Down has a protective layer of natural oil that allows it to plump up, providing insulation. Dirty down loses its ability to fully insulate. This is when you need to give your beloved and cherished down products a wash!
But how do you do it? You have heard the horror stories of clotted down and mouldy smell after the first and only wash. So, is it better to leave it completely and just tolerate the smell or buy new down products? Of course we would welcome the latter decision, but it would cost quite a bit of your money. We would actually like to give you a few tips on how to take care of your down jackets and sleeping bags so you can enjoy them for as long as possible.
Before washing – preparation is everything
Please read the washing instructions for your product carefully. There are some down sleeping bags which should only go into the laundry when there is no other solution. For instance, waterproof sleeping bags should not be washed since the waterproof treatment could be damaged. So, you should check the recommendations of the manufacturer carefully.
Before washing, fasten all the zips. All buttons, hook-and-loop fasteners and pull cords should be opened or loosened. Turn the product inside out – it is basically the inside that needs to be washed. If there are some persistent stains at the collar, you can apply some soap before washing.
Use down detergent
Regardless of whether you plan to wash your product in the washing machine or by hand, be sure to use down detergent and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Normal detergent removes oil from the down. This will clean it but cause the product to lose volume and warmth. Down detergent, on the other hand, preserves the natural oil layer and the insulating properties of the down. Do not use regular detergents or fabric softeners.
In the washer
A major problem when washing down are the residues of the detergents. They clot the down after the laundry, which reduces the fill power and with it the thermal output. Because of this, you should rinse them properly. The washer should have a capacity of at least 6-7 kg. In the case of products with a particularly high volume, such as a winter sleeping bag, you should use a large washer. You should also wash only one product at a time.
Choose a washing program for delicates or wools. These programs wash and rinse fabrics with a higher amount of water than the other programs. You should, however, not use a washing program for silks. These programs don’t have intermediate spin cycles, which are rather useful when washing down.
If you want to make sure your sleeping bag or jacket stays in good shape, you should run the washing program another time, but this time without any detergent. This is a way to get rid of the last leftovers of detergent. If possible, you should spin your down product with 1000 to 1200 rpm before removing it from the washer.
Handwashing (for the brave among you)
You can also use the bathtub. If you use anything else, it will result into your downstairs neighbours holding you liable for water damage or lots and lots of mopping for you. The water temperature should be lukewarm (about 40°C). You should apply detergents according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Let the sleeping bag or jacket soak for an hour. Then rinse it thoroughly. Repeat the rinsing to remove the detergent completely. Do not wring it too strongly. The delicate down prefers soft squeezing. Handwashing requires quite a bit of patience. If that is not for you, you should see if you can use a large washer.
In the dryer
When transporting the sleeping bag or jacket from the washing machine to the dryer, we recommend carrying the product as horizontally as possible to prevent the heavy down from shifting and damaging the delicate baffle walls.
When tumble drying, you should keep in mind the following things: tumble dry at a low temperature (no more than 30°C), otherwise the outer materials might stick to the tumble-dryer. Putting some (clean!) tennis balls in the drum of the tumble-dryer help to swirl everything around. You should remove it after one hour. Allow enough time for cooling down. During this process, you should repeatedly shake it thoroughly. And then the procedure starts over – and that for a number of times. A sleeping bag with a 1000 g down fill needs 4-6 hours for drying. It is residual moisture that will lead to smelly down. So, it is better to dry the sleeping bag one time too many, otherwise you might have to repeat the entire procedure, starting with the washing.
Drying without a dryer
To make a long story short: without a tumble-dryer, you should think twice before starting. You can try, of course, but you need be aware that the process of drying will take up to ten days. You will need to keep the product in a very dry place and turn it regularly. If you don’t have your own dryer, we recommend asking a friend or going to a laundrette.
If you still want to try it out, then you should lay out the freshly washed and wet down sleeping bag or down jacket as horizontally as possible on a drying rack (never hang it). Shake it and turn it every two hours on the first day. If the down has already dried a little, you can gradually increase the intervals to several hours. You have to do this for at least a week to ensure that the down is really dry. Otherwise, you run the risk of having down that is mouldy and stinky.
Different down products
In summary, all down products need a similar treatment when cleaning. When washing a sleeping bag or down jacket, careful adherence to the manufacturer’s recommendation is key.
As a general rule, the product should be washed alone at 60°C with sufficient water in a large washing machine. You need to use an appropriate down detergent, and preferably rinse the product twice. It is also important to handle the product as gently as possible when washing it to prevent the down from sticking together and the baffles from getting damaged.
An additional spin cycle with 1200 revolutions is useful because it makes drying much easier.
How often you should wash your down product depends on the product and how you use it. Here are the first differences: duvets and down pillows should be washed at least once a year (to kill mites and bacteria).
For sports and outdoor products, the situation is somewhat different. Down jackets should only be washed when they are dirty. Sniffing it also helps here. After long and strenuous tours, it is certainly a good idea to wash them. Otherwise, it often helps to simply let the product air out. Some sleeping bags should not be washed at all.
There are also differences after washing. Thin down duvets require a shorter drying time than a sleeping bag or a down jacket. If the product is made in such a way that prevents water from penetrating, you can imagine how time-consuming it is until the water is out again after washing.
In order to avoid mouldy down, a down duvet should be shaken vigorously after one hour in the dryer at 30°C, or two hours on a clothing rack.
In the dryer, the duvet usually dries in 5-7 cycles, but on the clothing rack, it takes a good week. For fuller products, such as thick pillows or those with a waterproof membrane, such as down jackets, it is better to calculate 1.5 to 2 times the time after washing.
Why moisture damages down
To understand what the advantages of an insulated down are, we must first look at how exactly the warm plumage insulates. And why moisture destroys this insulation. According to the omniscient Internet encyclopaedia, the word down comes from Icelandic and describes the lower plumage of waterfowl. With its many small and fine branches, it can trap particularly large amounts of air. As a result, the body’s own heat can be stored very well, which is synonymous with high insulation performance.
Once moisture comes into play, the down sticks together. This means that the branches can no longer store air. The fill power, also called loft, is also lost. The down-lined textile therefore no longer keeps properly warm under the influence of moisture. But wait a minute! Isn’t down the lower plumage of waterfowl? Don’t they have to deal with water in their natural habitat all day long? That’s right. That’s why these clever little animals grease their down feathers with an oily secretion from the root gland. Although this might sound a bit disgusting, it serves the simple purpose of protecting the fine feathers from water. Impregnated down does the same.
How does waterproofed down work
The down used in outdoor textiles basically takes its moisture protection from nature. An externally applied DWR treatment agent should protect against moisture. Although the agents used in the industry do not originate from ducks and geese, many well-known outdoor manufacturers make sure to not use too many chemicals in production. Many DWR treatment agents used in the textile industry are criticised for their harmful ingredients. And rightly so. That is why many manufacturers of well-known outdoor brands make sure to work with PFC-free DWR treatment agents. PFCs are fluoro-organic carbon compounds. Although these are very efficient in their water-repellent properties, they are also considered harmful to the environment and even the human body. Manufacturers provide information on PFC-free and solvent-free down and fabric DWR treatment on their website or in the respective item description.
Before water-repellent down can be used in down vests, sleeping bags or down jackets, where it ensures comfortably warm outdoor experiences, it must first be treated. This is carried out through a special wash. The dry treatment covers the insulation plumage like a protective film. The result is long-lasting protection against moisture that can even survive up to five washes in your washing machine. By the way, impregnated down insulation is no heavier than untreated insulation. This means that the total weight does not change.
In practice: what are the benefits of waterproofing down
Does this moisture protection work in outdoor use and under extreme conditions? Various laboratory tests have shown that water-repellent treated down is much less susceptible to moisture than “normal”, untreated down. But as with many things in life, tests under laboratory conditions are not always an indicator of how things really are in natural conditions. The girls and boys from Freizeitalpin have reported in their article on the performance of treated down (only available in German) on a practical test. It was tested by someone who really knows their stuff. The Nikwax environmental officer dared to make a lake crossing of a special kind. Lying on his back in an impregnated sleeping bag, he crossed a lake in southern England. And lo and behold: he (and the sleeping bag) survived the rather different boat trip undamaged and almost dry!
How to waterproof down jackets, etc.?
Jackets, sleeping bags and people all meet the same fate at some point. They begin to smell and need a wash. Textiles insulated with a waterproofed down lose their water-repellent properties after four to five washes. The down can also absorb water with general soiling. If you notice that your textile does not insulate as well in damp weather or when you start sweating, this is a sign that you need to do something. Special down detergents are available for cleaning. These ensure that the jacket is clean again. The first step is to wash the jacket according to the instructions.
For re-impregnation, instead of washing the jacket with a down detergent, put it in the washing machine with a “Wash-In dry treatment” which is specially developed for down products. Instead of detergent, add the specified amount of DWR treatment to the detergent compartment. Select a gentle cycle and a low temperature. 30°C is perfectly adequate. Use as low a spin as possible. Although it is important to spin a lot of water out of the textile, wet down is heavy, so a high speed can damage the down baffles. It is therefore better to spin at a low speed and repeat several times. The dry treatment is then ready! Well, almost. Now the jacket just needs to be put in the tumble dryer. But again, not too hot! And, as usual, with tennis balls to prevent the down from clumping. It’s best to do two drying cycles and then shake out well.
Important for both cleaning and re-impregnation: read the care instructions provided by the manufacturer for your textile and the instructions for the care product carefully.
Don’t wait too long to keep your down products in good shape. If you feel this is just too much work, you can, of course, give your sleeping bag to a professional. This can be the cleaning service around the corner or a down specialist. Yeti, for instance, offers a wash and repair service for down products.