Documenting a 1000 Year Old Tradition in Northern Iceland

Words and photos by Dylan Johnston

On a small island in northern Iceland, you will find eider ducks, a native species to the North Atlantic that produces some of the most sought-after down in the world.

On the small island of Hrisey, these ducks come to nest year after year with the protection of Kristjan Saemundsson’s family and some rural Icelandic farmers. During my two previous trips to Iceland, I’ve befriended Kristjan, the grandson to the farmers in Hrisey, and owners of S. Stefansson & Co., a new company based in Reykjavik which has already been recognised as an outstanding startup. Kristjan is continuing a 60-year family tradition of bird conservation and eider farming, providing a safe environment for the birds in exchange for the harmless and humane collection of the feathers.

This past spring, I travelled to Iceland to document the hatching and collection process with Kristjan and his family. The 1000-year-old tradition of harvesting eiderdown begins in spring, when the female eider ducks pluck feathers from their chest to make a soft bed to lay and incubate their eggs. The eiders will stay on this nest for up to a month, only leaving to gather food and drink. These feathers are the warmest and most lightweight down in the world, and eventually, will be used in the luxury jackets created by Kristjan.

After weeks of protection from the farmers, many of the eggs have hatched and the farmers begin to gather the eiderdown. If there are still unhatched eggs, the farmer will carefully move the eggs onto a new nest of hay to provide suitable insulation to keep the eggs warm until they hatch. This method of gathering ensues no animal is harmed or killed.

Because these delicate methods are used to farm eiderdown, there is very little gathered every year (approximately four tons worldwide), most of which comes from Iceland. The most common use for eider is luxury duvet covers, but more recently companies such as S. Stefansson & Co. have been using the down for luxury jackets. Kristjan has been helping harvest eiderdown since he was a child.

Recently, he started a new winter apparel company around the S. Stefansson & Co. brand with designer Brita, who is the lead designer and has worked with 66º North and Maison Margiela for several years. They the only company exclusively using eiderdown for their products. The following collection of photos are from my week with the family gathering eiderdown and living in rural northern Iceland during the peak of summer.

To see more from Dylan, head to his website or Instagram @capt_johnston

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