Q&A Synthetic Fill Longevity
I noticed that the synthetic insulation degrades fairly quickly up to a certain point (I read 20-30%) and then a little more over a slower period (especially how we use it), up to 50%(I just thought I was getting older each year and feeling the cold more). I read somewhere that pile and fleece lose some loft from compression, but it can be restored by fluffing it in a dryer or shacking it out vigorously.
The main issue with a lot of ‘high tech’ synthetic fiberfill insulations is that their apparent loft has been manipulated to look as impressive as possible in order to boost sales, a little like how someone selling shellfish by weight will keep them in a bucket of saltwater right up until they’re weighed, not to keep them alive, but to give them the maximum weight.
This is the same with all (naming no names) top-end high tech fills, the insulators that show performance stats that show their fills are equal - or better than down (what quality of down is not specified, but it’s probably chicken down!).
How this is achieved depends on many factors, but most important of all is that testing is not carried out for longevity, but rather loft when brand spanking new. Also, this is not three-sigma testing, and what you’ll find in a garment five years after launch may even be what was tested. This isn’t to say that the process is corrupt, but rather the process is simply a marketing one, not a safety one (even though a belay jacket or sleeping bag is safety equipment).
I suppose this kind of testing would give fantastic results from 100 grams of candy floss, but buying a candy floss-filled jacket would demonstrate how limited a sugar fill actually was (and messy).
These high-tech fills will often bombard you with all sorts of tech jargon and molecular chemistry, how their fibers are this shape or that, twisted or bent, chopped, or coated in graphene, or the latest trendy tech. You will of course have fibers that are more environmentally aware, or ‘smart’, or are designed in the lab to tackle racial inequality.
In reality, you cannot get something from nothing, and in the medium to long term, if it feels like less (lighter, more compact), then nothing, or less, is what you’ll get.
This manifests itself in garments and sleeping bags that deflate, where once bulging baffles sag and become flaccid, their once-proud fills just sat like the cut hair on the barber’s floor. Very soon the only insulation you have is the two layers of featherweight fabric and the baffles themselves, turning a once state-of-the-art synthetic-filled insulating piece of clothing, into a sad and overpriced windproof.
You will also find this with some very low quality down, which can be equally “boosted” to look good in the shop, but like a budget down quilt, soon has all the oomph of a deflated inner tube.
Both low quality down and the most expensive of fiberfill share the same problem, in that they are actually zombie fills, in that they are actually dead, and have no life of their own, but have simply been animated for a while, to look like living breathing insulators while on the hanger, but, like all dead things, will eventually rot away.
But in their defence, one reason why such fills are popular is that their very lack of robustness makes them less stiff and pliable, creating greater drape and apparent softness, creating more commercial garments, which is where the money is. Yes, they may well become lacklustre within a year, while a stiffer jacket will not, but when you live in a fast and medium fashion world, people don’t complain, they just by what they’re told is the next big thing.
So what are the best synthetic insulators? Well, you want to avoid the sweet taste of candy floss, and rather look towards hard metallic steel wools, insulators that are designed on a foundation of robustness and longevity in fill power, rather than just easy sales.
This will always be silicone-coated continuous filament fibres, where the wadding is made up mind boggle]ing long micro strands of extruded polyester, not mincemeat of fibres (the lowest end “down jackets” will be made up of ground-up rags).
Such robust fills, when compressed, will bounce back to life to a much more predictable degree, even when compressed for many years, which is why they tend to be used in survival gear, such as survival suits and emergency sleeping bags, that are vacuum packed for decades, rather than more high tech fills.
The best example of this would be anything from the Polargaurd family, which whatever the flavour (Delta, HV, 3D etc), provides long term and stable insulation. Perhaps the most high-end offering at present would be Climeshield, which has the added advantage of being able to be sewn into bags without the use of baffles or shingles, and so maximising the performance and loft of the material (you will also find several companies selling Climeshield and Polargaurd under their own brand names, but if it’s a silicone-coated continuous filament fibre, then it’s probably one of the other).
Of course, be your sleeping bag or jacket down or synthetic, just like a brand new car, you will always lose some of the shine, newness, loft, as soon as you use it, with a robust sleeping bag perhaps losing 10% or 20% of its initial loft within the first few months, or as soon as it gets really wet. But whereas a high tech piece will continually degrade over time (perhaps in just a year or two with heavy use), to the point it only has 20% of its insulation left, more robust insulation will maintain its 80% effectiveness for the life of the piece.
Of course, the trade off here is the difference between a steel-framed bike and a carbon fibre one, that one is heavy and robust and will last forever, while the other is weaker and has a premium price, but way faster (and sexier). You are not going to find Arcteryx or Patagonia making top-end clothing out of heavy-duty insulators, that will last for years when there are sexier insulators on offer.
If you want this kind of robust insulation you’ll have to do a little more research and separate the wheat from the bullshit, but generally, you won’t find it easily in ‘performance’ clothing, but rather gear made for dog sleding, or working on Alaskan oil rigs. Even military clothing and equipment suffers from these issues, no doubt due to either building such kit off the back of civilian gear, or due to lobbying on behalf of mills making what appear to be state of the art fills (they might be state of the art for golf apparel, but less for when sleeping in a water logged trench) becouse But even here it’s getting harder to find, as most gear designers are clueless about how poor the latest fill innovation really is, or don’t really care, after all, it’s all fast fashion really, and if adding the current must gave swing tag to a garment helps it sell, isn’t that the ultimate job of an equipment designer these days?