Wool and down are two of the most popular natural alternatives to synthetic materials, such as memory foam, standard fill, and synthetic down. In our opinion both are better than using something that has harmful chemicals and isn’t recyclable. However, before you choose between the two there are a variety of aspects to consider. I’ll compare wool and down in the categories of sustainability, allergens, mold and chemical risk, costs, and overall feel.
What pillow fill is more sustainable (environmentally friendly)?
Sustainability has become a more and more important consideration for consumers as we’ve become more aware of the consequences of our choices on the environment. It’s a given that synthetic pillows are less sustainable than both wool and down, but what is better between these two natural options? Though there are mixed opinions on this, generally wool is considered more sustainable between the two. Wool shearing is a natural part of the animal husbandry process for sheep while removing feathers from ducks and geese isn’t something the animals need. In fact, the majority of down feathers available are plucked off dead birds. Often the down in U.S. products is sourced from ducks or geese in China and stored in less than ideal conditions. At Woolshire we source our wool from local Montana farmers and thus it maintains an element of locality.
Wool is also a highly durable material, meaning that wool pillows can last for many years with proper care. This is in contrast to down pillows, which may need to be replaced more frequently due to wear and tear. Another issue with down is pillows that “leak”. While more of an issue with comforters and jackets, it is possible that your pillow may actually loose down over time and thus need to be replaced more frequently.
Another interesting aspect of wool is that it’s naturally flame resistant because of the protein structures in the fibers. The consequence / benefit of this is that it doesn’t need to be treated with artificial chemicals in order to mean fire safety regulations.
Final Note: If you do buy a down pillow you should make sure it has a Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certificate. This certificate indicates it’s been sourced from birds that are not live plucked or force fed.
Allergy Considerations for Wool and Down Pillows
Wool, unlike down, is naturally hypoallergenic. Here’s a link to a study out of Australia that shows the rarity of wool allergies. So there is a good chance that if you’ve had a reaction to a wool product in the past it wasn’t actually the wool but something else that caused the reaction. It’s also true that feather allergies are rare, but unlike wool, down pillows can more easily trap environmental allergens.
Beyond the specific sustenance of the two different pillow types it's important to consider which one is more likely to collect allergens such as mold, pet dander, and dust mites. If most allergies enter through the mouth, nose, and eyes, it makes sense that your pillow (and what’s inside of it) has a huge impact on your allergic reactions.
The reason wool is more resistant to collecting allergens is because of the structure of the fibers at the microscopic level as well as lanolin oil which coats the sheep fibers. This oil repels allergens and is actually sold as its own product for people with dry skin or eczema symptoms.
Further, wool is more resistant to mold, another common allergy cause. The reason wool is better able to resist the cumulation of mold is because of its natural ability to wick away moisture. This is also one of the reasons why you see athletic and outdoor clothing being made from wool. Mold thrives in warm and moist environments so for people who live in humid environments it's especially important to choose a pillow that is mold resistant.
While down isn’t naturally hydrophobic like wool, there is a way to treat it with a chemical to make it water resistant. A common use case for this is down jackets that are treated to better withstand wet conditions. However, the downside of hydrophobic down is that it’s chemically treated.
Finally Note: Again, both of these pillow types are going to be better than artificial or synthetic materials. But wool pillows unlike down really shine in regard to their ability to resist allergens.
Is wool or down more expensive?
Wool and down pillows vary widely in regards to costs depending on how they are manufactured and the quality of their respective down or wool.
Wool quality and price varies according to the breed of the sheep. Some wool makes better sweater material, while some wool is of such low quality that it is only fit for the compost. While some other wool pillow makers may use loose wool fill, which tends to clump up, at The Woolshire we use pure virgin wool that is cleaned and carded into batting. Carding pulls and orients the fibers to run the same direction. While this process is expensive, it is necessary for the perfect pillow fill.
The different types of down that you will find in pillows primarily vary between duck and goose down. Goose down pillows tend to be more expensive because they have more insulating power for the same sized pillow. That being said, insulation isn’t necessarily the primary consideration with pillows unlike jackets or comforters. Another consideration that impacts price is how the down was sourced and whether it has any certifications, like the RDS certification mentioned above. Like wool, different breeds of duck and geese can determine price. For example, Hungarian goose down is on the more expensive end in the down family.
It is difficult to compare the prices of down versus wool pillows because there are so many other factors, as mentioned above. However, down is plucked from the soft underbelly of birds which makes it harder to source a large amount of the material which can drive the price up.
Pillow firmness and cushion, how the two compare.
Firmness, or lack thereof, is one of the most important considerations when choosing a pillow. The two important considerations regarding the feel of a pillow are cushion level and firmness.
Wool pillows tend to be firmer than down and provide excellent support for people who prefer sleeping on a firmer surface. Also, those who sleep on their back may prefer a firmer pillow that helps keep the spine aligned. However, there will be fluctuations in firmness based on the amount of fill your wool pillow has and what type of wool it’s filled with.
On the other hand, down is known to be plush and soft. If you are a stomach sleeper you may want a pillow that is softer to avoid neck strain.
Ultimately, pillow firmness is a subjective consideration based on your body and preference. Also it’s worth considering the individual pillow, whether down or wool, and how much fill and stiffness it has since there are variations between different brands.
Conclusion: What’s better? Wool or Down?
In regards to objective metrics like sustainability and allergy resistance wool outperforms down because of its natural properties and production process. Though, as I’ve noted, it’s important to check out how a given pillow is produced and what type of down or wool it has. Unlike medication and food products, bedding and the textile industry in general has very little regulation, so it’s important to be aware where your bedding is sourced. For us, we know where our wool is grown, cleaned, and carded. We know where our organic cotton is grown and processed. We know that our material is free from chemical adulteration and that it is of the highest quality. We make each pillow with care and dedication to the craft with our own hands. To us, that is the most important factor.
Note: All of our pillows come with a guarantee, so if the fit or feel isn’t right, you can send it back and we will adjust the fill according to your liking - free of charge. If you find that a wool pillow isn’t for you, we will refund you entirely.