With the temperature hovering in the mid-90s, a lone truck driver hauled a few big boxes into a nondescript building. They held just what the folks inside had been waiting for: winter coats.
The coats, ranging from hot pink to camouflage, were needed so that the company could . . . get down.
"I have a neighbor of mine who used to run along the street, and he used to think for sure this building was a front for the CIA or the Mafia, that there in no way could be a feather and down laboratory," said Wilford Lieber Jr., president of the International Down and Feather Laboratory & Institute.
But not only does the building house such a lab, it's no featherweight in the field. The Liebers Wilford Lieber Sr. is chairman of the board say their Salt Lake-based operation rules the roost as the world leader in the testing of down and feathers used as fill material in pillows, bedding, apparel and other products.
A downpour of about 6,000 samples a year comes through the doors, and summertime is the most hectic.
"The busy season for us is right now, where everybody in the world is manufacturing products for this coming fall," Lieber Jr. said.
After the downloads from the truck, the items from bulk bags of fill material to finished products undergo a rigorous compositional test. In the case of the delivered coats, they'll be cut open and dissected. The idea is to ensure that what's on the labels is exactly what's inside. Other analyses can check "fill power," cleanliness and other criteria.
Those "Do Not Remove Under Penalty Of Law" tags on filled items spell out the exact percentages of the innards, and IDFL checks to ensure there's nothing loosey-goosey with the claimed figures.
Customers flocking to IDFL include down and feather producers most are in China, where the washed and sanitized material is a byproduct of the food industry plus manufacturers of filled items. Retailers also have tests conducted to ensure they're selling properly labeled merchandise. And government agencies call on IDFL when they do random compliance checks on products.
"There are so many people involved, and they all have the checks done along the way," Lieber Jr. said. "You don't want contamination or somehow if the down is sitting on a dock somewhere that it's dirty in shipping, so it's always checked."
While the lab sometimes deals with silk and other material, outerwear and bedding products like pillows and comforters that are filled with down and feathers are IDFL's specialty. The composition tests can determine not just the percentage of down versus feathers, but also whether the material is from a goose, duck or land fowl. "White down" can be examined to ensure the proper percentage of white material exists. Other tests check for odor and the presence of organic matter or dust "anything that might affect customer value to the product," Lieber Jr. said.
Rarely is bad stuff found in the down. "The Chinese plants are the cleanest in the world," Lieber Jr. said. And the elder Lieber says the producers have become so sophisticated that they can provide manufacturers stuff to meet exact specifications, such as, say, 82 percent down and 18 percent feathers.
That wasn't always the case.
"The problem originally was, because it's a hidden item, it was misrepresented in the early days," Lieber Sr. said. "In the '70s, stuff was sold as goose down, and we found kapok and chicken feathers in it. That's what brought it all about."
Lieber Sr. worked for the state then as director of the Utah Department of Agriculture since 1952. Problems with mattresses pulled from dumps, reworked with new stuffing and covers and sold as new were ongoing. Regulations were set up to protect consumers, and Lieber developed the methodology for testing. The idea of an independent lab was hatched, and the industry tried to goose Lieber into starting one.
"The industry was saying, 'Why don't you open a laboratory? We need a reliable laboratory.' But I wasn't interested in the beginning. I knew the industry. They were trying to pull fast ones," he said.
"In the early days, there wasn't a lot of testing being done," said Claudia Gale, administrator of the bedding, upholstered furniture and quilted clothing program for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "Manufacturers would send people their product and say, 'Test it for me and come back with a certain result. Tell me it was 75 or 80 percent down.'
"It wasn't very truthful. Wilf saw a need for some honesty and integrity in the business."
Lieber Sr. eventually flew the state government coop and with wife Mary Jean Lieber founded IDFL as an independent lab in 1978. As the only employees, their flying start featured tests on about 500 samples the first year. Their testing methods became industry standards, and the lab gained an international reputation for integrity. Rarely ruffled, Lieber Sr. has often been an expert witness in court cases about down and feather items.
"We can defend anything we do in court," he said. "I've said that if we cannot defend it in court, it doesn't mean anything. It's important for us."
A key, according to Gale, is IDFL's establishment of test methods that could be repeated consistently. "You know that if IDFL gives someone a test result, they can bank on it," she said.
IDFL now beats the stuffing out of its competition. A small lab in California does only a fraction of its business, and IDFL has expanded to China as a joint partner with a Chinese government entity, as well as Switzerland.
While the price of some down-filled items has fallen, down generally remains a relatively expensive fill material. Twenty-five birds are needed to provide enough for a single jacket. Eider down, from a wild bird in Iceland, is collected from nests during molting season, and high-end customers with a soft spot for eider down items will pay $25,000 for a comforter with the rare stuff inside.
But not everyone is sophisticated enough to know what's what in the down and feather industry. "People don't realize what down really is," Lieber Sr. said, pointing to a drawing indicating down comes from the breasts and thighs of birds.
"It's important to you as a customer, if you think you'd like to buy a down comforter or a down ski parka or whatever, to know you're actually getting what you pay for, because down products are expensive," Gale said. "But the average person probably doesn't even think about it twice. If they buy a down parka, they assume it's down, and they go on their way and hope they got a good deal and will get good performance. IDFL is there to make sure the claims on the label are what's really in the product."
Despite holding the cushy top spot in the industry, IDFL isn't awaiting a downturn. It has advanced its technologies and added tests the total has doubled in the past decade, and many have been approved by national and international feather organizations.
It's even involved in a joint research project with the University of Utah chemistry department, using isotope technology to determine the concentration of certain heavy elements in down and feathers to determine exactly where birds lived.
Despite those advances, some things haven't changed at IDFL, from the reliable hand-sorting to Lieber Sr.'s down-to-earth grin when reciting an old-but-still-good joke.
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