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Walter Polk remembers years ago when well-to-do customers walked into the furniture showroom and said, "I'd like to see your sloppiest sofa."

What they were asking for were down-filled seat cushions, which provided posteriors with the softest seating around. Connoisseurs didn't even mind that the fluffy filling needed plenty of plumping.

"It gave you the ultimate in fine comfort," said Polk, an owner of Polk Bros. Interiors, 2038 Genesee St.

It still does. Down, the small fluffy feathers that are notably developed and fine in texture in ducks, geese and other water birds, is the pinnacle of comfort and warmth. People like it because it's super-soft, light and resilient.

Desirable down also is relatively costly. One manufacturer sells a standard-size bed pillow -- filled with 100 percent white goose down -- for $65. A more affordable pillow -- filled with 90 percent feathers and 10 percent down -- costs $18.

Down still is used for seat cushions. But today, because of its high costs and mushy feeling, many consumers prefer a combination of fillings -- down and feathers crowning a dense polyurethane foam core, for instance.

"It gives you the luxury but still maintains the firmness," Polk said.

What customers are falling for, however, is what Europeans and country inn owners discovered long ago: down comforters and pillows. A few years ago, down comforters were a tough sell -- even in Western New York's harsh winters, one buyer says.

Now, down products are sold in most bedding departments. And electric blankets have some lofty competition.

"People are going back to natural fibers, and down comforters, pillows and all- cotton covers fit right into that trend," said Catherine Carson, domestics buyer for AM & A's.

Quality is determined by something called "fill-power," which is the number of cubic inches per ounce of down. The finest, most expensive down has a fill-power of 750 cubic inches per ounce. The lowest has about 300 per ounce. A 550-fill-power down is a popular choice.

Manufacturers are making the selection process easy. Lands' End, for example, recommends that customers select pillows based on sleeping habits: tummy sleepers, 100 percent down; side and back sleepers, 50 down/50 feather; side sleepers, 90 feather/10 down.

The catalog also provides a few facts on down:

Down is round, not flat like a feather. Each cluster (or plumule) is made up of thousands of tiny feathery fibers, radiating from a central point. They join together to trap body heat and maintain an even temperature no matter what the climate.

Goose down plumules are generally larger and stronger than duck down.

Plumules have great strength and flexibility. It's this ability to spring back into shape (called loft) that allows you to pack a comforter into a small space, then shake it and make it as fluffy as ever.

For those who drop a couple hundred dollars on a down comforter, local dry cleaner Steven Mesches recommends reading the care label carefully: Some manufacturers specify dry cleaning, others insist on soap-and-water laundering (and tossing a clean tennis ball or two into the dryer to keep it fluffed up).

Dry cleaning can get costly. "What happens with down feathers is that they absorb all the solvent that a dry cleaner uses. Down acts like a sponge and gets very heavy when it's soaked," said Mesches, of One Hour Veri Cleaning in Cheektowaga.

Extra precautions must be taken to ensure that no seams tear, and more drying time is required as well, he said. Customers may pay up to $25 to have a king-size down comforter dry-cleaned, Mesches said.

Most manufacturers also recommend covering both pillows and comforters with a washable cover for protection.

There are some who reject down for reasons other than its high costs. Laurie Lane, who works for the Washington-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the organization operates under the principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on.

"Down, of course, is often a slaughterhouse byproduct, but there are specific geese that are raised for down and their feather are plucked out at their neck and breast area four or five times during their short lives. . . . It's been compared to eyebrow plucking except more intense, more painful," Ms. Lane said.

Some Scandinavian countries, however, collect down and feathers from nests, rather than plucking or killing birds, said Kim Alexander Thomson, administrative assistant at Tifft Nature Preserve.

"But to gather up enough down to fill even something small just can't be all that cost-effective on a large scale," she said.

Any consumer opposed to down products for the home, however, has a number of alternatives available, including man-made fibers that are warm and easy to care for.

And, Mrs. Thomson added, there's always a good, old-fashioned wool blanket.

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