Q&A: The origin of “doona”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have blanket statements…

Q: Hi AWC, can we have a bedtime story today?

A: Who do you think we are? Your babysitter?

Q: No, I mean, can we talk about the word “doona” – why Aussies use it but the rest of the world use other words like quilt or duvet.

A: Fair enough, that’s a relevant bedtime story.

Q: Hooray! Let me just snuggle in and get comfy.

A: Once upon a time, back in the 1300s, the word “quilt” arrived into English. It came from Old French “quilte” and Latin “culcita” before that, but was initially used to describe a sack stuffed with wool and used as a mattress rather than a covering.

Q: So, that’s where “hit the sack” comes from? You would literally hit an actual sack?

A: Probably, although “sack” wasn’t officially recorded as another name for bed until the 1820s – curiously the same time that “sack” also came to mean losing your job. The similar “hit the hay” came later still, in 1912.

Q: Okay, so far we have a quilt being used as a mattress. When did it get the upgrade?

A: It took quite a while – with the thing we know today first described as a “thick outer bed coverlet made by stitching together two thicknesses of fabric with some soft substance between them” not appearing until the 1590s. 

Q: That’s a lot of cold nights.

A: Indeed. Much later, during the 1800s, “quilting bees” became popular – a social gathering of women, gossiping and making a quilt together.

Q: I’m sure it would have had them in stitches.

A: Very funny. By now, we also had a new word – “duvet”. It arrived in 1758 as the French word for “down”. 

Q: Is that because you lie DOWN to sleep?

A: No.

Q: Is it because when you’re feeling DOWN, you go to bed?

A: No.

Q: Well, I give up.

A: This might help. A duvet was described as a quilt that was stuffed with down.

Q: Down?

A: Bird feathers!

Q: Ohhhh! Gotcha. Can we edit out that last part? That was embarrassing.

A: Sure, we’ll see what we can do. Anyway, so now we had the word “duvet” – a puffier version of a quilt. And in 1832, another word – “comforter” – emerged as another name for a “quilted coverlet”.

Q: So many terms!

A: True. Although there were some differences as the 20th century rolled around. A quilt or comforter was typically a single item, stitched shut. Meanwhile, a duvet was typically the downy interior, yet included a separate cover for convenience. You could clean the cover without getting the feathery interior wet.

Q: Clever. So, duvets and comforters and quilts are different?

A: The last two are quite similar in being one piece, but name usage depends on where you live. Americans like the word “comforter” and Britain enjoys a “quilt”, yet both will also use the term “duvet” for the puffier cover-plus-insert variety. 

Q: And Australia?

A: For much of the 20th century, we called the two-piece duvets “continental quilts” – even though overseas a quilt is a thinner one-piece affair. 

Q: So when did “doonas” come along?

A: The name was in the right time and place during the early 1970s, as Aussies – like much of the world – were busy upsizing their beds to queens and kings (check our previous chat about bed sizes and why royal names are used). To match these new beds, they needed new bedding, and an extremely popular brand was made by a Victorian company called Kimptons – simply called the “Doona”. 

Q: Why that name?

A: Many have tried to give it lofty etymological origin stories including the Norse word “dunn” or Danish “dyne” for down feathers. But it was just as likely a bunch of marketing boffins in the smoky backroom of Kimptons thinking it sounded Scandinavian. “Doona” was likely cashing in on the ABBA-fuelled times, marketing the product as similar to Scandinavian all-year “eiderdown” style bedding. Who knows, maybe they channelled their inner Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show!

Q: “DOONA” wouldn’t look out of place on an IKEA name tag…

A: That’s true. It does have a “Scandi” vibe to it.

Q: Interesting. And it became the generic term?

A: That’s right. Much like our previously discussed “Esky” story, what started out as a product name became so widespread and beloved that it swallowed up the category and became the generic name too! 

Q: That’s quite the ‘undercover’ operation!

A: Haha. By the 1980s, most Aussies were calling this type of bedding a “doona” – much to the confusion of our kiwi neighbours, and the rest of the world. Pillow company Tontine eventually bought the trademark in 1991 and the term remains a modern Aussie classic. We’ve even gone on to label a sickie off work as a “doona day”.

Q: Well, thanks for the explanation. It’s nice to know that if doonas were ever charged in a court of law, they’d be found ‘not QUILTY’! Bahahaaa.

A: Oh dear. So, back to bed for you then?

Q: Not at all. I have band practice. 

A: Oh really? What’s your band called?

Q: ‘Duvets & Doonas’. We’re a covers band… hahahahaaaaa

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!



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