So you’re in the market for your first top quilt or maybe a new top quilt, something to take you comfortably into dream land when you’re out in the woods and keep you toasty warm. You wonder about all the different options available - shell materials, quilt styles, and fill types just to name a few, and you wring your hands wanting to make the absolute best decision for yourself. Hopefully, with the information we've provided in this article you’ll gain some insight and be able to make a well informed decision about your next gear investment that will be keeping you warm for many years to come.
The majority of high quality down top quilts are manufactured by cottage vendors, small custom shops located around the world. They can be in someone’s home or in a small shop. They can be a one man show or have a few dozen employees. Regardless of their size, when you consider the high quality downs, fabrics, workmanship, and personal service their prices should be much higher for what you get. Yes, there can be a wait for your new top quilt due to factors such as high customer demand but the wait pays off in the end and is well worth it.
There are many considerations and decisions to make when it comes to purchasing a high quality cottage made top quilt and it can sometimes be an overwhelming amount of information. When you're making this type of investment, you want to make sure you're getting exactly what will best suit you the first time around. Below you’ll find information to help guide you through many of the decisions you’ll need to make. I’ve tried to address everything possible but as products and materials change new questions will certainly arise.
Most cottage vendors do not have the budget to have their quilts tested by the EN 13537 (a European standard designed to standardize temperature ratings on outdoor gear) so they rely on an industry standard formula for their type of insulation's CLO value (a measure of thermal insulation) and the number of inches of loft needed at a given temperature rating. The temperature ratings provided by most cottage vendors are usually conservative so it's often a good idea to choose a quilt rated 10*F colder than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. This will provide a buffer on the lower limit in case an unexpected cold snap catches you off guard.
What temperature rating should you choose is really up to you. Everyone wants that one magic quilt that will take them from 0*F in the throes of winter all the way to those 75*F summer nights. Unfortunately that sorcerous top quilt is not yet available so you will need to settle on a temperature rating that covers most of your needs. Consider your primary seasons of use and the amount of time spent in each season. Also take into consideration your local climate or the climate where you intend to use your top quilt. If your primary season is summer with some early spring/fall then you probably wouldn't want to consider a 0*F top quilt. It will just be overkill and add extra weight to your pack. If you live in Florida and are planning a trip to the Rocky Mountains in July you'll want to remember it can get very cold at 10,000’ in the mountains (even in July) so a 50*F top quilt may be just a little light for those conditions.
My usual recommendation for someone on the fence in regard to temperature rating is to choose a solid 3 season top quilt for your climate. This typically is either a 20*F top quilt for cooler northern climates or a 40*F top quilt for warmer southern climates.
Besides the quilt, other factors influence your warmth and comfort:
DOWN TOP QUILT SIZE
In regard to sizing it is best to follow the cottage vendor recommendations on their individual products. One note regarding top quilt measurements is that they are typically based on the top quilt laying flat and can be difficult to measure at home on the carpet.
In my personal experience I prefer a bit wider and longer top quilt for colder weather. I like to be able to pull my colder weather top quilts over my head. The wider top quilt allows me to tuck the top quilt into my sides much better in colder weather. For my warmer weather top quilts I tend to size down one from my colder weather top quilts as the extra coverage is not needed.
DOWN TOP QUILT CONSTRUCTION
Insulation can be held between a top quilt's outer shell and inner lining by several techniques. Down top quilts use a system of baffles with the goal to ensure an even distribution of insulation and prevent cold spots.
Down Top Quilts typically use the following baffle constructions:
OUTER AND INNER SHELL FABRIC
The outer shell of a top quilt is typically made of a ripstop nylon for durability. The shells of most high-quality top quilts are treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. DWR causes water to bead up and run off rather than soak through the fabric. Since the outer shell is your first line of defense it should be a durable abrasion resistant fabric. Some top quilts use an ultralight 10d plain weave or ripstop outer shell to save weight at the sacrifice of durability. There is nothing wrong with this, but one should not expect a 10d fabric to take the same abuse as a 20d or 30d fabric (d stands for denier, a unit of measurement in the garment industry). Consider your personal treatment of your gear when selecting on outer shell fabric.
The inner shell of a high-quality top quilt is typically made of a plain weave nylon taffeta for comfort. This nylon taffeta is typically a 10d fabric and has a satin feel against the skin. It should be a highly breathable fabric to shed excess moisture through the quilt as you sleep.
Both outer shell and inner shell fabrics should be certified for use with down fill when selecting a down top quilt and the cottage vendor should be able to provide test reports from International Down and Feather Labs, the testing authority for the garment industry.
DOWN (GOOSE OR DUCK)
Down is the plumage that forms the undercoating of waterfowl. It forms in plumules and consists of fluffy, wispy filaments. It is an exceptional insulator, prized for being light, easy to compress, long-lasting and breathable. It excels in cold, dry conditions or whenever saving weight and space are priorities.
Down is more expensive than synthetic fill, but it maintains its loft (which provides its heat-trapping ability) at a near-original state longer than synthetics. That makes down a good value over the long haul.
Duck down has recently gained broad acceptance for use in outdoor gear due to advances in down processing techniques and availability. Goose down has recently become more scarce, which has significantly driven up its price.
Fill power is the term used to measure down's ability to loft, and thus trap heat. It is calculated by how many cubic inches 1 oz. of down can fill in a testing device.
Higher-grade down, taken from more mature birds, requires fewer plumules to fill space and achieve a certain temperature rating. So any quilt rated to a temperature of +20°F with 800-fill-power down, no matter if its fill is duck or goose down, will be lighter than a +20°F quilt using 600-fill-power down.
If you place a pair of 800-fill-power top quilts side by side—one using duck down and one using goose down—their loft, weight and compressibility will have little or no variance. Fill power is fill power.
Down, either duck or goose, is available in either a white or grey variety. The color of the down has no impact on any of the performance characteristics of the down. Grey down is typically more affordable and white down will carry a premium.
Where duck and goose down can potentially differ:
● Fill Power: Duck down can achieve fill-power ratings no higher than 750 or 800. Premium goose down can reach 900 and potentially even higher ratings, but it’s quite expensive.
● Durability: Goose plumules are typically larger than duck plumules and can potentially retain their lofting ability for a longer time. One major down supplier estimates the average lifespan of a goose down sleeping bag (at its original temperature rating) is 25 years vs. 20 years for a duck down sleeping back.
● Odor: Modern processing/cleaning techniques have reduced the possibility that duck down, when wet, can exude a gamey smell. It is conceivable, however, that people with a heightened sense of smell may still detect a slight odor from duck down no matter how clean or dry duck down is.
WATER REPELLANT DOWN
Moisture is the chief nemesis of down. Wet down becomes matted and flat, losing its 3 dimensional shape and its ability to retain heat.
Proprietary technologies (e.g., DownTek, HyperDRY, and DriDown) treat down at a microscopic level with a water-repellent application, allowing the filaments to resist moisture without compromising loft.
Manufacturer testing indicates down with a water-repellent treatment can withstand high level of moisture with little or no loss of loft. Some testing even shows high fill power downs exceeding synthetic insulation in standardized testing practices. The technologies also help damp down dry out faster and minimize (or perhaps eliminate) any odor caused when down gets wet.
If dunked in a stream or exposed to heavy rain, even treated down will get wet. Remember, it is water-repellent, not waterproof.
The cost of treating down minimally affects the price of quilts, adding up to $20 to their cost on average.
UPDATE: Since the introduction of WR Down there has
been much discussion about the benefits in large garments
such as sleeping bags and quilts in the backpacking
UPDATE: Since the introduction of WR Down there has been much discussion about the benefits in large garments such as sleeping bags and quilts in the backpacking community.While there are arguably some benefits to the WR down there are also some potential issues that both the vendor and consumer need to address. We’ve weighted both of them carefully and have recently stopped offering DWR down. The benefits, which are marginal at best in real world scenarios, are offset by lower loft, intra laundering clumping, and the need for more down to offset the lower lofting and possible clumping. In a small garment such as a jacket these potential issues do not pose much of an issue and since we can perspire quite heavily while hiking the WR down works very well in a garment such as this.
In a larger piece of equipment such as a quilt or sleeping bag the benefits are less apparent and the potential issues come more to the surface. Loss of loft on a jacket that only has 2-3oz of down can be addressed by adding 25% more down, do this on a quilt or sleeping bag with 20oz of down and you’ve added 5 oz plus additional cost for both the vendor and end user. As fill power gets higher so do the potential effects on loft that the WR treatment has. WR down is heavily washed stripping the down of its natural oils and water resistant properties then replacing them with a man made chemical. While it is an excellent concept and marketing agenda it has had limited results in real world application. The man made water resistance tends to be sticky causing the down to cling and clump. The user needs to take extra care to distribute the WR down to avoid thin spots in the insulation envelope. As a vendor we have increased the amount of down in our quilts over the last few year to offset this difference in loft and we will no longer be offering WR down as a fill option.
Most top quilts fall into one of three shapes. These are in reference to the overall shape of the quilt when laid out flat on the floor. The shape of the quilt will impact coverage, weight, and thermal efficiency of the overall quilt.
● Rectangle: Laying flat on the floor fully opened it’s a rectangle with the head and foot edges being equal. Advantage of this style is maximum coverage and maximum foot box space but with increased weight and some loss of thermal efficiency.
● Half-Taper: Laying flat on the floor fully opened the head width is maintained down to roughly the half way point before tapering to a narrower foot edge. Advantage of this style is good compromise between coverage and weight but will result in smaller foot box than rectangular quilts.
● Full-Taper: Laying flat on the floor fully opened there is a gradual taper from head to foot along both sides. Advantage of this style is better thermal efficiency and lighter weight but with less coverage and smaller foot box than rectangular or half taper top quilts.
● Advanced Shaping: Some quilts do not fall into any of the above three style and typically have a more mummy sleeping bag shape to them but with the freedom of motion that a top quilt offers. These quilts tend to target thermal efficiency and weight as primary consideration providing for the warmest and lightest possible quilts. They also tend to fit more snugly which results in the increased thermal performance.
The chamber design needs to provide for a uniform density of down across the top quilt to keep the user warm. If the chamber is too wide the down will shift. Any wider than 4-5” is too wide and will result in down shifting. On warmer weather quilts this is even more important as there is less down providing insulation so smaller chambers should be used. You can see this concept used in down jackets and it should be used in down top quilts as well.
Also to be considered is the differential chamber design of the top quilt. A differential chamber is a design/construction method that provides full loft of insulation between the inner and outer shell materials. Hammock campers typically do not need a differential top quilt. Warm weather tent users also will see little benefit of a differential quilt. But if you sleep in a tent in colder weather it certainly should be on your radar. If you sleep on your side this is an important consideration, less so if you sleep on your back. On your side the top quilt will be pulled snug over your shoulders/hips. If the inner and outer shells do not have a differential there will be compression on your hips and shoulder resulting in possible cold spots. A differential top quilt is more difficult to build and not many top quilts have a differential shell. Odds are if the cottage vendor’s site does not specifically state that they offer differential designs, the quilts they offer are not differential.
Chamber direction is a consideration as well and typically falls into one of three categories:
● Horizontal – This is the most commonly available baffle direction and can be seen on most commercial available top quilts. The top quilt baffles run from left to right as the user lays. This has pros and cons to considered. This layout provides for shorter chambers which result in better control of the down. Also, this layout is easier to manufacture which helps keep costs down for both the cottage vendor and customer. This layout makes it difficult to provide a differential across the quilt resulting in a possible compression of down when sleeping on your side. This layout can also cause what is known as “Bridging” which is when the top quilt will actually lift of your chest creating a void between you and the top quilt decreasing the efficiency of the top quilt.
● Vertical – This is a less common baffle direction used by only a few cottage vendors. The baffles are continuous from top to bottom on the top quilt as the user lays. This also has pros and cons to consider. This layout provides long chambers which may result in some down shifting and cold spots. This layout is more difficult to manufacture if built with a differential resulting in increased cost for both the cottage vendor and the customer. This layout will typically provide for a better drape with no “Bridging” providing for a more thermally efficient fit.
● Combination – This is a less common baffle design used by only a few cottage vendors. The baffles are a combination of horizontal and vertical. This also has pros and cons to consider. This layout provides for shorter chambers than a vertically laid out top quilt which result in better control of the down. However, this layout is more difficult to manufacture if built with a differential resulting in increased cost for both the cottage vendor and the customer. This layout will typically provide for a better drape with no “Bridging” providing for a more thermally efficient fit.
There are a few top quilt makers that offer zigzag, diagonal, curved chambers in an effort to control down shifting but the primary three listed, when properly implemented, will provide all the warmth you need. Karo Step Baffles are another chamber/baffle design option but as of the writing of this article I am not aware of any currently manufactured top quilt using this construction method.
FOOT BOX OPTION
There are several foot box styles available to choose from, each with their own benefits and disadvantages. The three most common are:
There are other considerations when selecting your next top quilt. Some of those are discussed below:
● Pad Attachment: The top quilt should have at minimum a series of loops along both sides to allow users to secure it to a pad for tent camping. Hammock campers need not worry about using these pad attachment loops but they do add value for resale.
● Draft Collars: Draft collars are typically not provided on most available top quilts. Most smaller custom shops typically can add one if desired. I personally have never seen the need for one as in cold weather I were a neck gaiter and cinch the top quilt to effectively seal the system.
● Neck Closure: A properly designed top quilt should have a way of securing the neck closed. Typically a high strength snap and elastic draw cord are provided.
● Hang Loops: A set of loops at one end or the other that allow you to hang the quilt up to dry. These are typically at the foot end of the quilt.
● Material/Temperature Tags: A great way for you to verify and identify your top quilt’s fill power, fabric types, and temperature rating. These are little touches that reflect a well thought out product offering.
● Name Brand Materials: This will help ensure the materials used in your top quilt are industry accepted. There are a lot of pillow casings in the landfill whose down has ended up in quilts. Who knows the fill power and quality of that down?
● Weight: There are a lot of different quilts out there and a lot of different weights, and it can get confusing. When comparing weights it is important to make sure the products are as close in size as possible. Then compare both finished weight and fill weight of the top quilts. Typically most difference in finished weights can be found in fill weights. One cottage vendor using either more or less down fill than another cottage vendor can account for that weight difference and price difference.
● Over Stuff: This is the process of adding additional down above and beyond the cottage vendor standards. The extra down will help buffer the lower limits of the top quilt keeping you warm. You may also consider additional over stuff if you plan on using your top quilt for an extended period of time with limited laundry access. The additional down will help retain the performance of the top quilt between wash cycles.
In the end, you the consumer will need to make the decision as to what is important for you and your needs. I hope the above information is of help to you in your process and you carefully review each product you are considering. It’s a combination of materials, quality, and service that set apart the best in the business, and only you get to decide what's right for you.
IDFL Institute and Laboratory is the global leader in filled textile quality assurance services.