Feathers: A Summertime Saga

In the distant undemanding past, in those trouble-free days B.C. (Before Children), unburdened as we were even by cordless telephones, car alarms or e-mail, my wife and I were given a fluffy eiderdown comforter as an anniversary present. I expect it cost a fortune as my mother, the donor, was typically generous with this kind of thing; it certainly seemed big enough, sitting there all boxed up on our porch one afternoon, like a smallish hippopotamus packed for transport. I fancied the FedEx driver must have felt grateful to get half his van freed up for the trip home.

Interestingly, the comforter after being unpacked started to expand itself even further until it assumed its full pneumatic grandeur, an impossibly soft slab almost as thick as our mattress and considerably broader.  A Colossal Comforter.  We were impressed.

I still remember the look of serenity on my wife’s face when she wrapped the thing around herself to give it a test-drive: the poor woman nearly melted with delight.  She was instantly warm – toasty, snuggly, deeply warm, maybe for the first time since we’d moved up to Northern California from balmy Los Angeles a few years previous.

Before pressing on I should digress a moment on the topic of warmth, and my spouse’s unique ability to soak it up like a sponge.  Possibly, she was a sensitive tropical plant in a previous life.  She reflexively comments on ‘the cold’ when the mercury plummets below seventy five degrees Fahrenheit.  She favors a layer of wool regardless of season; in fact her winter clothing trunk is her closet.  And I can solemnly attest after twenty nine years of close observation that dozens of beds personally occupied by myself have become instantly frigid, merely because she has put her feet into them.

Hence our joy at the Colossal Comforter’s arrival.  Wicked nighttime (and nights do routinely cool off in our neck of Sonoma County) held no fearful sway o’er her now.  Herein, she was warm.

About two-thirty the next morning we simultaneously flung back the Colossal Comforter from our bed and sat up in the darkness, trembling, dizzy, literally gasping for breath.  We were both soaked in sweat.  Steamed, like a pair of five-spice pork buns.  The eiderdown had nearly killed us!

Thus, Feather Lesson #1: to avoid hyperthermia and/or life-threatening dehydration, only deploy a Colossal Comforter when ambient temperatures creep below fifty degrees.  In fact, just leave the bedroom window wide open at night.  Only when things are Not Warm, can one really enjoy the pleasure of being Warm.

Eventually comes laundry time, and so to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, observe Feather Lesson #2: get a coverlet for your Colossal Comforter.  Now, you’ll need an Enormous Coverlet for a Colossal Comforter, but it’s worth it.  It’s really just a huge sack into which one inserts the C.C., and then you button up the open side.  It’s easy to wash and it takes the brunt of many spills, most of them likely coffee.  The only problem with the Enormous Coverlet is simply getting it back onto the Colossal Comforter once you’ve laundered it.  This is quite a wrestling match for something so genteel.

According to the brochure, washing the Colossal Comforter itself is a simple business; I think that means you should send the thing out to a simple business, namely any local dry cleaner that can handle down-filled items the size of a Toyota.  Failing this, you must clean it yourself:  by hand, with a ‘mild detergent’ (and who, I’d like to know, advertises their brand as “good and harsh”?) in a bathtub or a ‘large container’ by which they presumably mean a swimming pool, not a clothes washer.

Feather Lesson #3: you cannot launder a Colossal Comforter in the average clothes washer.  It’s like trying to stuff a live octopus into a coffee can; try as you may it just doesn’t seem to go there.   It turned out that the easiest place to wash the Colossal Comforter is the shower, not the tub.  (Note: we don’t have a swimming pool so more research is still needed on this.)

You simply drag the thing in the shower after you, along with a scrub-brush and a bar of soap.  OK, maybe “simply” isn’t the right word; it does take up the lion’s share of the shower, and seems to want fifteen minutes just to get thoroughly wet.

(Second note: my wife assures the reader that the sight of a tall, skinny, hairy man trying to squeeze the air out of a sopping seven-foot pancake inside a shower stall is worth lingering around to watch; keep the camera handy.)

When wet, even the Colossallest Comforter will collapse like a neutron star to a lump about 1/100th of its original volume, so it’s a lot easier getting it out of the shower than in.  This leads to Feather Lesson #4: the best place to get the thing dry is a nice green freshly raked lawn.  You spread the comforter out flat on the grass and let Mr. Sun do the work.  After an hour or three, turn it over.

You may find that by day’s end the Colossal Comforter is not 100% bone dry, but the final stretch can be accomplished in the home dryer as long as you remember Feather Lesson #5: put three or four clean tennis balls in with it, when you use a dryer.  This is essential to fluff it up as it tumbles; hence the phrase, “bouncing around like tennis balls in a dryer,” oft used by Mrs. Bittner to describe our composure during Fourth Grade Study Hall.

Line drying the Colossal Comforter is certainly possible, but make sure your clothesline (and clothespins!) can handle it.  Strung up vertically, the comforter acts like a big heavy sail and if the breeze freshens it can exert a tremendous force.  The comforter either pulls itself loose or pulls the clothesline right off the post.  Neither is recommended.

So why does the Colossal Comforter fit into the dryer but not the washer?  Every time it gets wet, it becomes slightly less Colossal when it recovers; feathers become crushed or broken, they poke out and escape in ones and twos, or bunch up at the edges.  Ours, like most of them, is made like a big quilt of communicating panels and as time goes by the feathers do communicate.  In fact they seem to migrate, like their original owners.  And when practically devoid of feathers in the middle, the comforter won’t keep your poor wife warm.  So in the spirit of “fix it, don’t replace it,” we decided it was time to re-stuff the Colossal Comforter with an influx of new feathers.

We found a few companies who offered this unique service, but it was pricey.  Finally an Internet search turned up somebody near Seattle who not only refurbished down comforters but sold four different kinds of feathers by mail.  That clinched it: we would re-feather our Colossal Comforter ourselves as a family project.

Feather Lesson #6: never re-feather your own comforter yourself as a family project.

First will arrive the postal van with what appears to be a torpedo seven feet long poking out of one window.  It is actually a 1-pound container of Mixed Goose And Chicken Feathers, the minimum amount the consumer may order of the cheapest feathers Seattle sells.  As soon as you close your front door your squirmingly curious child will open one end of the thing to check out the contents…which gush into the room like a fire hydrant with even the slightest pressure on the torpedo’s sides.

Whoosh!   Feathers feathers FEATHERS, they go EVERYWHERE, instantly!  They’re up, they’re down, they’re left, right, hither and thither, in your eyes, up your nose, in your mouth, in your hair, on the drapes, all over your arms and legs – in fact anyplace in the whole room except back in their nice torpedo.

Try grabbing a loose floating feather some time, then mentally multiply this exercise by eleven billion.  You have our family project’s first evening.

After going nearly mad for two more days (every time you open your front door, the living room becomes a life-size Snow Globe) I came up with the solution: put a clean new bag into the vacuum cleaner, and just suck ’em all up.  It worked a treat.  Then when you’re done, you remove the bag and snip it open with scissors and 80% of the feathers will instantly GUSH out all over the place again.

Insert another new bag into the vacuum cleaner and repeat the above steps.   Omit the scissors.

As luck would have it our comforter has 32 quilt panels, making it an easy math project of half an ounce of new feathers per panel.  Well… “easy” maybe as far as the math goes.  First off, just how do you weigh half an ounce of feathers?

Answer: CAREFULLY.  Very,  v – e – r – y  carefully.  Which is how you do EVERYTHING around lots of feathers.  Ver – y … slow – ly.  And most important, without breathing.  It’s kind of like working in a nuclear bomb factory.  Only, funnier.

A postal scale does the trick.  Your typical produce bag, augmented with a paper clip or two, weighs half an ounce, so when the scale is tipped to “1” then the bag is holding your comforter’s panel refill.

Ignoring the small explosion of feathers inevitably accompanying the opening of the torpedo, you take a deep breath and reach in, ignoring the feathers that whoosh out when you do this, too.  You try to determine when your hand is actually submerged in feathers – not so easy when you can’t see it – and close your fist.  Even this action somehow drives yet more feathers into the air, though not so many as withdrawing your arm, itself now covered in feathers to the elbow.

Transfer your fistful carefully, v – e – r – y  carefully, to the open produce bag and deposit it within, spilling many more feathers.  Do it again, until the postal scale tips to 1 ounce.  Exhale at last.  Then vacuum up all the escaped feathers.

Once again I am advised that the camera should be kept handy, since the extreme facial contortions unknowingly achieved by the feather-carrier during this process are rarely seen outside classical Japanese theater.

Carefully, v – e – r – y  carefully, stuff the measured half ounce of feathers through a little slot in the comforter panel that you’ve sliced open, and sew it shut.  Ta-daa!

Repeat, 31 more times.

It’s a good idea to start this project directly after winter because realistically, it takes about ten months to finish.  This includes the inevitable hiatus after feathers are discovered inside the refrigerator; also, the big freak-out when they somehow turn up inside the computer’s CD reader.  Be strong, o ye pilgrim!  Keep the faith!  And remember always to move slowly, and without breathing.

Yes, a moment will come when you’re done at last, proud owners of a once again Colossal Comforter.  And now, it’s one that is really yours.  We felt so thrilled that first night, snuggled together beneath the C.C.’s luxuriant mantle.  We were pleased that we’d accomplished the task ourselves and brought warmth back into our lives.

Then about two-thirty the next morning we simultaneously flung back the Colossal Comforter from our bed and sat up in the darkness, trembling, dizzy, literally gasping for breath.  We were both soaked in sweat.  Steamed, like a pair of five-spice pork buns.  The eiderdown had nearly killed us!

One thought on “Feathers: A Summertime Saga

  1. This was hilarious. However, at the general low-cost of even colossal comforters, I can only assume you are either crazy people or really wanted to see what would happen if you tried to re-stuff a comforter! I live in Sacramento and we can only use our down cover (and a flannel sheet…period!…) in the coldest months (Nov-maybe mid-Apr.). Sonoma can’t be much colder than Sacramento! The descriptions and tips are priceless. I’d love to see the pictures too!! Did you try getting the whole family to hold the corners and flap the CC up and down like a giant wing? It helps re-distribute the feathers in their little chambers. Covering the CC with the EC takes a physics degree or at least a good deal of virtual geometry and patience (usually on the part of the physics degree holder regarding the non-holder trying to understand which corner goes where first and then you do what??). We don’t drink or eat in bed…no spills, less laundering. However did you sew up the squares after you got them re-filled!!?? You guys ARE crazy!!