On puffy coats

by Cyle Talley

Babies, it’s cold outside! Let Esther Cops, clothing buyer at Pine Needle Mountaineering, tell you why every-damn-body in town is wearing a down jacket this time of year, and why it might be worth some of your newly-acquired Christmas coin.

True or false: The thicker the coat, the warmer it is.Mostly true. You have more dead air space to trap the warm air. It’s insulating by keeping that warm air between you and the outside air.

What types of down are there?Goose down, European goose down, Asian goose down, and duck down. We’re seeing a lot more of the duck down because the market for goose down has gotten a lot bigger for comforters and other things, so the supply has become stretched, which makes it more expensive. There’s varying qualities of down – when you see “550 Fill” or “900 Fill” embroidered on a jacket, that’s what that means.

What’s the significance of the number?They take an ounce of down and see how much volume it’ll take up. If you have one ounce of down and it fills 900 milliliters, you’ve got 900 fill. Basically, one ounce of quality down gives you more loft, which gives you a higher quality jacket. When you have a 900 fill jacket that’s the same thickness as say a 600 fill jacket, the 900 fill isn’t necessarily warmer, but it is lighter for the amount of loft that you get. It also means that you’ll have more down plumials, which is the part of the down that’s really soft and fuzzy, as opposed to feathers.

Down vs. synthetic fills: What’s the difference?With down, you’re generally going to get a longer-lived insulation. It’s more resistant and bounces back better after being squished and relofted. A lot of people like the feel of it, and it tends to have a little wider comfort range, both indoors and out. Generally you get a lighter weight jacket for the same amount of loft, too. With a synthetic jacket, you can get a coat that’s still going to insulate when it’s wet. That’s the primary benefit of synthetic insulation. If you’re out in the rain, or maybe using it on the river, or in really wet climates, it’ll still maintain some of its insulating properties. Down doesn’t really have that ability. Oh, and it’s cheaper! There’s a wide range of synthetics out there, too. Some of them are gonna act a little more like down in terms of how they compress. In general, the fills that act like downs won’t last as long because it’s easier to rip them apart, and they tend to compress too much. Some other synthetics are more like a sheet of material – sort of a blanket of insulation. Then you’ll see how they quilt through those fills to keep them from moving around. That’s why you see those interesting patterns on jackets – it’s not just for looks, it’s to keep the insulation from moving around and breaking down too much. When it moves around in your jacket, you get cold spots.

So puffy coats are popular because they’re so damned versatile?Yeah! If you have a lightweight synthetic like a Patagonia Nanopuff, for example, that’s the kind of jacket you can use year round! You’ll take it camping in the summertime for your nighttime jacket, and you’ll wear it around town in the winter for your daytime jacket. They do most of what we need, though they might not be the best ski jacket.

Is there a gold standard of puffies?I can’t choose! The fits are really different from one brand to another. The one you see all over town is Patagonia’s Down Sweater, and that’s because it does what it does really well. I’m a big fan of the North Face’s Thermoball, too. That’s my favorite summer jacket.

Hood or no hood?I like the hood. If it does get really nasty out, you’ve got that extra layer you can put over your head and maintain that warmth a lot more than you’d maintain it without.

Little-known care facts?You should wash your down! People do not wash their jackets often enough! You don’t have to have fancy laundry detergent – just a powder detergent or a Tech Wash from Nicwax. The reason you don’t use a liquid detergent is because there’s a water repellent treatment on most jackets and the liquid detergent tends to break down the surface tension so that your jacket doesn’t repel moisture as well. When your jacket gets dirty, the dirt inhibits the breathability of it, which makes the down want to compress. When it’s nice and clean, it’ll loft better and insulate you better.

So no dry cleaning or anything?No, no, no. Wash it on gentle so you don’t agitate it too much – that tends to tear things apart – and then just dry it in the dryer. Dry it on low and make absolutely certain that you’ve dried it all the way. It’ll take a while longer than a synthetic jacket, but it’s totally worth it. Your jacket will be nice and cozy for years to come.

Cyle Talley loves the word plumial. And that’s all he has to say about that. If there’s something you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]


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