The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Sunday 8 February 2009

Making A Quilt

Quilts. Quilts for backpacking purposes, that is. You don’t hear much about their use in the UK, do you?

Rab has its Topbag, which seemed to employ the main principle of the quilt (i.e. there’s no point in having insulation under you because it gets crushed and gives no warmth).

The problem* that I have with a product like a Topbag is that I roll around during the night and fear that the uninsulated side would end up on top of me repeatedly. On the same basis, I didn’t think that a quilt would work for me either.

I now find my ‘I couldn’t use a quilt’ and ‘Quilts are not for UK backpacking’ theories shaken, for I have now not just seen and felt one, but made one to a tried and tested design. I was mightily impressed with that design (perhaps my preconceptions were just too low – I think quilt and I think of a non-technical rectangle of insulation-filled fabric).

All of this came about when a large box arrived from Darren, containing the quilt kit that he had ordered from Ray Jardine.

Late on Monday afternoon, with time on my hands, curiosity as to the exact contents of the box (and the exact nature of the task for which I had volunteered myself) got the better of me and, after a brief battle with the packing tape, the contents were liberated and explored.

After reading the eight pages of instructions twice over, I felt ready to make a start so during the evening I laid out the material and (after a bit of input from Darren to tell me how big he was) did the initial cutting, to bring the shell material and the insulation down to the basic size.

Tuesday was a big-time-snow-day and I had no desire to go out and play in it, which gave me the entire day to dedicate to quilt making.

According to the Ray Jardine website, a novice can make the quilt in five to eight hours. I didn’t time myself, but can say with certainty that it took me significantly longer than that. However, given that I wasn’t making it for myself, I made doubly sure that I got all of the measurements right and read each individual instruction three times over before I acted on it. I don’t think that Ray’s timings allow for being unhappy with the neatness of a seam and unpicking it all either! Now that I know the process, I’m sure that I could make another one within eight hours.

It was interesting project that kept me out of mischief (and also meant that the housework didn’t get done – ooops).

The features of the finished article that particularly impressed me were:

  1. The ‘gorget’. That’s the top bit of the quilt which is shaped so that it cups over the shoulders. It reduces the propensity of the quilt to shift off the shoulders in the night and also reduces draughts. This is an optional feature, but it seems to me that its advantage outweighs the fact that it makes the whole thing a bit more tricky to sew.
  2. The recommended sizing of the quilt is such that there’s plenty to wrap around yourself. It doesn’t simply lie over you, just touching the floor and ready to let in draughts each time you move;
  3. It has a foot-box, which again reduces the likelihood of accidentally shucking the quilt off in the night;
  4. It has a draft-stopper right around the top and down the sides. This is just an un-insulated single layer of fabric, but as its name suggests, it is designed to stop draughts getting in.

The downside is that, because of the generous design, it uses about the same amount of fabric as a sleeping bag, and because it is filled with synthetic insulation, it is heavier than an equivalent down sleeping bag.

This is where the Ray-Way theory of quilts vs. down sleeping bags comes in. I shall not reiterate that theory, but it’s there to be seen on Ray’s website (and I’m afraid that I can’t quite buy into that theory myself).

The end result of the sewing project was, however, that I have moved from my previous view of ‘quilts definitely not for me’ to ‘I’d quite happily to trial one of these' – and that is quite a leap.

I was obviously a bit bored this week, because not only did I make the quilt but I also took a few photos as I went along and spent an inordinate amount of time putting together a little slide-show sort of thing about its making:

* Actually, now I look at the latest design of Rab Topbag I see that it has a sleeve for the sleepmat, which must remove the problem of waking up cold with the insulated side under you.


  1. Darren had more insulation due to the Alpine order? If you make to measure you should perfect the cut even more. Double layer on the chest single on the feet would save weight. I looked at lots makes lately...well only three., Mountain Laurel Design and Nunatak. The last are the biz. Light, down and have tabs on the bag to hold it on a sleeping pad. Also I just remembered that Golite make one as well. Are they that good? would it save weight? Why don't TGO review a load? Will you get one?

  2. Given that my Marmot sleepin bag is rated to zero degrees C and weighs 670g I cant see how a Ray Way quilt is lighter and less bulky alternative. I twist and turn alot in my sleep so I'm always pulling my duvet back on my bed. In a tent my sleepin bag rotates countless times during the night so I have a fair idea that a quilt wouldnt be a good idea for me.

  3. Is that a Atom Baz?. I had one of them. Not bad but has its flaws. Saying that I think your spot on on the weight issue. And bulk issue. But some down quilts have huge loft vs weight and offer warmth and weight saving. Check: sub 500g quilts that keep you warm down to zero deg.

  4. Martin - Eeek, what a lot of questions! Although I would be happy to try out a quilt, now that I've seen one, I won't be rushing out to buy one. Aside from the weight/bulk issues, if I had that many pennies knocking around for kit, I'd be buying a new pair of boots and a daysack. So, until I win the lotto to fund frivolous bits of kit, I will be sticking with my tried and tested sleeping bag.

    Baz - As I said in the post, it is heavier than a down bag. It is also bulkier, although it did crush down to a surprisingly small size. So, to justify choosing one over down you need to buy into Ray's synthetic quilt vs. down bag theory (and I'm not quite there). So, my collection of down bags is safe for the time being!

  5. Vote for the two person ray-way quilt from me. We were a bit lazy and missed out the draft excluder (it was for tent not tarp use) and the foot box as I couldn't quite see the point. Funnily enough, I think the quilt is much better than a sleeping bag because I twist and turn in the night. The days of waking up in a panic with my sleeping bag strangling me are now gone :-). Practically you are much less likely to shrug off a duvet in a tent than in a bed simply because you are lying on a floor so don't have to worry about gravity pulling the duvet down (imho). We did go for the alpine upgrade option and we've happily slept under the quilt throughout the year backpacking up in Scotland. They are certainly bulkier to pack than a nice small down sleeping bag, but overall I wouldn't go back now.

  6. I thought long and hard about cutting my Cumulus bag (approx 700g -6C Deg) bag for the USA CDT last year and I am so glad I chose not to.
    If there is one thing that will save you from hypothermia it's a dry warm bag.
    (I also upgraded to a 0F deg bag in Colorado)

  7. Well done on the walk you did Andy. I don't see why a quilt could not do the same for you. People hiked the same trails as you did using 500g - 700g down quilts and took no harm. It is an interesting debate this one.

  8. Hi James - good to see a success story for quilt use within the UK.

    Despite my claims that I won't be trying a quilt any time soon, I seem to have spent a good chunk of this afternoon researching the materials that are available in the UK, to see how cheaply I could knock one together, just for trial purposes...

  9. i have a rab top bag and it weighs in at 366g.i used it across the alps [gr5] with temperatures down to 0c.there great bags.i still can't see the point of a quilt