Cleaning an Older Down Bag

5:21 a.m. on December 15, 2007 (EST)
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A thrift store score: $16 for an Eddie Bauer Karakoram Gray Goose Down sleeping bag, seafoam green exterior/beige interior, metal half-zip, 2.75 lbs. of filling. Don't know what this translates to degree rating but it is heavy! Good thing I'll just be using it for car camping.
Has a few oil/grease stains on the bottom of the bag but no rips or tears. Wanted to get some cleaning tips because of the age of the bag. Any precautions?

10:08 p.m. on December 15, 2007 (EST)
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I would take it to a professional cleaner familiar with cleaning down bags. Spending a few bucks for professional cleaning should be worth it.

12:21 a.m. on December 16, 2007 (EST)
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Mistakes to avoid - many years back, I washed a down bag in a top loading (agitator type), instead of a front loader, at a laundromat. I was lucky that it 'only' torn a couple baffles in the hood.

I think the front loaders were occupied and I didn't want to wait. Dumb.

To add insult to injury -I apparently put in too much soap in the washer and suds were foaming out the top! The owner of the laundromat poured in some fabric softener to cut the foaming. This happened when I had stepped outside for a couple minutes.)

The bag has not been the same since.

2:22 a.m. on December 16, 2007 (EST)
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I've rarely washed any of my sleeping bags, and generally avoid this, unless I become extremely worried about odor, etc. (I have a high tolerance for these concerns.) A few times, I've washed a couple of them in bathtub of cold water with a small quantity of Woolite. Results have been, in all respects, unremarkable.

In past few years, I always take a 1-pound sleeping bag cover, for some pretty varied reasons that I think are all very valid, perhaps not least among them, keeping sleeping bag clean.

I remember Karakorum bags from Bauer catalogs of late 1960s. Very premium item at the time.

Among my workhorse bags are an REI bag from '72, originally I think, with 2.5 pounds of down, and also a weird, duck-down-&-feathers mummy job with cotton shell from now-unknown maker, acquired a few years earlier, that I think originally weighed something less than 3 pounds in total.

Sleeping bags degrade with age, but my main point is, that with proper storage (that is, not stuffed or compressed) and perhaps no obsessive washing, down (though not synthetics) is viable even with moderately heavy use, for a relatively long, long time.

My dad, now long deceased, worked in both sales and technology in the textile industry, and he was fond of citing research that showed washing was among the worst things you could do to fabric, at least from his perspective. Let alone down or other stuffings, about which he knew nothing.

The duck job, with its cover now rotting but still comfy, is reserved for above-freezing temperatures, when I'm not ultra-concerned with weight. I reserve a relatively new, costly, 40-degree-rated W.Mtneering bag (never to be washed) for certain other occassions, and still use the REI product as primary bag for nights from about freezing to near zero.

An already declining, synthetic NF "-20F" bag is available for colder trips, though it has suffered from use of "compression" stuff sack and generic problem with synthetics' durability.

10:24 a.m. on December 17, 2007 (EST)
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From the Western Mountaineering web site.

I've washed countless down jackets and vests and have never had a problem. I've not done a bag, but that should not be any harder - just takes longer to dry. We have a newer, larger front load washing machine and it works well as there is no agitator to muck up the bag. If you go the dry cleaner route - look for one who knows what they are doing as not all of them are good specifically with down.

1:31 p.m. on December 17, 2007 (EST)
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From Western Mountaineering site: After proper washing and drying, "you will have a clean sleeping bag back to its original loft."

A highly respected company, and this is perhaps not an outrageous statement, yet it seems reasonable to suppose the mechanical stress placed on down in washing degrades the loft in some degree. The more often this is done, the greater the degradation.

Of course, dirt also degrades loft. And if a manufacturer advised consumers never to wash their product, they would be considered insane and sales would suffer. My father sold textiles strictly to finishing plants.

10:00 a.m. on December 18, 2007 (EST)
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I've never noticed any loss of loft on the down garments I've washed. Often the garment seems to pick up a bit of loft as the down is now clean. I feel down is a more resiliant than it's generally given credit for. With proper care and occasional cleaning it keeps going and going.

10:44 p.m. on December 20, 2007 (EST)
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"I've never noticed any loss of loft on the down garments I've washed. Often the garment seems to pick up a bit of loft as the down is now clean. I feel down is a more resiliant than it's generally given credit for. With proper care and occasional cleaning it keeps going and going."

How much credit do you want?

Two of my three down sleeping bags are about 35 years old. They are both still functional, and have been getting at least moderately heavy use ever since I got them. These bags have never been compressed during storage apart from during trips, and have been obsessively well-cared for. Yet of course, they've lost substantial loft since they were new.

The majority of this loss is certainly not from washing and probably mostly from getting stuffed for packing.

I've little idea how much they've been washed; perhaps, an average equivalent of once every two or three months of use. If you said you rarely bathe (as is the case for me on trips) and wash your sheets that often, people would think, perhaps with good reason, that you're insane.

But I believe a highly conservative approach to washing these bags has helped, at least marginally, to preserve their loft. This is not a fact. It's an opinion based on a hypothesis that has some rationale. I do wish the two bags were like new. Probably I should just give them to some homeless people. I'd never give a Karakorum Eddie Bauer Bag to a homeless person. Let them freeze, maybe. They'd probably wash the damned thing.


9:49 a.m. on December 21, 2007 (EST)
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No credit is necessary, thanks.

10:41 a.m. on December 24, 2007 (EST)
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Having worked in a few different outdoor retail stores I get this question alot. Down can be washed successfully if a few rules are followed.

1. always wash in a front loading machine (agitators tear baffles) on a low water setting with a NON-DETERGENT. Nikwax down wash is great. Detergent draws water into fabrics and breaks down any DWR on the nylon.

2. Dry on air setting only (or line dry, prefered). The hot plate in a dryer, even on a low setting can burn the nylon. To increase loft you can place a CLEAN tennis ball in the dryer for a few minutes at the end of the drying cycle.

3. As for people telling you not to wash it, this can harm the bag. A clean down bag with loft more and insulate better. Grease and oils from sweat can cause the down to be weighed down or stick together. But as will all your outdoor gear follow care instructions carefully and when in doubt ask the manufacturer.

TIP: Make sure to store down products (bags, jackets, pants) in a cool dry place, and never compressed.


9:09 p.m. on December 26, 2007 (EST)
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I agree with the advice on using a front-loading machine and would add use a gentle cycle due to the age. One tip I got some time back (and have used with success) is to toss 3+ new tennis balls into the dryer (on low heat) along with the bag. "What the f@#k?? why in the world would I DO THAT??" I hear you say. Because that is how you keep the down from clumping up, failing to dry completely, and then rotting because it never dried out completely. As long as there is no velcro for the balls to get stuck to, it works like a charm, cuts the drying time in half and is guaranteed to restore the loft.

4:22 p.m. on December 27, 2007 (EST)
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"3. As for people telling you not to wash it, this can harm the bag. A clean down bag will loft more and insulate better. Grease and oils from sweat can cause the down to be weighed down or stick together."

Yet you aren't saying down is impervious to break-down and damage from repeated washing.

As you say, clean has advantages, and is certainly a socially acceptable value. But real "clean freaks," whose numbers are legion, I think, are prone to doing needless damage.

If (merely) a 15-year lifespan (or whatever) is acceptable for a (down) sleeping bag, than how you wash the thing, rather than how often, may be the prime issue.

Cumulative damage to loft, from repeated stuffings, washings, dirt, including rot from dirty microbes, maybe in that order, will eventually kill the thing, and death is mainly a philosphical problem.


8:30 p.m. on December 29, 2007 (EST)
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I bought my Bauer Karakoram in 1960, and have washed it many times. Originally, it was a -40 deg bag. I haven't used it much in the past 10 years or so (my Feathered Friends bag is much lighter at the same rating, but that's the difference between the Bauer 500-rated loft and the FF 800-rated loft, plus going from cotton duck outer shell to Pertex microfiber outer shell and a slimmer shape). Last time I used the Karakoram, it seemed more like a -20 to -30 deg bag. It has lost some fill (the fabrics were not as downproof then as now, plus the loss when I accidentally ripped it and didn't get the hole sewn closed soon enough). It was my primary bag for most of the first 30 years I had it, which meant 20 or more nights of use per year (I had other much lighter bags for summer use).

I used to use plain old laundry detergent, until in the 1990s when some of the good down washes became available. I use NikWax and McNett down washing products these days, in front-loading commercial-sized machines, as recommended by the manufacturers, for my sleeping bags, filled pants, and filled jackets, whether down or synthetic. The down products show little to no deterioration from the repeated washings, as is true for the Primaloft products so far, and slower deterioration for Polargard and Hollofill products than when I used regular detergent for those synthetics in the 1970s and 1980s.

7:59 p.m. on January 14, 2008 (EST)
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I have washed many down products, especially my original Marmot Mtn.-Grand Junction, custom expedition bag as I used to put 70+ nights per year on it. In 21 years, it showed no deterioration.

I have washed my Feathered Friends UL bag many times since 1989 and it is as new with scores of night's use.

I will wash my new WM Alpinlite Super when it needs it and also my Integral Designs bags, a custom XPDII that cost a freakin'bundle and two Primaloft bags. I fully expect to encounter zero problems doing so as I took time to learn how to do it properly before my first attempt.

7:39 a.m. on February 24, 2008 (EST)
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I've cleaned down comfortors in the front loading machines in the laundromat and have enjoyed full restoration of the loft.

Typically, the feather content of down comfortors is higher than for a modern high quality sleeping bag. But, I don't think this makes that much difference.

I can imagine that if the oils are stripped from the down (0r feather content), the down/feathers could lose ability to recover from mechanical stuffing and restuffing. Dry cleaning is often alleged to strip these oils from the down filling, and perhaps the wrong laundry product in water (or warm water) could do the same.

People have been washing down clothing and sleeping gear for a long time.

Not everybody reads or believes detailed instructions.

6:47 p.m. on February 26, 2008 (EST)
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Noticing Rocketman's comment and also Tom D's statement that could easily be misunderstood


take it to a professional cleaner familiar with cleaning down bags.

I would repeat a very strong caution that the bag manufacturers and others have made:


This goes for both synthetic and down bags. Many years ago, people used to do this, until it was realized that perclorethylene ("perc"), the most common fluid used by dry cleaners, (as well as carbon tetrachloride and trichlorethylene, predecessors to perc),and most other dry cleaning fluids are extremely toxic. There were a number of cases of people dying from perc in their bags. The recommendation was to let the freshly dry-cleaned bag air out for several days to allow all the vapors to escape (they never do completely evaporate - just smell the bag even after a week in the open air). Dry cleaners use other fluids these days and do make an effort to air the cleaned items. But sleeping inside a sleeping bag, especially on a cold night with it all snugged up around you, is risky. Breathing the fumes over time also is risky health-wise, since most cleaning fluids are known carcinogens (bit of trivia - heating perc sufficiently produces phosgene).

And there is the "minor" problem that dry cleaning fluids are solvents, intended to remove oil-based stains (like the body oils that get on your suit collar). Which means that, as Rocketman said, dry cleaning strips the oils from the down.

Use the products from Nikwax and McNett that are formulated especially for washing down bags and garments, and follow the directions. The older products (Ivory Snow soap flakes, Woolite, and a few others) still work, but the purpose-formulated down "soaps" work better. As I noted above and in previous threads on the topic, I sleep in my down bags (including my rather pricey Feathered Friends bags) frequently enough and spend enough time in my down parkas and down pants that I wash the bags and garments a couple times a year (especially after the month-long expeditions). I typically get 20-30 years use out of them (I'm still using my Lionel Terray down parka that I bought in 1964, though the 1995 Marmot 8000 meter jacket goes better in Antarctic temperatures - the 1975 EMS Expedition Parka is currently with my son in Wisconsin and has seen a lot of use this winter, he tells me).

2:31 a.m. on February 27, 2008 (EST)
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My 1971 REI down bag was dry-cleaned once or possibly even twice, in 1970s, by my dear mother.

Unexpectedly, I survived this procedure, and continue to use this bag down to lower teens or upper single digits fahrenheit.

Its original 2 or 2.5 pounds of down would be good in a higher-quality new bag today somewhat into the to double-digit sub-zero temperatures -- but not near 99 below.

I have since followed and would recommend a very conservative approach to cleaning and also storage, of sleeping bags.

11:04 p.m. on March 1, 2008 (EST)
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Years ago I took my down gear to the Down Depot in San Francisco for cleaning. They specialized in dry cleaning down gear and did an excellent job.

I don't even know if they are still in business, but living in Phoenix they certainly aren't convenient! So today I wash my down gear using the nikwax down cleaner. I fill the bathtub with warm water add a capful and massage until the item is thoroughly soaked.

Then rinse multiple times until the water is clear and I don't get bubbles/sudsing when I knead the item.

After the final drain I press out as much water as possible and then place it into a front load washer for the final spin cycle. Then into a dryer.

My old down bag, has survived multiple down depot dry cleanings and multiple tub washings, and after 35 years it still lofts like new.

5:31 p.m. on May 8, 2008 (EDT)
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When I bought my GoreTex-covered Marmot Mountain Osprey down bags in 1988, I was dumb enough to pay for a professional down wash on a couple of occasions. Luckily my lovely Asian wife now follows the label directions and periodically washes my bags in our top-loading washer on gentle cycle with no issues. They come out spotless with high loft, looking like new. Good thing she's a gourmet cook too!

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