If you're fortunate enough to own a down-filled comforter, heavenly soft feather pillow or cuddly winter jacket, you already know that down is incredibly warm, breathable and light as a feather. That's because your comforter, pillow or jacket is actually stuffed with real feathers from waterfowl such as geese and ducks.

How Down is Gathered

In the United States and many European countries, it is illegal to pluck feathers from live birds, so nearly all down comes from birds that have already been used for food products. In some cases, down is gathered from birds that are molting -- a natural process in which birds shed to make room for new feathers. However, down imported from other countries, including Hungary and China, is sometimes plucked from live birds.

Down Alternatives

People who are concerned about possible cruelty to birds can purchase products filled with a synthetic down substitute. Down alternatives are also a good choice for people who are allergic to feathers. While down substitutes provide many of the qualities of real down, they are made with petroleum-based products instead.