Down in North America

Down in North America

Chapter 11

No, I wasn’t high on Tequila when I drafted out that title. The world hasn’t tilted either. Although with the mercury dipping down to -40 deg C with wind chill in Southern Ontario recently, my sensibility has certainly frozen!

Getting down to the title, let me explain. I have always had a weakness for lamb. Travelling to Europe made me crave for lamb more than ever, especially the tender, young ones.

Stop salivating non-vegetarians! We’re not talking meatballs, kebabs or lamb chops here (however good that sounds!). We’re talking lamb’s wool!

I’ve grown up in New Delhi where winters meant fog, mist, ground frost and cold, damp homes weakly warmed by measly room heaters that often generated more noise than heat.

It was our big, bulky woolen outfits that came to our rescue. A great deal of care was spent in selecting the right wool. Pure wool sweaters, Pashmina shawls and fleece blankets thawed our frozen limbs, both inside our homes and out.

The more the mercury dipped, the thicker our sweaters swelled up till we ended up looking like the sheep themselves. There was no concept of slim fit, lightweight, insulated fabrics to keep you warm.

In the coldest winters, we were gagged behind a ridiculous invention called the ‘monkey cap’ – a woolen cap squashed over your face, thankfully sparing the eyes, literally leaving you looking like a monkey. They came in a range of natural hues from the colour of dried cow dung to fresh elephant droppings.

In all fairness, the ridiculously branded cap worked well to keep out the chill. It’s another matter that it also effectively kept out oxygen, kept in carbon dioxide, kept us from eating and words from sprouting out.

Needless to say, the monkey cap was the first thing to be abolished from my closet once I entered my teens and learnt to declare my human rights.

It was bad enough going through winters being mistaken for a sheep or monkey. It was worse spending it frozen to stone, when you didn’t dress to look like one.

As I grew older and worked on ways to look desperately human through hail storms and fogs, a visit to London opened up my world. That’s where my love affair with lamb’s wool began. Soft, lightweight and delightfully warm, lamb’s wool vests were my ultimate fashion statement. I felt less like a sheep and more like a swan, flying through winters on a high.

Much later on a trip to New Zealand, I upgraded my wardrobe with the prized Merino wool. It was delightful to discover fabric that could keep me snug on the freezing Fox Glacier without adding further pounds to my curry-fed waist line.

Earlier in the 70’s and 80’s, Mink fur was in high fashion but you barely see those today.  I guess the poor creatures are extinct by now, judging by the way Hollywood ran after them then.

My love for winters made us visit our family and friends in Delhi every Christmas holiday from the Far East. We left for Canada from Bangkok via Delhi last year, so I could pack in my treasured lamb’s wool sweaters and immigrated happily to Toronto, comfortable in the knowledge that I was well prepared to brave the brutal Arctic chill.

Winter in Canada didn’t wait for December to knock. Mid-November the mercury plunged down to -3 in Ontario, sending shivers down our spine. To my horror, my glorious lamb’s wool collection did little to keep out the chill. We rushed to the stores to stock up on more but failed to find woolens then.

The malls had leather jackets, parkas, water proof coats, thermals and padded polyester overcoats etc. but not a single sufficiently warm woolen vest. What seemed popular was down instead – duck feather and goose cluster filled jackets.

Only when we invested in the best Canadian goose down coats did we realize the power that lies in wispy feathers.These feathers can decide your fate and future in Canada. If you are comfortably clothed, you can survive and stay on. If not, you’re doomed!

The mightiest feathers are in fact the lightest that come from the soft, wispy bits under the wings and belly of the geese. The larger the goose, the colder the climate they come from and denser the cluster. This is the reason why Canadian geese score hands down over others.

So why is wool not as effective in Canada? Wool works well till the temperatures hover around zero. Once the Arctic winds breeze in, nothing keeps you snug like down.We found our answer once we started wearing our Canada Goose jackets.

Down is lightweight, insulates well and can last for years. Down parkas from premium Canadian Geese couldn’t be a wiser investment.

How do you spot the difference between goose down and duck? That’s easier said than done. It’s tempting to go for the inexpensive duck feather imports from Asia but those are better off as a spare. Invest in at least one down coat with the fill power (cluster of feathers) of 750 or above. A jacket with a  fill power of 500 is bulkier and heavier than higher fill powered ones.

If you don’t wish to feel like a Snowman, go for the highest fill power of about 800. They are light, look good and make you look good too. Nylon or polyester outer layers in down jackets are the most durable and provide better protection from wind and water.

Ducks can suffer from a bit of low self esteem because their feathers are priced lower than geese. This is not just because goose down is lighter, warmer and qualitatively better but also because the poor ducks are more widely available in the USA and Asia.

What is the difference between feathers and down? Everything! Down is 3-D with thousands of tiny fibres and no quill to separate them. Feathers are two-dimensional, have a thick, hard quill in the middle and are less dense. A combination of duck feather and down is more widely available, cheaper and nearly as effective if the percentage of down outweighs feather.

And how is down better than wool? Let’s put it this way. Apparently, it takes about 14 woolen blankets to provide the warmth of one down comforter. There ducks, I hope this makes you feel better!

This winter, with the invasion of brutal cold winds from the Arctic into Canada and USA, we thank our stars for helping us hunt out the best jackets. An investment in the right jackets is an investment in good health. If you have to live or visit Canada in winter, you can’t cut corners and compromise on your coat.

Even in the freezing rain and record breaking low temperatures, we stayed relatively warm on the road. The trick is to layer up to retain maximum heat without discomfort. It is also critical to cover the head, ears, neck, feet and hat with the necessary accessories. Dump the “monkey cap” and go for fashionable toques, hats, scarves, gloves and snow boots.

Tip: Winter is not the best time to update your FB timeline cover with flattering pictures of yourself, unless you get smart winter gear. Stay away from ‘selfies’, hide from hidden cameras and hibernate for as long as it takes with the squirrels till its over. Most importantly, stay away from polar bears. They may mistake you to be one of them.

Mommy nature has certainly put up an unrelenting show to impress first time snow-seekers like me this winter. We witnessed unheard of before spectacles such as “Polar Vortex”, Freezing Rain, Ice Storm, Frost Quakes and Freezing Fog in addition to regular snow, black ice (invisible layer of ice on roads), hail storm, snow storm and ground frost.

(My knowledge of winter lexicon has increased so much now I could easily set up shop as an Ice Consultant in Canada.)

Durability and a water-proof outer fabric are mandatory in such extreme conditions. Although we can’t thank the ducks, sheep and lambs enough for their contribution, unquestionably, there’s only one way to stay totally grinning outdoors when the mercury dips to sub-zero levels. Just say “geese!”

Even as I write this, parts of Canada have recorded temperature levels that are officially as cold as Mars. Winnipeg has hit -53 in certain areas, which is reportedly colder than the planet ‘that men come from’.

This certainly seems to be some kind of a sign. Perhaps it’s time to leave the animals alone.

How about Space Suits instead?

11 thoughts on “Down in North America

  1. Very informative!. I’ll keep this one handy if I ever plan to visit Canada in the winters. And your writing style is so stylish. Keep writing. Can’t wait to read Chapter 12!.


  2. Pure cashmere jackets would keep you toasty as well if you’re looking for more classic look in frigid weather, but you need to dig deeper into pocket for one. I have a mixed wool-cashmere jacket and withstand -40c. They’re a fraction of Canada Goose jackets cost. I was out during that extreme windchill for about an hour and jacket kept me warm. Of course key to extreme weather clothing is layering regardless what jacket you’re wearing. Toques only work for mild weather, you would still need a hoodie for wind protection. Aviator hats would be an option if you don’t have a hoodie on your jacket.

    Well written and insightful. Love your posts!!


  3. Very informative Piu! Wore duck feather jacket while in Scotland, thought it to be the warmest possible available.
    Wonder what you would think if I say that it has reached a maximum of 28 degree C and minimum of 18 degrees in Hyderabad.


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