Cleaning Down-Filled Clothes and Bedding Inexpensively

by Reader Contributors

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Cleaning down-filled clothes and bedding can be a do-it-yourself job. Try these tips to avoid the high cost and chemicals of dry cleaning down items.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
Does anyone have experience washing down-filled clothing, such as jackets, parkas, and vests, at home? I want to give our winter stuff a washing before I pack it away and would like to avoid the high cost and the chemicals of dry cleaning.

Any advice for safely cleaning down-filled clothes and bedding would be appreciated.

Tips for Cleaning Down-Filled Clothing Inexpensively

Our frugal readers were more than helpful in sharing their most effective and inexpensive tips for cleaning and caring for down-filled items. Read on to see how easy it can be to clean these things yourself and avoid dry cleaning costs.

LL Bean’s Advice for Cleaning and Drying Down Clothing

You can wash down filled items wash on the gentle cycle, but when it comes to drying, remember that it takes a very long time! I bought LL Bean jackets for my children. After going through the normal dryer cycle, I thought they were dry, they appeared dry. The down was settled at the bottom of the jackets, though, so I thought the jackets were useless, and I called LL Bean for advice. They told me to dry the jackets on low heat all day long. The down needs to dry out well, and when it does, then the down will be evenly distributed throughout the jacket.

I did as I was told. I was doubtful, but sure enough, it worked! LL Bean did say that using a commercial dryer would work faster.

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Use Your Washer for Down

I have successfully washed many downfilled items in my washer at home. The first thing to remember is these items do take more time and a certain amount of special care when doing them yourself.

Start with the large setting/gentle cycle on your washer, and ALWAYS use cold water for both the wash and rinse cycles. It may be better to wash a couple of jackets or vests simultaneously, as the down-filled items tend to become quite heavy when wet and will often cause your washer to become “unbalanced”. Then your washer will “walk” across the floor ( believe me on this one).

Use a good cold water wash type detergent, like Woolite®, or a generic store brand. One which has a nice fragrance and is safe for silk. You may want to use some to spot-clean any particularly dirty areas, like cuffs or elbows. When washing, be sure to squish the jacket under the water, until it is submersed under the water. Remember, the down causes the jacket to float. If it does this, your jacket will just float around on top of the water and will not get clean.

When drying, you will need to use the lower heat setting on your dryer. And you must dry them in a dryer. Air drying will not give you the desired results. Put several (3-4) clean tennis balls in the dryer with the jackets, and dry for about 45-60 min. The tennis balls help to fluff up the down in the jacket, so you won’t have lumps and thick areas. Be sure to check jackets/vests occasionally, and make sure that sleeves are still outside the jacket and the tennis balls aren’t tangled up in the pockets or sleeves.

This is a bit time-consuming but well worth the savings of a dry cleaner. Remember, this is a laundry project to do when you have the time to pay attention to your jackets. Don’t just put them in a washer or dryer and leave them. You may want to experiment on an older jacket or vest if you are unsure what the results may be. But I have used it and have been very happy with the results.

Detergent Matters When Cleaning Down

Down-filled clothing, sleeping bags, etc., cannot be washed with regular detergents as they stick to the feathers, and the down loses its “loft”, which is the air fluffiness that traps the warmth. You should wash these items in a front-loading machine so that the blades in your machine do not mash up the garment/sleeping bag. There are commercial detergents available specifically for down, called down-suds or down-wash (by Nikwax), that will preserve the integrity of the feathers. One bottle will wash two down sleeping bags or several jackets etc.

It is worth using the correct detergent, or your down will be ruined. Why buy expensive, long-lasting clothes if you don’t care for them?
Siobhan J.

Some Suggestions

On multiple occasions, I have successfully washed down filled clothing (the kind with nylon shells) using Woolite® and warm to cold water. Fill the washer and add the Woolite®. It’s hard to get a down coat completely wet, as the air pockets in the down make it keep popping up. Keep working at it to get it as wet as you can. Run it partway through the cycle and then turn the machine off to let it soak awhile.

Later, complete the cycle. It might be a good idea when it’s done to run it through again without any detergent at all to make sure it’s rinsed very well. Place in a dryer on the AIR setting. You don’t want any heat here. Place a clean tennis shoe or one to two clean tennis balls in with the coat and turn it on. My dryer had a time setting for the AIR cycle, so I’d set it for an hour, check the coat, do another hour, check, etc. until it was dry. The shoe/balls are essential for fluffing the down.

I have done this only with coats. I have a down comforter and was advised by the company that supplied the fabric (I made it from a kit) that washing it would remove the down-proof treatment on the fabric, so although the fabric appeared to be washable, judging by the fiber content, it was not. They said to definitely dry clean comforters. But I’ve never noticed an increase in the loss of feathers from machine-washed down jackets.
Diane in Middletown, VA

Check the Outer Shell and Move Gently

Yes, you can wash your down-filled garments! The last time I tried to clean a feather/down-filled item, the cleaners refused to take it. Apparently, they had “cleaned” a down comforter that opened up in their equipment, and it cost them a fortune to get it all repaired and cleaned out. Since fowl live outside and they get wet, I figured feathers HAD to be washable.

The first thing is to check to ensure the shell material is washable – this is critical. Then, take fabric (preferably white) with a very tight weave and make it into a bag about twice the size of the garment. Stitch with a very fine stitch and good, strong thread. Put your garment in the bag and stitch closed with a small stitch. (The purpose of this is in case the garment should open up in washing, you won’t have feathers and down everywhere – ask me how I know this!)

Then, put it in the washer on a gentle cycle. Do not use detergent, but something like Orvis® soap or Woolite®. Make sure you over-fill the tub with water. Agitate for 3-5 minutes, then rinse through the rinse cycle 2 or 3 times. When you spin, make sure your washer spins it as fast as possible. Then, shake it out and hang it for a couple of hours (still in the sewn bag) and then do another load of laundry with sneakers. Then put the sneakers and the bag in the dryer on low heat. You need the sneakers to “beat” the down and feathers as they dry. Depending on the size, and amount of feathers, it may take longer to dry than normal garments. If you have no humidity, you could air dry almost completely before the dryer is used, then use low heat and then air dry. It is critical that you have the sneakers to fluff up the down.

Then, cut open the bag and take out your garment, and voila, it’s like new. I use this method for all the bed pillows. They do take longer to dry, but come out just like brand new!
Linda in Orlando, Florida

Read the Label Before Cleaning Down

Always read the label first! Basically, down can be washed, but fabric, embellishments, etc., need to be considered. Assuming that everything points toward a washable garment, small quilt, etc., proceed as follows: Down garments can be hand or machine-washed on the delicate cycle. Use warm water and a mild soap which must be completely dissolved before adding to the water. Both methods require that the air is hand squeezed out of the item; handle it gently, no wringing or twisting. Support the garment when removing it from the water to protect seams and prevent the down from being forced through the fabric.

Dry the down garment in the dryer at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit (66 degrees Celsius). Add a few bath towels (clean ones!) to absorb some of the moisture and a pair of CLEAN sneakers to break up the clumps of down. It will take several cycles to dry the garment completely, which is important as down can easily get moldy. Down can also be dried outdoors. Drape it over several lines to support the weight or clip a large towel to the first and last clothesline, on which you can then lay the garment. Fluff it up periodically to speed drying. Clumps of down may have to be separated by hand-pulling, but not until somewhat dry. Do not use force!

If a down pod works its way through the fabric, pull it back in by grasping it from the back. Down garments can be dry cleaned with a petroleum-based solvent (Stoddard’s Solution). However, they should never be dry cleaned in the “do-it-yourself” machines.

This whole procedure looks like a time-consuming job, but consider that with proper care, it will not have to be done too often. When one is done with, for instance, wearing a jacket, it should be hung to air it out. The moisture and/or perspiration must be dried. This will also eliminate body odor.

Down is a natural material and, for seasonal storage, after washing and drying, should be stored loosely in a dry, cool, dark place under a paper cover. Do not put it into a plastic bag.

Good Luck,

Comforter Advice

As someone who owns three down-filled comforters, I understand trying to avoid the cost of dry-cleaning. After my muddy dog ran all over one of my down-filled comforters, I called the Down Company (where I purchased the quilt). They told me you can wash (with Woolite®) a down comforter in a front-loading washing machine on the gentle cycle. Top loaders’ agitators will break the quill of the feather. Then air dry in a drying machine; do not use heat or you will scorch the feathers.

I’ve done this several times with each of my comforters. Aside from being clean, it hasn’t affected them.
Barbara L’E.

Reviewed November 2023

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