Wednesday, February 20, 2013

DIY Karo Top Quilt

I'd been thinking about sewing a down top quilt to replace my sleeping bag ever since I converted to hammocking.  But I'd always been confused by all the different quilt designs, and had heard horror stories of working with down.  At my first Hammock Forums group hang in January, I was inspired by all the DIY gear, and one of the HF members recommended the karo pattern as a good first project.  After many hours of reading, consulting with HF members, and sewing, I just finished my first DIY down project, a lightweight TQ for summer.  It was enjoyable learning how to design and construct this quilt, and am really eager for warmer weather so I can test it out.
My first DIY top quilt.
Top quilts provide a lighter-weight alternative to sleeping bags and are especially great for hammockers.  This top quilt design is called a karo step because it has many short baffles arranged in open squares, and they have several advantages over traditional quilts with many closed baffles.  I choose the karo quilt for my first project because I want a summer quilt that I can shift the down to regulate temperature, and I thought it'd be easier to stuff the down into the single chamber.
The quilt packs down into a 2 L dry sack- much smaller than my sleeping bag
Finished specs:
    Weight:  11.4 oz (5 oz 850 fill down)
    Quilt size: 75" x 36" x 40"
    Baffle height: 1" (but ended up being about 1.5")
    Box size: 12" square, with 6" baffles and 6" gaps
    Fabric: 1.1 oz ripstop nylon 2nds- DIY Gear Supply - $16
    Down:  $33.75 + $6 shipping from Wilderness Logics
    Baffles: white tulle, $1.25 from Joann's fabrics

    Total cost of materials: $51 (plus $16 shipping)

-Since it's a summer quilt, I used fabric that isn't treated with DWR so it will breath and dry out faster when I sweat.  I used 1.1 ripstop that was down-proof, and Scott at DIY Gear Supply quickly answered by question about this fabric-- both sides are calendared so there is no "shiny" side.    I was tempted by lighterweight fabrics, but since this was my first project, I opted to use inexpensive (and easier) material.  Plus I could just cut it with regular sewing scissors and give the edges a rolled hem and didn't have to bother with the various methods to heat seal the edges which many use on thinner fabrics.  It just took me a few tries with scrap material to get the tension adjusted on my sewing machine (i.e. longer stiches) so the fabric wouldn't pucker.  It was nice material to work with.

-The design is based on karo quilts made by MAD777, teedee, animalcontrol, and chickenwing.  The wealth of information on HF contributed by these guys and others was incredibly helpful.

-I custom sized the quilt based on my measurements, following this discussion.  I calculated a length of 75 inches by taking my height of 5'9" and adding 6 inches.  For the bottom width, my size 11 shoe size (men's) yielded a circumference of 34.5 inches which I rounded up to 36 inches.  Determining the width at the top was more tricky.  Standard quilts are 45-50 inches, but I wanted to try narrower since I don't intend to use it to go to ground.  My shoulder width (measured from the floor across the top of my shoulders) was 28 inches so theoretically I could get away with 33 inches (width plus 3-5 inches).  But I went a little wider so I'd have plenty to tuck under me.   Guess I'll find out how it works, and make adjustments in the next quilt accordingly.

-6 inch baffles with 6 inch gaps left enough room to make the sewing easy, but hopefully will be close enough together to prevent excess down shift. 
Finished size is shown by solid lines, dotted lines include 1.5 or 2 inch seam allowances.  Most baffles were 6 inches except for the side baffles which were 2 or 3 inches (caution: not to scale).

-I generally followed chickenwing's detailed instructions for the construction of the quilt, cross-referencing te-wa's instructions as well.
Triple checking the measurements and laying out the baffles with a cardboard template.
-There was a trick to cutting the baffles.  I rolled and then folded the tulle before cutting it into long strips, then used a cardboard pattern to cut each baffle down to size.

-All baffles and baffle locations on the shell were numbered with masking tape to prevent mistakes sewing the baffle to the outer shell.  Then I sewed the baffles on following this video as well as this video.  One thing I'd do different next time is to make the baffles a little shorter- they turned out to be closer to 1.5 inches, since I was so focused on sewing the baffles to the correct place that I wasn't as careful getting them the proper height.

Sewing the baffles to the outer shell.  Clothes pins keep the extra material out of the way.
-The amount of down was calculated with this google doc.  I went with 20% overstuff as recommended for the karo design to prevent down shift.

-Fronkey's method for stuffing the down was fast and efficient, and I used a vacuum with a net over the hose to pick up the few stray feathers that escaped onto the floor of the bathtub. 
Stuffing the down in my bathtub.  Hardly any mess at all.
I was delighted by how smoothly the entire construction process went.  The actual sewing went so well after reading the helpful tips on HF that I didn't even have to get out my seam ripper-- which is another first for me since I'm always messing up and making adjustments as I sew.  The step that took the longest was sorting through and deciphering all the posts on HF (I have a lifetime of experience following clothing patterns, but the terminology for "gear construction" using a "thread-injector" took some getting used to).  Next time that will go faster.

The best thing is that now I've caught the DIY gear bug.  Now, on to researching the next project...


  1. That's awesome! One of the blogs I read when prepping for the AT, it was a couple, they made a quilt for themselves and used it the entire hike. I was always impressed with the people who did that! Can't wait to see how it works. :)

  2. Aww, thanks Misti. I'm so proud of my quilt. Good to hear that others' DIY quilts have held up through the entire AT. I really want to test mine out on the trail, especially to see if the size is big enough. It's just not the same using it in my backyard when I'm not trail-tired. Spring will be here shortly though. :)

  3. Holy cow. That looks amazing. I can't wait to see it.

  4. So, how did your quilt work out for you. Was it sized right and did the down play nice inside to keep you warm enough?

    1. I love this quilt! No problem with down shift, and Im glad i had a narrow cut- the handful of times I slept on the ground were breezy but the vast majority of the time I am in my hammock and its just right. I made a second warmer version that I use more often- you should be able to find the link on my gear page- and that quilt is by far one of my favorite gear items. It was well worth the time to make this quilt. Let me know if you have questions!

  5. Do you sell these by chance?

    1. Sorry, no. Wish I could, but I don't even have my sewing machine with me this year-- one of the downsides of doing seasonal work and having to be able to pack everything into my tiny car. Maybe someday...