The Best Comforter
If I were buying a queen-size down comforter, I would buy the $320 L.L.Bean Baffle-Box Stitch Down Comforter. It’s the best all-arounder for the money—none of the others we considered had all of the best features while being reasonably affordable. Hundreds of down comforters will keep you comfortably warm in a house kept around 68 degrees. Many are stitched properly. Most have good return policies and warranties. Maybe half are generously sized. The real trick is finding a comforter that’s all those things, plus puffy and durable and well priced. The Bean is it. It has a tough shell that our expert and testers loved, but was also the lightest comforter we tested in the under-$400 group, with a queen-size model weighing just 4.5 pounds.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $230.
To find the best down comforters, we went deep. We talked with four independent experts, spent roughly 85 hours doing research, catalogued the specs of 150 models, and gauged the quality of our sleep for weeks. Last, we cut apart the comforters and found a few surprises inside (including the fact that the Bean might be even better made than claimed).
If the Bean is out of stock (which it always seems to be), then opt for the $340 Company Store Alberta Baffled Goose Down, which is more expensive but practically identical to the Bean. It is just a bit cooler and heavier, but it has the same soft shell as our premium pick below.
If I were looking for something cheaper, I’d step all the way down to the $130 Pacific Coast Platinum European Comforter with Pyrenees Down, Year-Round Warmth from Costco. It’s a screaming deal. Among down comforters that cost less than $150, a disproportionate number are way heavy, smell like a barn, and are not actually what they claim to be (en garde, Target). The Pacific Coast is the exception. It’s a moderate weight and very generously sized, won’t bleed feathers, and otherwise matches the look, feel, and durability of many comforters costing $250 or more. It’s not as good as the Bean. The cost-saving stitching allows the stuffing to clump around the edge, forcing you to occasionally smooth it back into place, for one. And the warranty is only 10 years. But those are quibbles at this price.
If you can spend a little more, the $440 Feathered Friends Bavarian Medium 700 is everything you want in a comforter. It lofts about 3 inches high, has a wonderfully soft shell fabric, and will last for ages. Wash it every once in a while (more on that later), and it’ll remain cloudlike for 30 years. Repeat: 30 years. The down in all other less expensive comforters, including the Costco and Bean, will shift and create cold spots in maybe a decade. Feathered Friends announced that starting in spring 2015, its comforters will only be filled with certified RDS (Responsible Down Standard) goose down.
If you don’t want a “real” down comforter, our favorite alternative is the Carpenter Company’s Beyond Down Gel Fiber Comforter. It wasn’t as warm as the L.L.Bean, but unlike some of the other down alternatives we tried, it didn’t trap too much heat. The gel fiber is a bit heavier than down, but at $100, it’s even cheaper than our budget down comforter.
Table of contents
- Should I upgrade?
- How we picked
- How we tested
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Step down
- Step up
Should I upgrade?
If your down comforter has surrendered to gravity, give it a wash and watch it magically return to its former glory. See our Care and maintenance section for more details.
If it’s lumpy, then you can have it repaired to redistribute the down, but if it was cheap to begin with, you’re probably better off with a new one.
If you want to save money on energy costs (1% per degree your thermostat gets turned down), choose a version that’s higher in down weight per square inch. (See How to measure comforter warmth.)
If you’re painfully allergic to down or not keen on using animal products, opt for a synthetic comforter. (See The ethics of down.)
Finally, remember that a good comforter is not only down-proof but also future-proof. No engineer yet has invented anything so light and warm as those wispy, cotton ball-looking things that grow under a bird’s feathers, keeping ’em cozy while paddling around in ponds.
How we picked and tested
Our key source was Jack Sukalac. “If you wanna know anything about down, Jack is the man to talk to,” a staffer at Rainy Pass Repair told us. Forty years ago, Sukalac paid his way through a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Washington by repairing Eddie Bauer’s down comforters. As an engineer, he did things like help build the gears for the Space Needle, but he’s always kept a side business in his basement, All About Down, making and repairing down comforters. He and an assistant have made more than a few comforters for well-known billionaires and have repaired tens of thousands made by other brands.
According to Sukalac and other experts, when looking for a great comforter, details matter—though rarely the ones that are advertised.
Our criteria for greatness were, in order of importance:
- Duck or goose down
- 600-699 fill power
- Down filling that is at least 75% down cluster, preferably higher
- Fill density of roughly .0040 ounce per square inch (see How to analyze down like a pro)
- A generous return policy and a long warranty
- A well-made shell
- Baffle-box or sewn-through stitching, with a slight preference for baffled (see What makes a good cover)
- Good enough customer reviews
Price is important, as we are reminded every time some store has a “blowout” sale—but with great return policies promising you won’t be locked into a bad purchase, and long lifespans guaranteeing you can enjoy a good comforter for many years, rock-bottom price isn’t paramount. Given everything we learned, we looked mainly at comforters less than $500, hoping to find a great one for about $250.
Unfortunately, a gagillion companies sell comforters. And third-party reviews are limited to Good Housekeeping, whose tests are five years old. So we went crazy.
Building on the work of two researchers last year, three researchers and I looked for the best comforter in three places.
1) Reputable, smallish American companies: Maine-based Cuddledown, Wisconsin-based the Company Store, and Washington-based Feathered Friends.
2) The most popular big-box stores: Amazon, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Land’s End, L.L.Bean, Eddie Bauer, Pottery Barn, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl’s, IKEA, Costco, Target, JC Penney, Walmart, and Sears.
3) The manufacturers themselves. Just seven American wholesalers—DOWNLITE, Hollander, Down Decor, Down Inc., Pacific Coast Feather, Aeolus Down, and Blue Ridge Home Fashions—supply the majority of comforters sold in America, so we called spokespersons for each and asked for their three favorite models, just to make sure we weren’t missing something.
This left us with a spreadsheet of 82 models. When we got strict about the $500 max price, 600 to 699 fill power range, and year-round weight, the spreadsheet shrunk to 25 models.
Eliminating ones with horrible reviews, bad one-year warranties, the tiniest dimensions, specs that the seller didn’t know or wouldn’t share (that’s right, we’re talking to you, Pottery Barn), and other obvious drawbacks, the list of contenders shrunk, amazingly, to just seven models.
- L.L.Bean Baffle-Box Stitch Down Comforter
- Nordstrom at Home Medium Weight Down Comforter
- The Company Store Alberta Baffled Goose Down Comforter
- Dillard’s Noble Excellence 5-Star Down Comforter
- Costco Pacific Coast European Comforter with Pyrenees Down, Year Round
- Macy’s Hotel Collection Medium Weight Down Comforter
- Cuddledown Primary Down Comforter
We also tested a $440 Feathered Friends Baffled Box Medium 700+, which appeared to be the best deal in a 700 fill power baffle-box comforter and gave us a useful understanding of what more money can buy.
How we tested
First, one tester slept naked under a sheet under each duvetless comforter, which was allowed to fluff up for at least eight hours beforehand in a room heated to 68 degrees. With the exception of the Macy’s Hotel Collection comforter, which left tiny rivulets of sweat sprouting on the small of the back, all of them were comfortable. None smelled. Paying attention to overall weight, breathability, puffiness, and fabric texture, we noted which one subjectively felt the best (the L.L.Bean) and which one the worst (the Hotel Collection).
Then we weighed each comforter and weren’t surprised to find that the Bean was the lightest, hitting about 4.5 lbs, and the Hotel Collection heaviest, up to 7.1 lbs.
To evaluate the downproofness of the material, we rolled up each one, unfurled it, shook 10 times, and counted the number of feathers or down clusters that popped out. None lost a single bit of stuffing.
Then we took them to Sukalac to evaluate the construction. Some had made questionable design choices, but with the exception of the Nordstrom, the quality of the stitching was universally good, with short stitches of durable thread and healthy seams.
Last, we cut open the front-runners—the L.L.Bean, Costco, and Feathered Friends. After all, it’s mostly what’s inside that you’re paying for. This ain’t no can of corn, so we wanted to see if there were any surprises. There were. The Bean was better made than expected. And all of the down appeared to be top-notch, according to Sukalac.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $230.
The L.L.Bean Baffle-Box Stitch Down Comforter ticked all the boxes for a great comforter. Thanks to smart design choices and what turned out to be conservative specs, it even competed with the more expensive 700 fill power baffle-box Feathered Friends. Most notably, the 600 fill power goose down is very light and fluffy, lofting as high as comforters with higher fill power claims. And the overall weight, at 4.5 pounds, was one of the lowest in the test, on par with the more expensive Feathered Friends. Just pulling it off the bed, you can feel how light it is, especially compared with the 2-pound-heavier Costco comforter. It felt like a wonderful nothing. And it was warm—not hot, not cool. The .0041 ounce of fill per square inch was almost the exact middle in the range of weights for comforters claiming to be year-round. It was a welcome change from the Hotel Collection, whose .0049 oz/in had me breaking a sweat in a 68-degree house.
Sukalac, a passionate advocate for sewn-through models, wasn’t smitten with this baffle-box model of course, but he was pleasantly impressed. He didn’t find any fault with the stitching and liked the 280-thread count shell fabric. “This really high finish on the fabric—it might last longer, be more down-proof, more dust-proof. It’s likely this is the most durable fabric we’ve seen,” he said. Once we cut inside, he was intrigued. The Bean had baffles of course, but unlike most of the others he’d seen, the baffles had little gates, rather than many open holes. “You’re gonna have a tougher time moving the down,” he offered, before quickly hedging and saying, “but you’re also gonna have a tougher time getting it back in place.” (We’d love to recommend a sewn-through model that prevents the down inside from shifting at all; unfortunately, sewn-throughs under $400 don’t stitch all the way to the edges, so stuffing can still move between boxes.)
If you choose to repair your Bean, we think it’ll be at least a decade before you need to spend about $200 to have someone redistribute the excellent down in the durable shell. And if there’s a problem beforehand, Bean’s terrific warranty has you covered. Quote: “If your purchase isn’t completely satisfactory, we’re happy to accept your exchange or return at any time.”
Our previous reviewers also liked the Bean the best, saying, “The first thing we noticed about the L.L.Bean was how lightweight it is, especially compared to many of the other, heavier comforters we tested.” And 89 reviewers at Bean give it 4.6 stars.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Like most things, this comforter is not perfect. It’s a touch small, at 88 by 96 in, compared with our favorite size of 90 by 98, but that’s nowhere near the too-small measurements of 86 by 86 found on lesser queens.
And it is “crinkly” and “rustly,” as reviewers have pointed out. We happen to like that. But anyway, according to Sukalac, a tightly woven fabric with a high finish is what makes it a bit noisy—i.e., it’s exactly what you’d expect from durable, down-proof construction. Anyone who would rather pay more or opt for less durability is welcome to.
The $340 Company Store Alberta Baffled Goose Down is a good alternative if our pick is out of stock, if you want a quieter shell fabric, or if you sleep like a furnace. It’s $20 more expensive and a noticeable pound or two heavier, making it a moderately lofty 600 fill power comforter. It felt a couple degrees cooler when sleeping, so it’s a good choice for someone who sleeps a touch warm.
But it’s also 2 inches wider, has a 90-day return policy and lifetime warranty, and has a soft shell that’s very similar to the $440 Feathered Friends. “The shell looks identical,” Sukalac said. “It’s probably from the exact same people in China. The fabric feels the same, the baffle holes are the same size, there’s nothing wrong with the stitching and seams. It’s no different on the outside from the Feathered Friends. It looks good.”
The budget pick
Costco’s best-selling $130 Pacific Coast Feather European Comforter with Pyrenees Down is a tremendous value. It’s not the best down comforter, but it’s far better than the many synthetic comforters offered at that price point, and darn near as good as many $250 down comforters.
Its key specs are impressive, right in the middle for a 600 to 699 fill power down comforter at any price—650 fill power, 75% down cluster, .0039 fill density. After we cut it open, Sukalac said the down was “Nothing surprising…Looks normal.” The Down Association of Canada has found discrepancies with Target, Walmart, and other sellers’ down comforters at this price, but so far we have yet to hear of any false advertising by Pacific Coast Feather (which you’d hope, since the company’s employees hold two of the three executive positions at the American Feather and Down Council). Even better, the shell is longstaple Egyptian cotton and an ample 90- by 98-in queen size.
It’s a bit flat and heavy for a down comforter, at about 6.9 pounds, and felt so when sleeping under it, but that’s only in comparison to down comforters like the Bean. Some three dozen reviewers of the previous model, which had a slightly different shell fabric, ranked it around 4.5. So far, one reviewer of this new model gives it 5 stars.
The biggest knock against it is the cost-cutting design. To avoid the expense of building baffles to the edge of the comforter (yes, sewing to the edge is a real and measurable cost, basically because you have to do it by hand instead of robot), the sides and foot of the comforter aren’t baffled or sewn-through. So the down around the edges will shift to the corners over time and you’ll have to massage it back in place if you want that pretty, smooth look. Other design compromises such as little plus-shaped tack stitches that could tear make us think it’ll last about 10 years—which, not incidentally, is the length of the warranty. And after those 10 years, you’ll probably want to simply throw it away and buy a fancier comforter.
But if you’re fine with those shortcomings, then this is a terrific deal, and an absolute no-brainer for a kid’s or guest bedroom.
The premium pick
If you want the best value in a comforter like the ones that were more readily available decades ago—ones that were puffy and light and super durable—the Feathered Friends Bavarian Medium 700+ is the one to get. It’s not the exact one we tested, but it’s definitely the version we’d recommend. Heck, it’s the one to save up for. It’s the family-owned company’s most popular model, and is made in the sewn-through style that many industry insiders have on their own beds. It’s incredibly light, at just over four pounds, super fluffy, and will easily last 30 years. At $440, it’s expensive, but it happens to be a great deal relative to its few direct competitors, like the smaller, cooler $560 Cuddledown 700 Fill Power Sateen Down Comforter.
The main virtue is the sewn-through style, which guarantees that the down won’t shift from one cell to the next even after thousands of spins around a laundromat’s wash machine. Unlike Cuddledown’s more affordable sewn-through option, the $330 Primary Down Comforter, this sewn-through comforter is sewn by a tailor all the way to the edges, so the down will never shift. (I’m not singling out Cuddledown on purpose, there are just very few people making sewn-through models.)
With 700 fill power, 90% down-cluster down, and a fill density of .0039, it’s lightweight—lighter than the Bean—and cozy year round. Sukalac thinks that it offers a wider temperature range than a baffled box, too. We had recommended trying this comforter without a cover because of its fine construction, but Sweethome reader Dante points out that the Feathered Friends warranty states, “Comforters and pillows must be used inside a slip cover to maintain warranty coverage.”
Feathered Friends has already had a good reputation for sourcing ethically obtained goose down. But in 2015 they’re going a step further: The company recently announced that it is using only Responsible Down Standard-certified (RDS) goose down in its comforters starting in spring 2015, and in all of its products by the fall. Each comforter will come with a tracking number where buyers can use trackmydown.com to see the source of the down inside.
The other details are up to snuff, too: great 90- by 98-in dimensions, one of the softest, quietest, and lightest longstaple-cotton shells we saw (“that’s my favorite shell,” said Sukalac), and a great return policy (“return or exchange in new condition 30 days, lifetime warranty”). Bonuses: Feathered Friends will sew a duvet from your own sheets for $69, and wash and repair the comforter for you for minimal charges. We couldn’t find any drawbacks.
“I’d choose the Feathered Friends,” Sukalac said.
Of course, Sukalac isn’t actually buying a Feathered Friends. He and his assistant are continuing to sew his own All About Down comforters, in his basement, as he has done for 40 years, for regular people and well-known billionaires. If you have roughly $500, there’s of course no one’s comforters we recommend more highly. You can place an order or chat with him at 206-784-3444.
Best down alternative
Down is hard to beat for comfort, loft, and warmth, but if you don’t want a down comforter for health or ethical reasons (see The Ethics of Down), we recommend the Carpenter Company’s Beyond Down Gel Fiber Comforter. In our first round of testing, it was our favorite down alternative comforter. It wasn’t as warm as the L.L.Bean, but it did a far better job than the other down alternatives at keeping us warm without shifting our sweat glands into hyperdrive. And at $110, it’s as cheap as we’d feel comfortable recommending: Go any lower, and you find flimsy comforters that will barely keep you warm. And if you’re lucky, you can sometimes find the Beyond Down priced below $100 on Amazon.
Good Housekeeping gave the Beyond Down an A-, and it tied for their favorite down alternative comforter with the Cuddledown Damask Stripe Synthetic, which costs nearly $90 more. About the Beyond Down, Good Housekeeping said, “It performed almost as well as the down comforters and proved a quality product, especially for the price.” A lot of its success is likely attributable to its microdenier gel fiber filling, a departure from traditional polyfill you’ll find in most synthetic comforters. Microdenier fibers are, as acrylic manufacturer Birlacril explains, smaller than 0.9 denier—very small, allowing for improved breathability. And gel is known for its cooling properties, which explains the Beyond Down’s crisp, cool feeling.
If you’re in search of a heavier comforter, this is also a great pick. It has much more weight than the L.L.Bean, feeling warm and snuggly around the body. If you don’t like feeling confined in your sleep, this might not be the right pick for you, but don’t be fooled into thinking its weight makes it less breathable—it’s still a very comfortable comforter.
How to analyze down like a pro
Down comforters range in price from roughly $80 to $8,000 (for a comforter made of down hand-harvested from the nests of wild Icelandic eider ducks, a source of pride on that dark, cold island). The vast majority of 600 to 699 fill power comforters fall in the $200 to $350 price range.
The type of down matters less than you might’ve heard. Duck down is generally not as fluffy as goose, since most of it is from small ducks with small puffs of down. Ducks are farmed in China, slaughtered for a meal after about 60 days, and the bits of down are removed and sold. (Eighty percent of the down in the world comes from Chinese ducks.) Goose down is generally fluffier, since most of it is from big mature geese that are fed for a feast in Eastern Europe and Russia, so their down grows as big as dandelion blowballs over as much as three years. But these are generalizations.
“Goose is not always better,” said Brian Pride, CEO of Canada’s largest down and feather processor, Feather Industries Limited. “Goose is a larger bird than a duck at same age, but if you have a 120-day-old duck versus a 60-day-old goose, then….”
Kaltin Kirby, client services manager at the biggest down-testing lab in the US, the International Down and Feather Laboratory (IDFL), agreed: “People say, ‘My Hungarian goose down is better than your Chinese duck down,’ but I haven’t seen a whole lot of difference by definition.”
Sukalac takes the argument one step further: “I’ve seen more ‘Hungarian down’ on department store shelves than that country is capable of producing.”
The upshot is that only mature goose down can make a top-end comforter, but both goose and duck down can make really good comforters. Unless you’re breaking about the $400 mark, there’s no reason to turn your nose up at a down puff’s provenance.
Nor is there a reason to favor the whites, as marketers would have you. “The vast majority of white down is white because they bleach it,” Sukalac said. “Color makes no difference.”
Whether from a goose or duck, you want big-cluster down, which provides a lot of warmth per ounce. All other things being equal in a queen-size comforter, huge-cluster down weighs a pound less, fluffs up twice as high, and provides maybe 130% as much insulation as the tiny stuff. A comforter made from it feels airy, like the warmth on your topside is somehow coming from your own skin.
Thankfully, finding big-cluster down is easy. The cluster size is summarized by its fill power, a measure of fluffiness. The biggest clusters have fill powers of 850, and go into many comforters so warm that their rich owners push them to the floor at bedtime. Cheapies start at 500 fill power, and often don’t feel any better than even less expensive synthetic comforters.
According to Kirby, 750 fill power represents the most fluff for your dollar. The lab techs at the IDFL have created, for their own benefit, a graph on the lab’s wall, which shows fill power versus value declining in the mid 700s. “In an ideal world, you want 750,” he said.
But he thinks the typical $500 price tag on a 750 fill power queen-size comforter is more than most budgets allow. “Something useful for most people is probably 600 fill power,” he said.
We agree. The equivalent of 600 to 699 fill power was considered a good basic comforter in your parent’s generation, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t consider it good and basic now.1
Why the range? Because even under ideal conditions, measuring fluffiness is tricky. Kirby’s lab only guarantees its fill power ratings to within +/- 5% of the actual fill power. So a humble seller’s “590 fill power” is a boastful seller’s “650 fill power.”
Surprisingly, when you buy a down comforter, a significant portion of the “down” isn’t actual down clusters. Even an $8,000 down comforter is also filled with broken clusters and feathers and tiny bits of quills.
Know-it-alls like to make a big deal out of this, but it’s not often a big deal. Anything labeled “minimum 75% down content” or more, as you find in 600-fill comforters, will be soft and fluffy and breathable, showcasing the best attributes of down. Those feathers? They’re not Shakespeare’s pen. They’re generally like the feather in the photo below, very soft, just not as light or insulating as a down cluster.
What’s important to know is that you can use the down content label as a partial fact check on the claimed fill contents. Most 600 fill power comforters are 75% cluster. Most 700s are about 90%. So a supposedly 700 fill power comforter that is only 75% cluster, like the Bed Bath & Beyond Palais Royal Year Round White Goose Down Comforter, raises eyebrows. And a “down comforter” that isn’t even 51% down cluster, like Target’s Fieldcrest Threshold Down Comforter, shouldn’t even be advertised as a down comforter, according to the FTC.
Another term to watch out for is hypoallergenic. Virtually all comforters sold by reputable companies in the US are so-called hypoallergenic. The down is washed, steamed, and sterilized to meet industry standards. Hypoallergenic is not a term governed by any federal standards, but Kirby assures that it is a strict standard nonetheless, and says, “Very rarely do we see down that’s been processed in a factory fail the test.” So it shouldn’t smell like a barn. Ever. And it shouldn’t exacerbate your allergies.
But since everyone’s allergies are different, the best way to guarantee you won’t suffer is not by struggling to parse claims of “Hyperclean®” versus a “rigorous 6-step quality process,” but to try a comforter from a store with a good return policy.
Return policies are usually generous. They range from a full refund within two days of purchase to a full refund any time. Among those we looked at, a free, 30-day, no-questions-asked trial and 10-year warranty is the average, which is pretty great.
How to measure comforter warmth
The most basic consideration is, of course, the comforter’s warmth. In Britain, this is rated with an easy-to-understand tog number, a unit of warmth probably derived from the English slang for clothes, togs. Independent testers assign a tog number of 4 to chilly comforters, 13 to super-toasty models, and numbers for everything in between. Alas, in the rugged frontier of the new world, we have yet to create anything so civilized as TOGs.
But we can make rough approximations, as one wholesaler informed us. Fill power tells us what size the down is, with larger down being more insulating, but it isn’t the only number to keep in mind. To compare the warmth of two comforters with the same fill power, divide the weight of the fill (in ounces) by the area of the comforter (in square inches). In “year round” queen-size comforters with fill powers of 600 to 699, this yields a range of .0028, for the coolest comforter, to .0051, for the toastiest.
You definitely should avoid the extremes. A very overstuffed comforter, like the .0049 Hotel Collection, may leave you hot or even sweating in a 68-degree house, as it did for us. A very understuffed comforter, like the .0031 Lauren Ralph Lauren Brushed Cotton Down Comforters, may feel cold, like a summer weight comforter.
Around the middle of the range, .004, is where most “year round” 600 to 699 fill power comforters fall and is an ideal warmth for most people.
Of course, two people aren’t always cozy under the same comforter. To address the hot-cold couple, some comforters come in a split-decision—with one side warm, the other cool. But they aren’t very popular, perhaps because they make it more likely that both sleepers will be disappointed.
The easiest way to please everyone is to use two twin-size comforters, as some Europeans do. A far sexier solution is to fine-tune the warmth of a single .004-ish comforter by adding or removing a duvet cover; turning down the thermostat at night, which the DOE estimates will reduce your energy bill by 1% for every degree lost; for the cold sleeper to supplement the comforter with a twin-size blanket; or for the hot sleeper to let a leg hang out. Keep in mind that some comforters, including the one from Feathered Friends, void their warranty if used without a cover.
What makes a good cover
Sellers tout thread counts as high as 1,200, but even their suppliers call bullshit. “The thread count of the shell is just a way to market the comforter,” admitted David Roshberg, marketing manager for Aeolus Down Inc., which makes comforters for places such as Kohls. “High thread counts are ridiculous.” Moderate thread counts, like the 380 thread count found in the $1,695 down comforter from luxury brand Frette, more than suffice.
Baffle-box construction is also in vogue. In a baffled design, sewers build a checkerboard pattern of short walls between the top and bottom sheets, leaving a hole about the size of a Tiddly Wink in each wall. A filler squirts down into each box through the hole and then quickly sews the exterior edge shut.
In the alternative sewn-through design, down is spread evenly between two sheets and then sewers simply stitch the top and bottom sheets of the comforter together in a grid.
Everyone agrees that in the moderate temps in which nearly all of us sleep—far toastier than the old, unheated farmhouses of Europe, where baffle-box comforters became popular—both styles are equally warm. The debate between the two centers around style (baffle box) versus longevity (sewn-through).
A baffle-box comforter puffs up evenly throughout the comforter. Almost all display beds in stores are made up with baffle-box comforters because they look awesome. But after about three washings, the down tends to shift from one cell to the next, sliding through the interior holes between each cell. Eventually, after maybe 5 to 12 years, the comforter needs to be taken apart and restuffed. Sukalac said, “Thirty percent of my business for the last 40 years has been redistributing the down in baffled comforters, then topstitching them.”
A sewn-through model clearly lasts longer—many of the industry people that I spoke to sleep under sewn-through models—but the checkerboard pattern doesn’t look as fluffy to some eyes and is only 10 or 20 bucks cheaper, at best. Less expensive sewn-through models also aren’t sewn all the way to the edge, allowing down to slip between cells and clump just like a baffled comforter, which is annoying. Whatever the price, sewn-through models are far less common, so great deals are fewer.
If baffle or sewn-through comes down to personal preference, then fabric quality definitely doesn’t. You want longstaple cotton, such as Egyptian and Pima, in breathable but tightly woven, low- to moderate-thread count cloths. (Hearing a crinkly sound is fine. It means the shell is made with a tight weave or with a strong, heavy finish, and anyway, the noise will go away over time, as the threads soften.) You want interior seams that are neatly overlocked or French-seamed, not sloppy and ragged. And you want to steer clear of fabrics with designs or anything claiming to be affordably priced batiste, as these are often not as tightly woven. “A good, low-thread count shell will last 50 years,” Sukalac said. “Floral prints, stripes—they tend to leak and tear.”
You don’t need to use a duvet cover.2 But if you have a duvet cover, then you might want to shop for a comforter that fits. If you don’t, then beware that comforters skew small. Queen mattresses are 60 by 80 in, but queen-size comforters range from a tiny 86 by 86 in, which is supposedly a common dimension for bolts of Chinese fabric, to an enormous 94 by 96. Something around 90 by 98 is best. It’s not so big that it’s unnecessarily expensive, but it’s big enough to cover a deep mattress on three sides while still providing plenty of softness to tuck under your chin—even if you stuff it into a slightly small duvet, as Sukalac recommends, so everything looks extra plump.
The ethics of down
Down is a bit like grapes in Italy. Small farmers supply co-ops, which sell to bigger suppliers, which sell to another supplier, which sells to a wholesaler, which sells across oceans. Everything gets mixed up along the way. So it’s very difficult to sort out exactly where your down is coming from, let alone whether it was collected through the little-discussed practice of plucking from a live duck or goose. Thankfully, some comforter companies are trying to use only humanely harvested down.
Gary Peterson, a longtime staffer at famed outdoor-gear maker Western Mountaineering, which also makes a down comforter for luxury brand Duxiana, said, “Collecting goose down two or three times a year from one bird is getting less and less common because there’s pressure to not live pluck, but it’s extremely common in duck downs. If you’re buying 800 or 900 fill down, the material is unlikely to be live plucked because you can’t get a large enough cluster from a 14-week-old goose that’s strapped in a cage. We get our down from a place that’s raising mother geese, which live to 3 or 4 years old, for breeding. They’re roaming around. We collect the down after the molts.”
Feathered Friends, which already sourced down from reputable sources, moved to RDS Certification for all of its bedding in early 2015, and recently announced the launch of a program that will allow customers to trace the down in their comforter back to the source using a tracking number that will be included with all products.
Recently, some premium outdoor-gear makers have begun trying to guarantee that their products use only the good stuff. Most notably, by fall 2015, all of Patagonia’s down clothing will meet their strict Traceable Down Standard. Other comforter makers besides Feathered Friends do seem to be edging that way too. In a heartening move, supplier DOWNLITE promised to supply down that meets The North Face’s Responsible Down Standard standard by fall 2015. We only hope they and others go further and start offering TDS- or RDS-certified comforters soon.
Below, the main challengers, in order of least to most filling—or, roughly speaking, coolest to warmest. One of these could be an okay choice for you. Emphasis on “could.” They don’t compare to our picks even on paper, and we didn’t test them or evaluate most of them with Sukalac, so caveat emptor.
$230 (on sale) Lauren Ralph Lauren Brushed Cotton Down Comforter. The biggest queen size we saw, at 94 by 96 in, but very cool, with a fill density of .0031.
$209 (on sale) Land’s End Elite Goose Down Comforter. Also just .0031, with many reviews complaining that it’s thin.
$250 TRUMP HOME 300 TC White Down Comforter. Free shipping, but only a one-year warranty.
$250 Dillard’s Noble Excellence 350-Thread-Count White Down Comforter. A fair and honest price for a comforter that’s a close runner-up. But we’re leery of the 30-day return policy, which says “the merchandise must be in its original, unused condition.” Dillard’s offers no warranty. And Sukalac worried about the durability of the shell. “It looks like trill or sateen, weaves where they skip threads,” he said. “It’s not as robust, could leak more, could split.”
$328 Nordstrom at Home Medium Weight Down Comforter. It’s virtually identical to the Alberta, but has a gusseted edge, which some people find attractive. Sukalac isn’t one of them. “Basically you now have two seams to leak down instead of one,” he said. Even worse, our sample wasn’t double-stitched all the way around the edge, increasing the likelihood that it might tear open during washing. Thinking our sample might be a lemon, we looked at three more in the store, but they too had patches of sloppy single stitching. “Not good,” said the salesperson.
$263 (on sale) Pacific Coast Feather SuperFluff Deluxe. Ten reviewers give it only 3.8 out of 5 stars.
$383 (on sale) Eddie Bauer Premium Goose Down Comforter Medium. More expensive than the Bean for no apparent reason.
$400 TRUMP HOME 400 TC Down Comforter. Made in America from ducks in the Midwest and American-grown cotton, but only a one-year warranty.
$281 (on sale) Pacific Coast Feather Cozy Loft Comforters. Amply stuffed, but tiny, at just 88 by 90 in, and the same design as our $150-cheaper step down pick.
$174 (on sale) Blueridge Home Fashions 500 Thread Count Damask Stripe White Down Comforter. Cheap, but napkin-size at 88 by 88 in.
$400 (on sale) Macy’s Hotel Collection Medium Weight. Supersized, with a fantastic review score. 30 owners rank it 4.8. But at .0049 fill density, it slept hot, actually causing our tester to sweat. And it weighed almost twice as much as our step up pick. Sukalac said, “very thick fabric, maybe not as breathable. Feels like more of a winter-weight type comforter. It’s too heavy, unnecessarily heavy. I’d avoid this.”
$370 Down Inc. Serenity Fall Weight. With a fill density of .0051, this was the densest comforter in the range—which means it’s too warm for most people.
$249 Pottery Barn Classic Down Comforter. No standout features, and neither the website nor customer service agent could tell us how many ounces of down were in the comforter or how it was made.
$250 Bed Bath & Beyond The Seasons Collection Year Round Comforter. 80% down cluster, but unknown fill density, and 26 reviewers give it 2.6 stars.
$495 ($396 on sale) Bloomingdale’s My Warmer Down Comforter. Another biggie, at 94 by 96 in, but unknown fill density and it costs as much as fluffier 700 fill power comforters.
$189 L.L.Bean Classic Colors Down Comforter. 600 fill power. Great reviews, with 203 reviewers giving it 4.5 stars, but so thin, with just .0028 ounces of filling per inch, that it’s a summer-weight comforter for adults or something for a hot-blooded child, not a year-rounder for a typical adult.
$239 (on sale) Pacific Coast Feather Lunesse Batiste Comforter. 600 fill power. A lightweight fabric that should make for a fluffier comforter, but cool and priced suspiciously low for truly durable, 1-by-1-weave German batiste. (Using great German batiste increases the total cost of Sukalac’s comforters by 50%, he said.)
$559 Cuddledown 700 Fill Power Sateen Down Comforter. 700 fill power but small and cool, with a fill density of .003, compared with the Feathered Friends Bavarian, at .0039.
$329 Cuddledown Primary Down Comforter. 600 fill power. Puffy and popular, with 57 reviewers giving it 4.6, but small, at 88 by 92 in, and not a true sewn-through design. The stitching stops 2 inches before the edge. “The opening at the edge is the same size as the openings of baffled comforters,” pointed out Sukalac. This allows down to shift around the periphery, which is a bummer.
$299 L.L.Bean Box Stitch Down Comforter, Warmer. 600 fill power. 49 other reviewers give it an average of only 4.1 stars, and like the Primary Down Comforter, the stitching appears to stop before the edge. It could compete with the baffle-box version, but it definitely doesn’t match the softer, fluffier Feathered Friends. If you’re going to own a comforter for 30 years, we think you’d be way happier spending an extra $5 a year for the Step Up.
$309 (or $274 on sale) The Company Store White Bay. 625 fill power. Might compete with the Bean baffled box, but 2 inches shorter, slightly cooler, and no reviews.
$500 The Company Store Legends Geneva. Warm, but too expensive for a 625 fill power comforter.
$679 Cuddledown 700 Fill Power Sateen Down Comforter. 700 fill power but very expensive and warm, with a fill density of .0043.
Care and maintenance
The consensus: Shake your comforter each day, dry it outside or in the dryer every couple months, and wash it every couple years in a commercial washing machine. Wash it once a year if you’re not using a duvet cover, and maybe even more frequently if you sweat a lot (which is bad) or let pets wriggle around on your bed (which we understand). When washing it at the laundromat, remember the thing isn’t a pair of tree-trimmer pants. Use a bit of mild soap (such as Nikwax Down Wash, not detergent) and warm or cold water. Choose the delicate setting. Extract water from it twice. Dry it on low. Forever.
Department stores might suggest that you dry clean your comforter, but Sukalac advises against it. “In the old days, dry cleaners used Stoddard dry cleaning fluid, which was bad for the environment but mild,” he said. “Now they’ve started using Perc, which isn’t so bad, but is really harsh. It takes all the oils out of down. It ruins it.” Down is usually cleaned to retain about 1% of its oil. If you remove the last drams of oil, then the down become dry and brittle and soon gets crushed to dust. Not good.
Wrapping it up
The $319 L.L.Bean Baffle-Box Stitch Down Comforter ticks all the boxes for a great value in a comforter—terrific reviews, well made, ample size, proper year-round warmth, a great return policy. Most important, it’s as light and fluffy as a comforter costing hundreds of dollars more.
The $130 Pacific Coast Feather European Comforter with Pyrenees Down, Year Round is more than 2 pounds heavier than the Bean, but as good as many of Bean’s pricey competitors. If it wasn’t sold at Costco, it’d cost $100 more.
The $440 Feathered Friends Bavarian Medium 700 is everything you want in a comforter, and it’ll last 30 years or more.
And if you opt against down, the Carpenter Company’s Beyond Down Gel Fiber Comforter provides fair warmth and extra weight for a mere $100.
Originally published: December 10, 2014