'Are you bringing your own feathers?' is the first question we ask customers at the fabric-filled shop on Andingmennei. A girl has brought in a winter jacket and is hoping to have the contents reused and stuffed into a new coat.
We take the jacket to the back of the shop, spread it out on the floor, put face masks on and get down on
tiny plastic stools to slash through the front of it with a Stanley knife.
'No,' says Wang Yuanhu, the boss, 'these are fake feathers – you can’t use them again.' The girl is a little put out: 'So what about the coat?' 'Might as well just throw it away,' says Wang, who takes it out to the front of the shop and throws it on the pile of discarded husks of garments, the fillings plundered.
Discovering a coat to be filled with huaqian – manmade fibres to resemble feather lining – doesn’t happen often at all, Wang tells me. She’s a little surprised herself.
She and her colleagues, all from Anhui, set up shop in the autumn in Beijing, tailor-make down jackets without a break through the winter and then head home a few months later to get back to bringing up their kids. There’s a cluster of down recycling shops that make padded jackets along Andingmen – all equally seasonal.
Wang’s phone rings from the hood of the coat on a mannequin. It’s a customer bringing another jacket in. Wang makes sure the vacuum cleaner is cleaned out and we get back down on the stools. When we slash the front of this one open, we find real duck feathers (though 'they’re pretty average quality,' according to Wang), so on goes the vacuum.
She shows me how to chongrong (suck out the feathers) with the nozzle. Obviously when I try sucking, the shiny fabric gets stuck, filling the shop with loud fart noises. Unfazed, Wang points out how she holds the nozzle against her palm with thumb, ring and little fingers, then uses her forefingers to coax the feathers towards the sucking tube.
It’s joyous. 'Fun, right?' says Wang, 'To begin with'. She slashes new sections open and I follow her blade with my nozzle, reminding me of cracking open the different parts of a crab to get the meat. The sleeves are the best, as with a crab, as she slices lengthways through the bands of eiderdown, opening up a huge area of feathers. To finish I have to vacuum the floor and then myself. These things are valuable.
The customer’s new jacket has already been made up – well, the individual sections. Wang opens the vacuum and brings out her weighing scales and two slightly different sized and slightly conical metal cylinders. Picking up the larger, she puts her hand over the opening at the small end and starts to fill it with feathers from the wider end. When it’s weighed out (one liang) she pours it into one of the two sections that make up the front of the jacket, which she then passes to her colleague at the sewing machine.
My turn. It turns out handling a bucketful of feathers is not that straightforward. They don’t behave. 'Gentle! You have to treat feathers with tenderness!' cautions Wang as feathers literally fly. After quite some time we get an equal weight of feathers in my half.
So I’m not allowed to use the sewing machine, but I am allowed to use a ruler. I slap the bulge of feathers in the coat and then smooth it into all the corners, ready for the machinist to add the rows of stitching that keep the feathers in sections.
Three quarters of the customers reuse their feathers, keeping them for years, even decades, rehousing them in a new jacket from time to time. 'Light grey, military green and date red are the main colours this year,' Wang tells me. 'But we’ve no idea what they’ll be when we come back next year.'