Down insulation. It’s really warm. It’s also freighted with a lot of baggage. On the performance front, if it’s not treated, it clumps when wet, never regains its loft, and basically stinks as insulation forever after.
Outerwear brands recently began treating down to combat this problem, based on a technique first pioneered in hospitals, where down can be useful as bedding, but isn’t easily washed.
But even if you treat down, it has two other lousy issues. First, it doesn’t breath very well. Add a wind- or waterproof front to it, and it breathes even worse. So while it’s a great layer to put on after you’ve skinned up a mountain and are hanging out eating, it’s less than ideal for that ski back down, where you’ll be sweating hard. Meaning: It’s not ideal sportswear.
And there are a lot of issues around sourcing. Patagonia found themselves in trouble with animal cruelty advocates a few years back (they were hardly alone as the entire outdoor business came under the microscope) and even now it’s very difficult to be absolutely certain that the down jacket you might prize as a car coat didn’t come from a factory in China that practices live plucking of animals, which is nasty business and very cruel to geese.
So conscientious brands like Patagonia have been searching for alternatives, and now say they’ve found a fix. The just-announced $299 Micro Puff Hoody uses what Patagonia calls PlumaFill, a polyester synthetic that mimics the structure of down (fibers have a cylindrical cores haloed by fluffy microfilaments for loft). But unlike down, PlumaFill won’t clump, in part because it’s continuous, so it can’t shift with gravity, which happens with down, so over time all your warmth has essentially sunk to the bottom of each baffle, creating cold spots.
A solution for down is more baffling, but that just adds more stitching and weight and potential failure points when the stitching rips. For the Micro Puff Patagonia doesn’t have to baffle as heavily, and uses offset quilting, so there’s more continuous loft and more warmth, with zone mapping to keep your chest and core warm, but to be cooler at the center of your back.
We haven’t tested our early sample yet, but our initial likes include:
- Very deep inside pockets, large enough to swallow mittens when you are working super hard and wearing glove liners alone is warm enough. The left outer pocket, by the way, lets you stuff the entire jacket down inside of it and reverse the zipper, clipping the coat to a carabiner. Stuffed, the Micro Puff is about the size and volume of a few paperback books, and weighs 9.3 oz.
- A simple hood designed to fit beneath a helmet rather than over one. If it’s that cold, you probably brought a hat, too. And over-large hoods more frequently get in the way than come in handy.
- The nylon ripstop Pertex shell is ultralight (Patagonia says they’ve never used one lighter), which is ideal for extra breathability. Yes, it will still shed light precipitation, but more important, it stops wind, the bigger enemy of warmth. And by not going with a heavier shell they kept the mission clear—to present a down puffy alternative.
One dig so far is that there’s no waist drawcord. Which we get, was a sacrifice made for weight, but utility-wise we’d like to see that.
Note that while Patagonia hasn’t said a lot about expanding the PlumaFill lineup, they did say they spent 10 years working on this technology. That’d be a lot of R&D for one jacket; we think you’ll see a lot more PlumaFill options coming, and probably less down in Patagonia’s future.