Over Christmas, I received a new down jacket, perfect for Colorado winters. Less than two weeks later, my jacket bore a sticky brown stain the size of a quarter. Water didn’t cut it, nor did a dab of detergent. The jacket came with all sorts of tags, not one of which included laundry instructions. I looked to the manufacturer’s website and … nothing. I even called the company that sold me the jacket, but the kind customer service representative was at a loss. Finally, in desperation, I removed the stubborn stain using some dish soap and a toothbrush — insert anguished screams here.
And now that winter is over, my jacket, like most outerwear, as well as my down duvet and pillows, needs to be washed before I stow it away. If I’m confused about cleaning down products, others probably are, too. Time to call on some experts for their advice. Here’s what I learned.
Down is nature’s insulator. Feathers on geese or ducks are the outer covering of the bird. They repel water and make it possible for birds to fly. Down lies beneath the feathers — usually on the underbelly — and is light and fluffy. Down has a really high warmth-to-weight ratio, making it ideal to use to keep humans warm in jackets, vests, bedding and more, explains Stephanie Greenwood, merchandise manager for Columbia Sportswear.
Don’t be intimidated. Mixing water and down doesn’t seem like a good idea, but when you think about it, it’s natural. “A duck lives in a pond, and after a rainstorm, a duck dries, fluffs up and is insulated again,” says Melanie Kaplan, head of product development for the Company Store, which has produced and sold bed linens, quilts and pillows for more than a century. “Not only are down products easy to wash, but they should be washed at least once or twice a year.”
Look for the label. Despite my inability to find a care label, most items should have one, says Carolyn Forte, who directs the home appliances and cleaning products lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute. Some may have written instructions; others may show laundry symbols that you have to decipher. For instance, a small tub means machine wash. The number of dots inside the tub corresponds to water temperature; having one, two or three dots refers to cold, warm or hot water, respectively. Not all down items are machine washable (an X through the tub); a circle means dry-clean only. Usually, this is not because of the down fill, but the exterior fabric.
Remove spots immediately. First, try to blot, dab or scrape off the stain. Most washable jackets and duvets can be sponged with cold water. Forte likes to use a Shout wipe or, in a pinch, grease-cutting dish soap. Then rinse clean with a damp sponge or cloth so it doesn’t leave a ring. “Every stain is different, so the trick is to isolate the stain,” she says. Adds Kaplan, “You can use a little bleach to remove small stains from a white duvet or comforter.”
Use the right kind of washing machine. The No. 1 tip for cleaning down: Always use a large washing machine without an agitator. “A bulky coat or quilt needs to be able to move freely and not get caught on anything,” Forte says. If yours has an agitator, look to a friend with a front-loading machine or head to a commercial laundromat.
Properly prepare to wash. Zip up all zippers and snap any snaps. You can even turn the garment inside out so it doesn’t catch on anything. For coats, unsnap or unzip the hood and wash it separately in the same load. Remove any cases or covers from quilts and pillows, and wash two pillows at a time to even the load so your machine doesn’t get off balance. It’s OK to pretreat collars, cuffs and pockets, if needed, with a prewash spray.
Rinse, and rinse again. Set your washer for a gentle cycle with warm water. Although regular laundry detergents are fine for most down items, it’s safer and better to use a sensitive-skin version — something labeled “free” or “clear” — or a detergent for delicates, Forte says. These formulas are generally milder than regular detergents and produce fewer suds. There are detergents specifically formulated for down, but the experts I spoke with all agreed that they really aren’t necessary for everyday apparel or bedding. If you are cleaning a high-performance garment or sleeping bag, you may want to check with your local backcountry retailer or the manufacturer for a recommendation.
Whatever your soap choice, don’t add fabric softener, which can leave a coating or adversely affect waterproofing properties. Most important, you’ll want to choose “extra rinse” if that’s an option on your machine or repeat the rinse cycle to ensure all residue is removed, Kaplan advises.
Dry low and slow. Dry the down item in a dryer with a large drum. Again, you need lots of room so air can circulate around your garment or comforter. Set the dryer to low or air dry. Toss in a few dryer balls or clean (emphasis on clean) tennis balls to keep the item tumbling so the down clumps less. Every so often, remove the item, break up any clumps, shake it out to redistribute the down and put it back in the dryer. Greenwood suggests that you unzip a jacket or vest mid-cycle, turn it inside-out and zip it up again. Expect the process to take several hours and multiple cycles. No matter how tempting, don’t try to line dry or remove your down item before it is completely dry.