work of the eiderdown farmers – and given new life to the archipelago.
“Vega was falling down. People were leaving,” said Hilde Wika, tourism manager for Vega municipality. “But now they are coming back. Now people think we have something here, something to be proud of.”
(Text by Meg Lukens Noonan; film production and photography by Arne Naevra and Torgeir Beck Lande; music by Helge Krabye)
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