Duvets have apparently been around for centuries - sources from archaeological digs suggest that the Chinese were the first to invent them around 5,000 years ago – although this is difficult to confirm. Now the duvet has become an essential bedding item within Europe and the UK, and the days of blankets, bedspreads or sheets are gone – although in the hot summer months here in Portugal you might want to go back to a sheet alone.

When I was a child, duvets hadn’t been invented. We had piles of blankets, sometimes grandad’s greatcoat over your feet, and an ‘eiderdown’ that just fitted over the top of the bed, which would teasingly poke the odd feather through the fabric, which, with a child’s natural curiosity, I couldn’t resist pulling through – but it wasn’t a proper ‘eiderdown’, just a feather filled coverlet.

The word duvet is French, meaning ‘down’ – the downy first feathers of young birds. Its first known mention in English came in 1759 when Samuel Johnson used it in one of ‘The Idler’ series of essays, but the first person to try to bring duvets to the UK was an eminent English traveller called Paul Rycaut, who tried (and failed) to introduce the duvet in around 1700. He sent his friends 2.7 kilos bags of down, explaining that ‘the coverlet must be quilted high and in large panes, or otherwise it will not be warm (sic). Sixty years later Samuel Johnson described an unusual advertisement for: ‘some Duvets for bed-coverings, of down ... warmer than four or five blankets, and lighter than one’. They still didn't catch on until 100 years later, when the ‘eiderdown quilt’ was starting to become better known.

Eiderdowns can only be called that if the ‘down’ in it contains feathers from the eider duck, although the word has come to denote almost any quilted bedspread. Since this down is harvested by hand from vacated nests, it is in short supply, which is why a modern king-size ‘eiderdown’ duvet could cost a fortune. Why is eiderdown so expensive? It takes around 50-70 nests to make 1 kg of eiderdown -- involving dozens of hours of manual labour.

Icelanders have followed the sustainable practice of eiderdown farming for over 1000 years. They have created special sanctuaries to protect the birds from predators during summer, and when they return to the sea, ducklings in tow, they leave their precious eiderdown behind - so soft, it’s practically weightless, being unlike any other material on the planet. Due to its springy, compression-resistant nature, it can retain its shape and insulating properties for decades. Free from hard quills or feathers, eiderdown is softer, more insulating and more resilient than the finest white goose down. Unlike other sources of duck and goose down, which are byproducts of the meat industry or inhumane live-plucking practices, eiderdown is voluntarily left behind by the birds.

Modern-day duvets

The duvet really started to catch on in Britain in the 1970s, where it was known as the ‘Continental Quilt’. In 1964, the founder of Habitat, Sir Terence Conran, made the bold decision to import duvets from Sweden to the UK. Very soon the concept caught on, and they were marketed as the ’10 second bed’ and gained huge popularity due to their convenience and comfort. (Mind you, changing the cover on one probably extends that time to 10 minutes!).

Credits: Unsplash; Author: jennachristina;

Now duvets now come in all shapes and sizes, with many fillings and thicknesses to choose from. People with allergies now have access to anti-allergy duvets, as there are plenty of different synthetic fibres and downs to choose from.

And what are togs?

TOG stands for Thermal Overall Grade and is a unit of measurement for insulation and warmth, and simply, the lower the TOG rating the lighter the fabric, the higher the rating, the more padded and insulated it is for warmth.

The lowest are 1 - 4.5 tog - excellent for warmer days, particularly in the summer, 7 - 10.5 tog, being best for those middle seasons such as autumn and spring, and 12-15 tog being divine for really cold winter nights!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan