Down Comforters

My sister Meg lives in a 100-year-old drafty home in Massachusetts. Every winter she is freezing. To make matters worse, she is a string bean -- no insulation at all on her bones -- so she shivers away the long cold months. But this winter is going to be different. Lil' sis Eve is going to send her a down comforter to keep her warm. Her big 50 is this year, and I think she deserves some comfort. Things have been tight this year for her, so I know if she bought one, she would go for a low-price range. I want to buy her a quality comforter, not a cheap one. I just needed to find someone to give me the skinny on down comforters.I found the info person, Michele Babcock, owner of Martha Smith Fine Linens in La Jolla. Babcock sells Scandia down comforters.

"There are different types of down," explained Babcock. "You start out with Hungarian down and then you go to Polish down and then you go to Siberian down. Siberian down is the pièce de résistance; it's the top of the food chain. As you go toward the colder climates, it gets more expensive. The birds acclimate in the colder climates to keep warm." So fluffier, warmer down comes from the frigid areas of the world.

What should you look for when buying a comforter?

"First of all, I would always make sure that the comforter is 100 percent down, that there are no quills or feathers in it. Second, you want to make sure the comforter is baffled. Baffle boxes are the little squares sewn into the comforter. They keep the down insulated in that square. Comforters sometimes have straight lines down the comforter, no horizontal lines. So the feathers always end up at one end or the other of the blanket. You don't want that. You want the down to stay evenly spread throughout the comforter for maximum comfort and warmth."

What does fill power mean?

"Fill power is the standard that tells us the number of cubic inches filled by each ounce of down. The more space an ounce of down takes up, that is the more air it entraps, the more warmth it offers per ounce. The more volume one ounce has, the better the quality. So the higher the fill power, the better quality the down is going to be."

What about the fabric of the shell?

"The nicest comforters have scroll silk jacquard covering, and those are the most expensive ones. Others have cotton shells. Whatever the covering, it has to be tightly woven. A tightly woven shell is going to be more durable than a loosely woven shell. And generally, as you go up in the thread count, it is going to be a nicer shell, depending on its weave. It is like with sheets. The tighter the weave, the sturdier it is going to be."

Are there different weights in the comforters?

"In the Scandia line, there is light, medium, and heavy. Really, nobody needs heavy in San Diego." But Meg will, I thought. "Light is good for summer, though it's not enough for the wintertime, then you need a medium. I tell people if they can afford it and they have the storage space, to buy a light for summer and a medium for winter. I took my medium-weight comforter off the bed in February or March. Often the department stores will just have one kind of comforter; they are not going to sell a light, medium, and heavy."

What do your comforters have that a department-store comforter does not have?

"Department-store comforters are going to be down out of China. All Scandia down is European down; we don't use any Chinese down.

"And a lot of people say 'I am allergic to down.' Well, they are really not allergic to down, what they are allergic to is the dust on the feathers and the quills. Scandia down is washed 26 times. So we don't really have people being allergic to our down. And in the European countries, the down is a byproduct of the food industry; it is waterfowl. With China down, you don't know what you are getting. So there is a big difference. It is like cashmere from China versus cashmere from Italy.

"You also want to buy a comforter with white goose down. It is a better quality down." That was one thing I did know about comforters -- I detest white down comforters that you can look through to the gray feathers inside. It has a dirty look.

What price will you spend on a quality starter comforter?

"A basic, good-quality starter comforter, Gossamer, in a queen-size medium weight, costs $500 . Scandia also sells a couple's comforter. For a lot of couples, either the wife is hot or the husband is hot. One is cold, one is hot; nobody is ever on the same temperature. So, a couple's comforter has one side in one weight, and the other side is a different weight." I had found a winner, a comforter that would work for Meg and her warm-bodied husband. "For a queen-size couple's comforter, a light/medium is $475 , light/heavy is $550, and medium/heavy is $575 ."

How often should the comforter be cleaned?

"Comforters don't need to be washed that often because they are always covered with a duvet, so every couple of years it can be cleaned. It should be washed, not dry-cleaned; imagine dry-cleaning your hair."

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