Year-Round Down: Make a Sleeping Bag Cover

If you want to use your sleeping bags for more than camping, follow these instructions to sew a sleeping bag cover.
By Bonnie Mandoe
March/April 1983
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The basic down sleeping bag is a great outdoor bed, but add a sleeping bag cover and it becomes even more.
Photo by Karen Turnbull

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If you've ever packed into the back country, or piled your young'uns (and their seemingly endless array of gear) into the car and headed off for a sojourn in the woods, or even just pitched the old pup tent in a friend's yard while traveling, chances are that you've experienced the cozy comfort of a good down sleeping bag.

I have, and I put a value on my down-filled snoozer that's far higher than the bag's actual cash price. After all, the portable "bed" is light to carry, it can be compacted into a small mass for packing, and— once fluffed out to its full loft and I'm snuggled inside — it's toasty enough to combat even the chill of a winter-camping morning.

Furthermore, if given proper care, a quality down bag will last for many years. My husband and I received our traveling sleepers as wedding presents, and even though they've already seen seven years of hard use they still look as good as new.

In addition to offering warmth, compactability, light weight, and long wear, a down bag has another potential bonus: it needn't go into storage at all. Add a sleeping bag cover — one that converts it into comforter in winter, another to make it a bolster in summer — and your "vacation bedding" will serve you year round, not just when a camping trip is in the offing.  

The Comforter

A good number of folks, of course, do turn their sleeping bags into blankets by simply tossing the sacks over their beds at night. However, my experience with this "improvised quilt" technique seemed always to end with my waking up shivering in the middle of the night because the bag had skittered off the bed and was lying on the floor in a large heap (likely with a sleepy dog snuggled on top). So, to make sure that the sack stays in place and warms my toes instead of those of my canine friends, I borrowed an old Scandinavian idea and devised a slip cover that effectively domesticates the slithery outdoor bedding.

Any sleeping bag that can be unzipped to lie completely flat is a comforter candidate. And the only supplies you'll need to make the conversion are a spool of thread, some straight pins, and enough material to encase the down sleeper. I find that two colorful full-sized (81" x 96") cotton sheets can be used to make an excellent cover. If you prefer a different fabric, though (some folks like to use flannel), just prepare two sheet-sized sections, and hem one of the narrow ends of each piece.

Now, you're ready to construct the cover. Lay the two sheets — right sides together — on a firm, flat surface (in my house that's the floor, with newspapers spread out to keep my work clean), and spread the unzipped down bag, opened flat, on top so that the hemmed edges of the fabric pieces extend an inch or so beyond the end of the sack. Then, while carefully holding the feather-filled sleeper in position, use a felt tipped pen or tailor's chalk to trace the form of the bag on the cloth.

With that done, remove the sack, pin the two sheets together along your tracing, and cut out the shape, leaving a 1" margin between the pin line and your cutting line. Next, sew a 3/8" seam around the three unhemmed sides of the material. Then simply remove the pins, turn the cover right side out, and slip your sleeping bag inside! To keep it there, attach snaps, strips of Velcro fastener, or ribbon ties to the open edges of the casing.

The completed coverlet will keep your sleeping bag clean and add a nonslippery down comforter to your family's supply of winter bedding. What's more, when you next go camping — especially in cold weather — you can slip the homemade comforter casing inside your sleeping bag to provide additional warmth and to protect the sack's inner surfaces.

The Bolster

While the comforter cover/bag liner can help you get full use of your sleeper during the cold season, you might wonder what to do with that expensive piece of equipment when you're between campouts during the warm months to come. Well, after the summer sun thaws the comforter off my bed, I simply slip the feathered bedwarmer into a bolster cover and use the bag as a cylindrical pillow! The case is easy to construct, and since it's bigger than the average stuff sack, it's less likely to mat the fragile down filling.

The only raw materials needed to make the headrest cover are a 39" length — just over a yard — of 36"-wide material (I find a medium- to heavyweight fabric works best), thread, straight pins, and a couple of strips of Velcro fastener.

A 23" x 39" rectangle (to be rolled up into a tube), and end-piece circles about 11 1/2" in diameter, will neatly house my 4 1/4-pound down sleeping bag. If your sleeper is radically different in weight, you might consider custom-designing your cover. To do so, roll up your sleeping bag and slip it in a pillowcase. Then measure [a] the diameter of the end circle (add 1 1/2" for the seam allowance), [b] the length of the roll, and [c] the distance around the cylinder (add 8" to this measurement to provide an overlap of material). Now — using Fig. 2 as an example — make your own pattern, mark it on the fabric, and cut out the three sections.

Once that's done, go on to make finished hems on the narrow sides of the rectangular piece of material (the 23" edges) by turning each end under 1/2" and then 1/2 " again, and stitching the border.

Next, pin one of the circular pieces to the long (39") side of the rectangular section — right sides facing — and sew these components together, running the seam 3/8" from the edges of the material. (You'll actually be stitching completely around the circle, and then starting over, since the large piece will overlap itself.) Pin the other circle into place at the opposite end of the cylinder, again with the right sides of the material facing each other. Attach this section with extra care, spacing the fabric evenly so that the overlap is the same length on both ends of the pillow, and go on to stitch the circle in place.

Now, simply remove all the pins, turn the cover right side out, and stuff the rolled-up sleeping bag inside it! Two strips of Velcro fastener along the open edge will hold the cover closed.

That doesn't sound hard, does it? You can stitch up both sleeping bag covers in a couple of hours, and the results will warm your bones on a winter's eve or cradle your head under the summer sun!

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