Text by Malcolm Smith
Even in midsummer, there’s an icy wind in Trésey, one of 265 tiny islets 30km off Iceland’s north-west coast. It’s hard to say if it’s ironic or fitting that we’re here to find one of the most insulating natural materials on earth.
Though you can find eiderdown in a few places in the Arctic circle, including Svalbard, Iceland – home to quarter of a million breeding pairs of eiders – is the only place where it’s anything like an industry. There are 400 registered collectors here, harvesting three tonnes a year, which will produce the softest, lightest down money can buy. For a pure Icelandic eiderdown duvet, you shouldn’t expect to pay much less than €3,000 (NOK24,670), with some fetching triple that.
I’m out with collector Thorvaldur Bjőrnsson, and the first female eider duck we encounter flies off as we approach, leaving four greenish eggs surrounded by the earth-coloured down. Bjőrnsson carefully nudges the eggs aside, scrapes the down into a hessian bag and replaces the down with hay, which will insulate the eggs and allow them to hatch normally. The mother will come back in a few minutes and act like nothing has changed.
Bjőrnsson has been coming here for three weeks every June for the past 20 years; his group of collectors continue a tradition that dates back to the 1700s, in which men would look after the ducks in return for their prized down. It’s so light that it takes up to 70 nests to produce 1kg of eiderdown, which will fetch around NOK5,000 on the mainland.
According to Björk Thorleifsdóttir of Fuglavernd, the Icelandic Society for the Protection of Birds, “Harvesting eider duck down isn’t harmful for the ducks – in fact, it’s beneficial because the collectors take care of the colonies and try to give the ducks protection.”
In two hours of searching Trésey we gather more than 1kg of down from nearly 100 nests. Carrying our light, springy harvest, we head inside a small, stone hut back on the mainland at Hvallatur. Here, warm air circulates from a diesel generator through wire-mesh shelves piled with masses of earthy, brown eiderdown, drying it slowly.
After being put through a machine that separates out any pieces of grass, the down is heat-sterilised before it’s ready to sell to dealers such as Reykjavík shop Dün & Fidur, which makes eiderdown duvets to order. The final result is a duvet that keeps you warm in summer and cool in winter, and is almost impossibly light. It’s the best of the best – and no ducks get hurt.
Norwegian flies to Reykjavík from Oslo and Bergen. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com