This season, down is up—high on everyone's list of fine cold-weather buys, whether they be freestyle skiers like the ones on these pages photographed at Stowe and Stratton, Vt. or city dwellers, schoolchildren, backpackers or bush pilots in the Far North. It is time to feather up with duck and goose down. You name it: comforters, sleeping bags, parkas, trousers, shirts, sweaters, coats, underwear, hats, mittens, jump suits, even booties.
Americans are finding down clothing as fascinating as blue jeans. Eddie Bauer of Seattle, one of the largest suppliers in the U.S., reports that most down clothing now goes to city buyers. The fad began, as most have, among high school and college students. They were the first to regard down as "honest clothing." It has no frills, needs no fuss and does what it is supposed to do.
Mountain climbers realized long ago that down is the perfect insulator, ounce for ounce the lightest and warmest covering in the world. Given proper care, it will last a lifetime, or at least as long as the fabric that contains it. Wesley Harris, president of Eddie Bauer, says, "Every garment we sell is guaranteed for life; we're proud of that. We have stringent requirements that are met in each down article we manufacture. We have confidence in our quality."
Down works in much the same way on the consumer as it does on the bird. A duck or goose ruffles its feathers when it is cold, increasing the area of plumage; thus air is trapped and the loss of body heat is minimized. The thickness of a down parka produces a similar air cushion. It is not the weight or volume of down but the amount of air trapped that creates the insulation—the "loft"—and is the key to warmth.
Feathers have a shaft, or quill. Down does not; it is held together by a tiny pod and is soft and fluffy. The greater the loft, the warmer one will be. Down also absorbs body moisture and dispels it. It can be compressed into a small space and then recover its loft quickly.
Not many years ago anyone who wore a puffy down parka looked like Orson Welles. There still are hefty, bulky parkas for severe weather, but there also are svelte windshirts for milder days.
For years skiwear manufacturers included one or two down jackets in their lines. Today, for many, it is a major portion of their business. "Down is the fashion mood of the country," says Monika Tilley of Profile in West Lebanon, N. H. "The nation has discovered honest clothing, which originated with catalog retailers such as L. L. Bean."
There are problems in working with down. "It takes infinitely more time to tailor and requires hand-stitching and skilled labor," says Tilley. "Designing is a challenge. How do you keep clothing from looking enormous and yet give it the necessary loft?"
Dale Johnson of Frostline Kits quite literally built his business from the basement up. Ten years ago he began putting together kits in his home for anyone who wanted to sew his own down equipment, and thereby save 30% to 50%. "Once I figured out how I could pre-measure and prepackage down, I was on my way," Johnson says. He has expanded his line of kits, and a catalog is available from Dept. SIE 16. Broomfield, Colo. You sew the precut garment together and slip each down packet into its proper slot. High schools are among Johnson's best customers; students—both boys and girls—are being taught how to make down gear in survival courses and home economics classes. Johnson provides the do-it-yourself enthusiast with a sense of accomplishment—and himself with $9 million a year in sales.
Members of the Feather and Down Association in New York buy and sell 20 million pounds of feathers (which yield 6.5 million pounds of down) annually. Says Executive Director Ellen Stark, "When a label reads 'Northern Goose Down' or 'European Goose Down,' it means only that the garment contains down from the northern hemisphere."
Ducks and geese are killed primarily for food, not plumage; down is a by-product. Mainland China is one of the largest producers. France and Taiwan are also exporters. Poland produces a small quantity of the finest quality.
Government standards require any garment labeled "down" to be at least 80% that (it is impossible to separate every feather from the down). The outdoor-equipment industry has adopted a higher standard—85% down and 15% feathers. The Federal Trade Commission tests down content for cleanliness and accuracy of labeling. The Feather and Down Association also spot-checks garments. Armed with a pair of tweezers, association employees separate the feathers from the down, one by one.
In cleaning any down product, the directions on the label should be followed carefully. The recommended cleaning technique is determined by the outer fabric, not by the down filling. "Any well-made garment can be washed gently, as one would wash hosiery," Dale Johnson says. "Hand-washing is preferable, but a gentle cycle in a washing machine can be used as well. Choose a mild detergent, never an agent with enzymes. Enzymes eat dirt and also down." Down-wear is said to improve with laundering. It may take two or three cycles, at moderate temperature, to thoroughly machine-dry a garment. If a clean tennis shoe is also placed in the dryer, it helps put loft back into the down. In fact, clothing dried in a machine will regain lost loft. If down must be dry-cleaned, insist that the cleaner use a fresh solvent. Dirty solvents tend to cling to the down, as will soap if the garment is not thoroughly rinsed.
Persons buying down clothing should remember to check the seams. The stitches should be small and neat, not broken or uneven. The quilted areas of a parka should be filled equally and sealed well so the down will not bunch in the corners or at the bottom. The fabric should be tightly woven in order to hold in the down, and the surface should never leak. If the fabric surface looks fuzzy, don't buy. The amount of loft or thickness will tell you how much warmth the garment will provide.
An enduring design goes back to 1932. At that time Eddie Bauer was making down-filled sleeping bags for pilots in Alaska. One day a pilot said, "Eddie, these are great, but we hate to have to cut the feet out of them so we can work the pedals. Why can't you make us a jacket that would do the job?" Bauer did, and patented the design the same year, calling the jacket the Skyliner. It is in the fall catalog for 1976, on page 38.
If the object is merely to disguise, there is always the colorful, prickly Peruvian mask, which has been around for years. But now you can keep your face unscratched and cozy while still being a mystery man. This bird wears Eddie Bauer's down mask ($17).
Clad in Evel Knievel glitter and flashing her own brand of showmanship, Penelope Street swings through practice routines before a Stratton freestyle event. Her shining breastplate is made of metallic-coated nylon and is down-filled for warmth ($46). It matches a star-studded jump suit ($150) from Profile.
Staying warm between races is ever a problem. Suzy Chaffee learned that first as an amateur. Here she maintains a rosy glow, wearing a nylon down jacket from Head ($155) over her competition suit. The elasticized waist cinches the jacket close to the body, and a shirttail adds welcome warmth.
Skiers need stretch material in their outfits, and this year they can have stretch and down, too. The parkas at right ($95), which were designed by Wini Jones of Roffe. provide stretch on the inside (special panels in the center of the back) and stretch on the outside (the colorful inserts on shoulders).
Stratton's mascot gives a bear hug to honey-haired Robin Ridenour. She is suited up in a water-repellent down parka and matching overalls made of polished cotton from Austria. The outfit, priced at $210, is by The Line. The bear has down on his chest, too.
Former Olympic downhiller Susie Corrock Zoberski, who won the bronze medal at Sapporo but is now on the freestyle trail, sports a Vener denim windshirt ($50) that is down-filled and silicone-treated for water-repellency. She tops off her outfit with an Eddie Bauer mouton-and-down arctic cap ($21).
Barry Bryant (left) and Skeeter Zoberski, Susie's husband, have traded in their bulky sheepskin coats for lightweight Western-style gear from Gerry. The new designs are of cotton-and-polyurethane suede and have nylon inside. Bryant wears a parka ($60), and Zoberski stays snug in a vest ($42.50).
Waiting for the ballet to begin at the $80,000 Colgate Women's Championship in Stowe, competitor Pat Doudna makes novel use of Eddie Bauer's down bathrobe ($75), while her rival Wendy von Allmen ducks the wind (70 mph that day) and 40-below temperatures in a hip-length White Stag parka ($50).