The Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe – the Woodcrafter’s Winter Warmer

 

The Woods Three Star Arctic Sleeping Robe

 

 

Today, outdoor folk depend on lightweight, efficient mummy shaped sleeping bags for a warm sleep.  Today’s mummy bags are truly a marvel.  Using high fill-power down, ultralight shell fabrics and advanced construction techniques, these light and lofty calorie trappers weigh less than four pounds and compress smaller than your pillow, yet are comfortable to well below 0°.  But what came before the modern mummy bag?  How did campers sleep comfortably in frigid conditions during the woodcraft age?

From the first traders to explore the North American continent until after World War II, outdoor folk used wool blankets, the most desirable being the Hudson’s Bay Company Point blanket.

A Canadian hunter packs up camp and his Hudson’s Bay point blanket  in Unloaded!”, the cover illustration for the November, 1921 issue of The Beaver, the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine for employees.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet, even the wonderful Hudson’s Bay blanket had its limitations.  The weight and bulk of blankets necessary to sleep comfortably in frigid weather was excessive.  Two blankets were required for camping at around freezing.  Much below that and even more blankets were needed.  As a single 4-pont blanket weighs a bit over six pounds, you can see that a cold weather setup, even when using the best blanket available, the camper had to deal with quite a bit of weight and bulk.  Of course, this problem did not go unnoticed by the old-time experts.  Warren H. Miller in particular, was concerned with how to sleep warm using something other than the blanket, devoting an entire chapter of his book Camp Craft to the problem (Ch. 3: Eliminating the Blanket, 1916).  Miller was more concerned with the great bulk of trying to pack multiple woolen blankets than weight.  He devised a pack bag lined with quilted wool batting that could be laced up into a sleeping bag.  Experimenting with various linings including a caribou skin, he found that he could sleep comfortably below 0° at a weight of just above 4 pounds.  He and others also described sleeping bags that were recommended or denounced depending on the writer’s experience or biases.

All of the early bags were rectangular (like a blanket folded lengthwise) in shape and insulated with layers of blanketing, wool batting or goose feathers.  The fill was encased in an envelope that closed with laced grommets, buttons or clasps.  There were debates about which insulator was best but no matter the fill, all were relatively bulky and heavy.  Nearly all were only moderately successful, most being soon forgotten.  However, one particular model captured the market and soon embodied the characteristics the public came to associate with the term “sleeping bag” – the Woods Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe, manufactured by the Woods Manufacturing Company, LTD, of Ottawa, Canada.

The Woods Company, founded by James W. Woods in 1885, started out as a canvas products supplier but within a few years had evolved into a manufacturer.   Woods produced canvas tents and other canvas goods for prospectors, surveyors, lumbermen, and the military.  Sometime around 1898, the company introduced a new type of sleeping bag designed for extremely cold weather.  Externally, the bag was unremarkable but the insides were a different story.  The bag was revolutionary for being the first to use *duck down plumes for the insulation, stabilized with “Harwood patented” internal compartments.  The use of some kind of internal compartment to prevent the migration of down continues to be employed today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sleeping Robe bag was a 90” x 90” rectangle of tightly woven Egyptian cotton, lined with Kersey wool (later, Junior models with dimensions of 78″ x 84″ and 80″ x 80″ were also offered).  When folded in half lengthwise and secured with snaps, it became a sleeping bag.  A flap of wool was sewn to the open end of the bag to protect the head and shoulders of the sleeper.  The new bag proved to be warmer and more efficient than blanketing, batting or feathers for the weight carried (6 times warmer than wool, 3 times lighter according to Woods Ltd. advertising).   Today, the Woods Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe is generally recognized as the first modern sleeping bag.

*The term “Eiderdown” in the product description referred to down plumes being used as opposed to feathers, which were in common use for pillow and mattress stuffing at the time.  Woods never used the down plumage of the eider duck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                              

The Sleeping Robe in open and closed positions

Interestingly, the Arctic Sleeping Robe was not mentioned in the early camping literature.  Perhaps it was not known to American camping writers as Woods was a Canadian company.  In any event, Americans eventually learned of its existence after the Robe was selected for use by the Amundsen Northwest Passage Expedition (1906) and the Steffansson Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1918).

During the 1920’s the Robe was chosen by the American mountaineer and scientist Bradford Washburn for his Yukon Expeditions and was included in the survival equipment carried on the polar flights of U.S. Navy explorer Richard E. Byrd.  It was also chosen by members of the Simpson-Roosevelts Field Museum Expedition to Central Asia and the First Canadian ascent of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak.

 

Expedition leaders in the 1920′s heaped praise on the Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe

With a growing awareness of Woods products in America, Woods opened a factory and sales office in Ogdensburg, NY (most likely to avoid import duty and taxes).  By the 1920’s, the Robe was carried by the best sporting goods stores including Abercrombie and Fitch, Griffin and Howe and Von Lengerke & Detmold (of these, only Griffin and Howe survives).  These shops served a very wealthy clientele that included Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Shackleton, Col. Townsend Whelen, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. The Robe was an ideal product to be carried by these high-end shops.  At an average price of $65.00 ($1,101.69 in 2013 dollars!), it was quite expensive and out of reach for all but the very affluent.

1920′s Woods Sleeping Bag pamphlet from Griffin & Howe, then located at 234 East 39th Street, New York, NY (the shop moved from that location in 1932).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the 1930’s the Robe was firmly ensconced as the image of a modern expedition “sleeping bag” and was finally described in the outdoor literature when it was recommended by Labrador explorer Dillon Wallace (1863-1939) in “The Campers’ Handbook” (Fleming H. Revell Co., New York, London & Edinburgh, 1936).  Wallace noted that the Robe was part of the standard issued equipment carried by the Quebec Forest Rangers.

However, the most famous reference to the Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe in literature was in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1940) ~

“He doesn’t know about that robe, Robert Jordan thought. Good old pig-eyes doesn’t know why I paid the Woods boys sixty-five dollars for that robe.”

“It is very beautiful the snow,” Pablo said. “You won’t want to sleep outside with the snow falling.”

So that’s on your mind too is it? Robert Jordan thought. You’ve a lot of troubles, haven’t you, Pablo?

“No?” he said, politely. “No. Very cold,” Pablo said. “Very wet.”

You don’t know why those old eiderdowns cost sixty-five dollars, Robert Jordan thought. I’d like to have a dollar for every time I’ve slept in that thing in the snow. “Then I should sleep in here?” he asked politely.

“Yes.”

“Thanks,” Robert Jordan said. “I’ll be sleeping outside.”

“In the snow?”

“Yes”…“In the snow.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The book also includes a memorable love scene involving the Sleeping Robe but you”ll have to read that for yourself.

Hemingway made numerous references to the Robe in the book.  He was obviously knowledgeable of it.  His familiarity with the Robe was due to his owning one, no doubt purchased from one of the great shops described above.  A review of 1930’s era catalog descriptions and prices make it quite likely that Hemingway owned a “Three Star” Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe.  The Three Star was the most popular model that Woods offered and retailed for an average price of $65.00 in the 1930′s.

The Arctic Sleeping Robe in its duffel bag. WOW! Just look at that logo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Robe remained essentially unchanged from its inception through the 1960’s when it was updated with newer shell materials and a lighter lining than the Kersey wool.  Eventually however,  it was surpassed by a new generation of efficient mummy bags.  A good mummy bag filled with 3 pounds of 550 fill power down, encased in a nylon shell and closed with a nylon tooth zipper, weighed around 5 lbs. and was as warm as the 16 lb. Sleeping Robe.  Mummy bags quickly became the dominant type among serious outdoor folk, relegating the “old-fashioned” rectangular Robe to the “has-been” category.

Yet, the Arctic Sleeping Robe remained popular among a small cadre of enthusiasts and incredibly, remained in production along with other very historic Woods products (the #1 and #200 canoe packs and “Prospector” canvas wall tents) until 2008 when the company folded.  Today, the Woods name has been revived by Infinity Sports Group of Langley, British Columbia, Canada.  The new company brought back the Arctic Sleeping Bag though sadly, the canoe packs and Prospector tents are gone.  The latest iteration of the Arctic sleeping bag appears unchanged and prices are actually down from what they were 75 years ago (the current“5-Star” and ”3-Star” Arctic sleeping bags retail for $899.99 and $699.99, respectively).  Woods does not state the fill power of the down used in these bags and do not say if the bags are produced domestically or imported.  If they are made in Canada, using 600-fill goosedown or better, the price may be about right as the bags are quite large.  The “5-Star” in particular is made with two separate quilts filled with 1 3/4 pounds of down and that adds up to the equivalent of purchasing two sleeping bags and their attendant labor and cost.

Of course my interest is in the vintage Woods Sleeping Robes fitted with snap closures as they were an important part of the traditional winter campers’ kit, owned by some of the greatest explorers and outdoorsmen of the first half of the 20th Century.  And of course, I’ve always wanted to own one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These old Arctic Sleeping Robes go for more than you’d expect.  Being the cheapskate that I am, I was willing to wait until an affordable Robe came along.  And wait I did!  For nearly seven years.  Then one day, a co-worker said he’d found an old sleeping bag among his father’s belongings and as I was a camper, would I want it?  Sure!  No matter what it is or what shape it’s in, I never turn down old camping gear.  To my surprise, the bag turned out to be a genuine Woods Arctic Three Star Sleeping Robe fitted with a snap closure!  This is the same model owned by Hemingway.

My Robe is of ‘50’s or ‘60’s era production, fitted with the poly/cotton canvas shell and closed with rectangular, nickel plated snaps.  It is lined with Kersey wool.  In most respects, it is nearly identical to those models made at the turn of the century.  Sure, I wish it had been made early enough to feature an Egyptian Cotton Shell but considering that it was free, I’m satisfied.

Note: The Robe was photographed on a 60+ year old Hodgman PakLite brand canvas air mattress, another wonderful piece of vintage gear. At my age, an air mattress is a necessity for sleeping on the ground and it would be incongruous to pair the Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe with a modern model.  For cold weather camping I recommend that you spread a Hudson Bay blanket over the air mattress before placing the sleeping bag on it.  The blanket serves to insulate the sleeping bag from heat loss due to conduction.

Hodgman PakLite canvas air mattress, circa 1948
Note: The mattress was greatly overinflated for photography purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have the wherewithal to Woodcraft it in winter, then you’d best locate one of these Woods Arctic warmers with haste!

 

 

 

 

 

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11 Responses to “The Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe – the Woodcrafter’s Winter Warmer”

  1. Don Callahan Says:

    I have a Woods 3 Star bag in new condition with the exception that it has my father’s name in marker pen on the snap flap and the original owner’s name (my father’s pioneer friend that gave it to him) on the bottom of the canvas storage bag. My father passed away in 1995 and the bag has been in dry storage since. He never used this bag because he had another one. Unfortunately before he passed he lent that bag to a friend and never had it returned.

    I am interested in selling the bag. Photos are available.

    Don Callahan
    Alaskan 73 years
    907-388-1658

  2. Robert Stitt Says:

    Is the bag still available? If so, please send photos, including close-up of tag. I live in Yukon, Canada. Thanks

  3. Don Callahan Says:

    The Bag is advertized on Craigslist Fairbanks under sporting. There are 4 photos.

    http://fairbanks.craigslist.org/spo/4451200986.html

    Don Callahan

  4. Crystal Says:

    Does anyone know how to properly clean these bags? Information is sketchy at best . With the canvas , down and wool elements I am worried about ruining the bag. I have a Pioneer Yukon sleeping robe, it seems to be of similar construct to the woods sleeping bag. Thank you

  5. Brent Payne Says:

    Back in the ’70′s, dry cleaning down was regularly recommended IF the bag or garment was taken to a trusted cleaner that did NOT use perchloroethylene to clean down products as it would strip the natural oils from the down. Instead, the cleaner should have a good reputation for cleaning down, use a mild petroleum based solvent for down cleaning and start with fresh, clean solvent and change it after cleaning each batch of down products, otherwise, the next batch would simply absorb the dirt from the tank of solvent and end up dirtier than when it went in. Sadly, changing solvents is expensive and you just can’t find that kind of personal service anymore, so even if the cleaners says they clean down, they will most likely NOT use fresh solvent.

    Instead, you can clean the bag yourself by handwashing in a bathtub. I’ve had good luck using Nixwax Down Wash to handwash a sleeping bag but another product is Perwoll for Wool & Delicates (it used to be called Perwoll Wool and Silk). Perwoll will safely clean the down, wool liner and canvas shell. Fill the tub with very warm water. Add the cleaner. Place the bag in the tub and fill with more water to cover if need be. Gently push, massage and squeeze the bag and gently agitate the bag. When the water begins to look very dirty, drain the tub and refill with warm water and repeat until the water does not darken and turn dirty. THEN, fill the tub with cool water and gently squeeze and agitate the bag and drain. Repeat until you can see no more suds and the water remains clear. At this point, you can treat the down and the bag in general to be moderately water resistant by refilling the tub and adding 7 capfuls of Nikwax Down Proof to the water and gently squeezing and agitating the bag in the Down Proof until you think it has soaked the entire bag. THEN, leaving the bag in the Nikwax wash for about fifteen minutes, then drain the tub. NOW, gently push the remaining water from the bag by pressing it down against the bottom of the tub. Then gently roll the bag from the foot end toward the head end to squeeze more water out. Unroll the bag and re-roll to remove more water. Repeat until no more water appears to drain from the bag. Then, cradling the bag in your arms, place it in a laundry basket and take it to a laundromat. Using a large front load dryer, dry on the lowest setting until about half dry. DO NOT USE A DRYER SHEET!!! Now, place three or four clean tennis balls in the dryer with the bag and continue to dry until done. BE SURE TO USE A DRYER THAT DOES NOT GET TOO HOT WHEN ON LOW. It will take many cycles of drying on low to dry the bag but you’ll end up with a very clean, lofty, mildly water resistant sleeping bag. Finally, after the bag is dry, dry, dry – spray the canvas shell with a good coat of KIWI Camp Dry Performance Fabric Protector (Blue can). Apply a second coat a couple of hours after the first. That will REALLY boost the water resistance of the bag without affecting the breathability of the bag. Good Luck!!!

  6. Alex H Says:

    Came across this page after reading Hemingway brag about the Three-Star through Robert Jordan in “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” He mentions the price a few times, and after figuring out that it would be over $1000 in today’s dollars, I couldn’t believe it. Some Googling brought me here and I’m happy to have learned about the history of the sleeping robe. Thanks man!

  7. Rose Says:

    Thanks for your fascinating article. We just found a vintage Woods 3 Star at a yard sale (Western Maine) last week. Hadn’t been aware of them before, just couldn’t pass up such a fantastic, obviously high-quality piece. We’re thrilled to have it. We’re trying to figure out the time frame for this one, but can’t find any detailed info online. This article is the most-detailed we’ve found, and it makes us think we have one of the earlier ones. For instance, the duffel has a much simpler logo of 3 plain red stars. Under that is a simple red triangular banner with WOODS in it. The rest of the lettering is black. The shell of the “robe” itself feels to me like all cotton, the lining is wool, and it closed with snaps. They’re not rectangular though, but rather, oval on one end and rounded corner rectangular on the other. Any ideas about the age of this bag, or can you point us to info that will help us ID its age? Thank you!

  8. Brent Payne Says:

    WOW! It sounds like you have an older Woods Sleeping Robe. As far as I know there is no history of these bags in books or photographs. I do know that the older models had a storage bag with a much simpler logo and the shells were made of Egyptian cotton “balloon silk” fabric that weighed about 4.5 ounces per yard. It was woven like a sateen so it was not a canvas or rough material. The lining was a wool kersey fabric that was virtually unchanged in weight and weave as long as wool was used for a lining. You might search online for old advertisements or historic photographs and see if you can find a robe that matches yours. You are fortunate as I’ve wanted an old one like your very much. Congratulations on your find!

  9. Barry Says:

    I just picked one of these up at a yard sale today. I’ve been trying to find info about them. I paid $20 for it. The duffel bag has a tree on it that says woods. The robe itself has a zipper but also has snaps. I’m wondering if it’s missing some parts because the snaps are all male and can’t snap to each other. Other then that it’s in great shape. I wonder if it’s ever been used at all.

  10. Brent Payne Says:

    If the zipper is around the opening it may be a later robe with a snap-on hood and the hood had the female snaps. If it closes with a zipper, I’ve never seen one that also had snaps.

    Brent

  11. Dan G Says:

    Wow. Ok. I have a Woods 3-Star Bag that I pulled out of a base supply depot in 1974. I used it in the snow at altitude; temps about -24F and could not have been more comfortable. Took the thing home and forgot about it. For the past 25+ years it has been the winter comfoter on the master bed. Has snap and the zipper; probably dates from the late 50′s early 60′s.

    About 10 years ago, I ran into a rep from the Woods Company and told him about the bag. There was some moth or mouse damage to the grey wool liner and I inquired about getting it repaired/replaced. They were able to replace the lining with a similar wool but the color is now black. They sent back the label which was sewn to the inside of the liner, but I haven’t yet had it reinstalled. Soon. Maybe.

    Shortly after that I heard that the company folded or was sold.

    Not sure whatever happened to the duffel; it may be stashed away somewhere. It is identical to the one in the photo but nowhere near that condition. Holes from being dragged across the tarmac, mold stains and fading etc. Might look for that too.

    Never knew about the Hemmingway notoriety so that’s kind of cool too.

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