Duck Tape Down

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Duck Tape Down

Lisa Heldke


An ordinary ski jacket is rendered both fashionable and immortal by the judicious application of duck tape (duct tape).

Key Words
duck tape; duct tape; winter camping; fashion; moral-aesthetic considerations; everyday aesthetics


1. The Jacket

Looking at it now, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that the original jacket was made out of duck tape,[1] so patched has it become. One entire baffle, for instance, has been reconstructed in shiny turquoise tape, a memento from the COVID-year campfire that nearly did it in. Appearances to the contrary, however, it began life in the late nineties as a perfectly ordinary ski jacket, the sort of big, puffy down number that people like me — outdoorsy types living in cold places — owned as a matter of course. I bought it because I thought it was both a remarkably good deal (fifty bucks; inexpensive even then) and “a good brand” (which, if I’m being honest, meant it was a trendy brand among us outdoorsy types).

That particular jacket — that style of jacket — was also ubiquitous in the late nineties. Right after I bought mine, I spent the month of January teaching in Boston, where I saw it on every third person walking down the street. Correction: every third teenage boy walking down the street. I took to calling it my “urban youth jacket,” and contemplated getting rid of it, on the grounds that a nearly-forty-year-old woman wearing a jacket that was obviously being marketed to seventeen-year-old guys couldn’t look anything but wrong.

Then I came back to Minnesota, and to my senses. Hell, that jacket was warm. And didn’t my colleague own one? He was 15 years older than I, so if it looked wrong on me, it had to look every bit as wrong on him.

I kept the jacket and wore it to work.

Time passed.

In the mid-2000s, I became newly disenchanted with it, this time because a cooler, hipper, more ecologically fancy company was coming to dominate the puffer jacket world. They’d introduced jacket styles with narrower baffles and less bulky insulation, making my Michelin-Man garment look dated and goofy.[2] This time, I determined to get rid of it. Surely, I’d had it long enough by now to have gotten my 50 dollars’ worth of good out of it.

But even as I contemplated sending it to Goodwill, I found myself offended by the shallowness of the reasons I wanted to do so. I was worrying about a fashion trend in winter jackets? Seriously?? Who was I kidding??? I didn’t even know where the waistband of my jeans was supposed to fall that year; what did I know from fashion?

I spent the next several years in a moral-aesthetic tussle with myself, putting the jacket into the thrift store pile every spring…and taking it out and putting it back on a hanger every fall. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of a perfectly serviceable piece of clothing, even as I found it increasingly difficult to wear something that made me look like a refugee from the Lillehammer Olympics.

My attitude to the jacket began to change in 2010, when I went on the first of what would become an annual winter camping trip. We traveled by skis and dogsleds, cooked over open fires, and slept under the stars in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota. Between the dogs and the fires and the subzero temps, the trip demanded a lot of a person’s clothing. “Fashion” began to be spelled “f-u-n-c-t-i-o-n,” and I developed a deep admiration for pieces of clothing that quietly and efficiently did their jobs. On the first day of my first trip, I noticed LynnAnne, our guide, pull an enormous old puffer jacket out of her backpack and put it on during a rest stop, even though we were stopping only for a few minutes. She and that jacket were living out the number one rule of winter camping: it’s all about regulating your body temperature, about keeping yourself in the “comfortably cool” zone where you neither sweat nor shiver. Nordic skiing puts you at high risk of doing both. It warms you so well that you can’t wear more than a couple thin layers on your torso without overheating, even in very cold weather. But the minute you stop moving, even for just a few minutes, you better throw on another layer, preferably a big fluffy one, or you’ll instantly chill, and it’ll be heck trying to get warm again.

LynnAnne whipped that antique jacket on and off half a dozen times a day while we traveled.  As the trip wore on, its blue bulk grew more and more attractive to me; function definitely is fashion at 20 below. By the end of that trip, I knew the Michelin Man was coming on my trip with me the next year. Like LynnAnne’s blue puffer, my bulky 90s number had transcended fashion — that ludicrously time-bound, hopelessly ephemeral quality — and had attained the timeless attractiveness that announced, “I am the one you are waiting for.” My jacket had come in from the cold. From then on, I’ve never gone on a trip without it.

If function is fashion, however, that jacket (and most every other down jacket ever made) has one fatal fashion flaw. A down jacket is basically a bag spun from petroleum and stuffed with feathers; in other words, it is a fire starter you can wear. My jacket thus began collecting burn holes on its first dogsled trip.

The first holes were tiny, almost symbolic — stunningly insignificant, really, when you consider the fact that my jacket and I were playing chicken with a campfire every night and every morning. What prevented it from early destruction, ironically enough, was my inexperience in winter camping. As a neophyte, my reluctance to volunteer to either build fires or cook over them kept me out of flame’s way…mostly. As a result, those first holes were really just pinpricks from sparks. Small as they were, they didn’t even warrant repair.

As the jacket started logging more trips and I started stepping up to tend fires and cook eggs, I also became more cavalier about the feather bag’s fashion failing. While I mostly avoided wearing the jacket at the fire (opting for some less-flammable garment), some nights were just too cold not to bundle into it. The burn holes began to accumulate and to get bigger.

They began to require repair.

I turned to duck tape, of course.

“The Jacket,” photograph by Jesse Yeakle (2023).

2. Duck tape
of course”??

Perhaps the first question I should answer is not “why repair the jacket with duck tape?” but “why repair the jacket at all? You hated it for so long! Why not replace it when you got the excuse chance?”

First of all, I really didn’t hate it anymore. Whereas it had been an outdated dorky looking down jacket, it now was an attractively warm puffy outer layer that fit handily into its own pocket. Secondly, dogsled camping is an activity where new clothing is a really bad idea. Sure, some folks bring shiny new stuff on trips, but every year someone’s shiny new three-hundred-dollar ski pants get demolished in a single mishap. Watch that happen a few years in a row and you find yourself drawn to the ragamuffin look from the Salvation Army. And, once you find a piece of clothing that rings the function-as-fashion bell, well, you stick with it, repairing it when necessary so it can keep doing its job and you can avoid having to try to replace it. A replacement probably isn’t going to work as well…and it’s not like it will be safe from sparks either.

Okay, the jacket was worth keeping. But why repair it with duck tape? In hopes of answering that question, I’ve tried to recall the first repair I performed, but I can’t reconstruct it, can’t remember why I chose tape as my repair medium.[3]

I surely knew that the choice had consequences — fashion consequences, to be precise. Repair your clothing with tape and you’ll find that it comes with a full set of baggage, stuffed with painful childhood memories. In my childhood, wearing things repaired with tape would have earned you a reputation you’d have had a hard time shaking. When I was a kid, if you wore clothes to school that were repaired with tape, you’d just know you were in for mockery on the playground. (Cue Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” — and hold a kind thought for the kid whose dad also repaired their broken glasses with black electrician’s tape.) Back then, if I saw an adult holding their clothes together with tape, I’d probably have conceived a wholly irrational and unfounded fear of them, something I’m not proud to admit.

Of course when I became an adult with control of my own clothing repair and its fashion fallout, I’d done the old emergency-pants-hem-repair-with-tape trick, and I knew that, while it worked — and, ahem, worked long term, in fact — repairing your pants hem with tape was the sort of thing that branded you as the absent-minded professor, and not in a cute and charming way, but in a way that said “if this woman is this careless about her clothing, about what else is she careless?”[4]

So again, the question: given the heavy aesthetic toll I stood to pay, why tape?

Well, maybe the toll wasn’t so high among the rugged outdoor types. I’d seen other people — people I would have regarded as boss outdoors people — patch their winter clothing with tape, for instance. They demonstrated both that the tape would hold and that using it would not leave one subject to pitying or withering looks.

Furthermore, by the time of that first repair, duck tape was starting to get cool. Prom dresses and wallets were starting to be made of it, and fashion colors and patterns were coming to be available right in your local hardware store. There was an annual duck tape clothing competition, with scholarship money as prizes. Duck tape winter jacket repair, then, would have been well within the realm of “funky,” if not actually “normal,” clothing repair.  A little ironic, a little heh, heh, tongue in cheek, probably, but nothing like seventh-grade-broken-glasses-repaired-with-electrician’s-tape dorky.

This is not to suggest that I performed my first repair job with the knowledge that duck tape was an acceptable repair medium. Most likely, I did it because I had some tape with me. I always enter the wilderness with several yards of it wound around my water bottle, so when I got the first substantial hole during a trip, there it was, ready to serve. F-u-n-c-t-i-o-n.

Also (let’s be honest) there was some lingering…indifference to this jacket that led me to be pretty lackadaisical about how I repaired it. I was not looking to prolong its life, even though I’d ceased to put it in the thrift store box every spring.

3. About that tape

I quickly developed strong, performance-based opinions about duck tape brands. Which brands tore most easily — and neatly? (Yes, yes, the Leatherman has a cunning pair of scissors on it, but you don’t want to have to get them out just to cut a strip of tape.) Which brands stayed stuck to the jacket when I washed it? Shockingly, despite the tape’s entire history being bound up in its waterproofness, at least one common brand of the stuff didn’t hold up through a single washing — a fatal flaw for a jacket that had to be washed after at least every two or three smoky, doggy trips.

My very first emergency field repair lacked any sense of artistry, something that has not subsequently changed. I do not consider symmetry in applying strips. I do not cut whimsical shapes out of the tape. Hell, most of the time I didn’t even work very hard to apply it without creating wrinkles in it. I consider tape color not at all: I used gold for my first repair, not because it went well with my dark green and black jacket but because that was the color I’d had in the house when I went to wind a few lengths around my water bottle before the trip. When, some years later, the gold roll ran out, I bought turquoise because it was on sale.

In defense of my cavalier attitude, I was usually working to complete repairs under the pressure created by a hole large enough to compromise the integrity of the jacket (translation: big enough to leak feathers), under less-than-ideal taping conditions. Duck tape adhesive tends to freeze when exposed to the cold, but cold weather was just when I was most likely to be wearing that jacket in the danger zone around a fire. Applying pressure to a jacket wound while also trying to get the tape warm enough for it to stick to the jacket gave me little patience for making the repairs look good.

4. Back outside

In 2021, the dogsled company I travel with bravely began offering trips again, after a COVID hiatus. My jacket and I signed up. That January, the temperatures were brutal; we experienced one night at more than forty below zero. I wore the jacket whenever I wasn’t actively skiing. On the last night of the trip, I turned around near the fire, and an errant flame reached out and consumed the entire bottom baffle on the back of the jacket, which began hemorrhaging feathers. I put on a temporary patch using my water bottle emergency stash. The inferior brand I’d brought with me (what was I thinking???) adhered poorly in the polar vortex temps. Fortunately, we were almost back at base camp.

When I got home and inspected the jacket, I gave serious thought to pitching it directly into the trash. It had sustained the kind of injury that, were it a person in war, would have brought a member of the clergy over to deliver last rites. But some folks on the trip had told me of a miraculous product, specially designed for repairing nylon camping gear, that would work perfectly to fix this new big hole. I invested a whole lot of money in some of this wonder substance, taped up the jacket, threw it into the wash—and watched the wonder patches fall off. More feathers leaked.

I got a new roll of the good tape and sat down to assess the damage: was there enough jacket to even repair? Did it have any insulation left? Between the conflagration and the laundry debacle, I’d lost so many feathers, the integrity of the jacket was becoming compromised. Did it even classify as warm at this point?

I would have been entirely justified in wadding up this 25-year-old garment and shoving it in any garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. Indeed, I left it in a discarded laundry basket in the basement for the better part of a year, contemplating that very solution. But I just couldn’t execute it; what would replace it? And why would that replacement fare any better?

Then I came up with an ingenious way to restore its insulation; a solution brilliant in its simplicity, sustainability, and accessibility; a solution, however, that tends to cause people to blanch.

I replaced the feathers with dog fur.

For years now, I’ve saved the fur from my own dogs (always a Siberian husky or husky mix), and sent it off to a woman who spins it into yarn. At any given moment, I have a bagful of giant wads of it. The fur is less lofty than goose down, but arguably every bit as warm as down. (They don’t call them Siberians for nothing.)

I stuffed a wad of dog fur into the torched remains of the now-empty baffle, slapped on a couple layers of the good duck tape, and called it done. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure I’d ever really use the thing again; the dog-hair-duck-tape combo was really more of a “what the heck?” move than a serious attempt to enable this jacket to function ever again. I put it back in the laundry basket, where it stared at me balefully every time I did the wash. (Why could I not throw this thing away???)

The next year, when it came time to pack for the trip…I stuck it in. I didn’t have a replacement, and, well, I was a bit curious about how dog fur worked as insulation. Our group of travelers that year counted more than the usual number of twenty-somethings among its members. Minimalists that they were, they found my duck tape jacket pretty cool; even cooler when I told them about the wad of dog fur in it.[5]

For some reason, their enthusiasm made me feel like a fraud; like I was using the jacket to score points. Remember that brief campaign to gather mascara brushes to clean small animals that had their fur clogged with oil? I felt like that. Like someone pretending to be ecological, when she was just grandstanding. The jacket had come to seem like a gimmick. “You’ve got to get rid of this thing,” I admonished myself when I got home from that trip.

That year, the jacket again sat in a kind of limbo in the laundry basket in the basement near the washing machine. It was filthy; it needed to be washed, but I didn’t dare wash it, because I just didn’t know how much of the duck tape would actually hold; I no longer knew which patches I’d done with the good waterproof tape. It needed to be thrown away.

And then I took it on another trip. That was just this year. I announced that this was absolutely, positively the last trip for this jacket. It was going in the garbage when I got home. In the middle of my telling, though, something flipped. Suddenly, in the midst of explaining to these total strangers why I needed to throw away this jacket, I knew I would never throw away this jacket. What in the world would lead me to do so now? I came home, carefully replaced any questionable tape, and patched up the new holes I’d acquired on the trip. It made it through the washer and dryer without incident. I hung it up in the closet to wait for next year.

4. Authors note: The aesthetics at the heart of this jacket

It is no accident that I began to appreciate my jacket more in the years during and immediately after the pandemic, a time during which my life distilled down to a few activities and my world condensed to a much smaller, more intimate, more everyday place. My life during that time also had a “philosophical soundtrack”: the everyday aesthetic philosophy of Yuriko Saito. During the fall of 2020, I taught Saito’s Aesthetics of the Familiar,[6]  to a group of shell-shocked environmental philosophy students. Reading her work during that first full semester of the pandemic, during which students could leave their rooms only to go to class, her invitation to aesthetically attend to the contours of everyday life felt like a gift. The book offered us all a kind of lifeline during an experience we could not believe we were having. Students wrote essays about the aesthetics of making their beds, drinking tea, walking to class on a different route. Our very small worlds became much richer because the book gave us the conceptual vocabulary to attend to, understand, and appreciate our everyday experiences.

For myself, I was captivated by Saito’s description of a very old vegetable peeler that she kept, despite having had to repair it several times. That peeler illustrated what I think of as Saito’s “revaluation of aesthetic values”; her recalibration — no, her recreation — of the scale by which one assesses the aesthetic value of the things that make up one’s everyday life. The aesthetic value of her peeler lay in its ability to do its job well, and also in its having withstood the rigors of long use, albeit with some repairs along the way. The peeler was no handcrafted family heirloom or priceless antique (the sorts of objects we generally think of as “worth repairing,” because of their bespoke qualities). This was a mass-produced potato peeler; Saito could probably have purchased the “new, improved” version of it at a housewares store. That she didn’t, and that she also paid attention to its aesthetic properties, rather than averting her gaze from the visual and tactile evidence of its wear and tear, struck me profoundly when I was spending a lot of quality time with my own shopworn kitchen gadgets.

Inspired by her peeler, I invited myself to try to value things — even inexpensive plastic things — that showed their wear and kept on doing their work. This aesthetic appreciation wasn’t a matter of seeing these objects as “beautiful” — of surrounding them with a glowing aura, Velveteen Rabbit-style. Rather, it was a matter of trying to simply appreciate them in their current worn, scuffed, partially broken but still functional states; to continue to use them rather than recycle them or send them to the thrift store because they no longer looked new.

I was surprised, and more than a little embarrassed, at the difficulty I encountered in trying to conduct this revaluation. It was a struggle to appreciate things in their brokenness, to look at the reality of their wornness. Prior to undertaking this exploration, I would have described myself as the sort of person who bought used clothing and used cars and lived with worn upholstery. I came to realize that, rather than treating treated those choices as aesthetically valuable, I’ve actually unconsciously regarded them as a kind of rejection, or at least a suspension, of aesthetic considerations. “I’m happy with worn out things; never mind that they’re aesthetically unappealing. I want to tread more lightly on the earth,” I would probably have thought, while secretly wishing I could buy a new coffee grinder, now that the lid of the old one had to be held together with duck tape. Saito invited me to explore the range of aesthetic qualities such worn objects possess; to expand beyond “beautiful” or “cute.”

Saito understands such revaluation of values to put aesthetics in conversation with ethics, particularly with environmental ethics (another reason the work resonated so powerfully with my students). If we cultivate an aesthetic appreciation for, say, the appearance of recycled goods, used goods, damaged but still functioning goods, we cultivate a choice that has environmental ethical consequences.

I’m probably pushing the envelope with my jacket; there aren’t very many places I can actually wear the thing anymore without attracting unwanted attention. But it’s still keeping me warm; it’s almost beyond harm at this point; and it has provided me with the most sustained opportunity to date to try to “re-see” my everyday world in a way that does not simply “lament the change as things ‘age,’ ‘decay,’ ‘decline,’ ‘deteriorate,’ ‘wane,’ ‘decompose,’ or simply ‘get old.’”[7]


Lisa Heldke

Lisa Heldke is a philosopher at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she also directs The Nobel Conference. She writes as a pragmatist feminist philosopher. Much of her work is about food; books include Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer; Philosophers at Table: On Food and Being Human; and Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food.

Published August 7, 2023.

Cite this article: Lisa Heldke, “Duck Tape Down,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Let’s get this out of the way right now, shall we? What is the correct name for this tape? It all depends, as Lewis Carroll might have said, on what you mean by “the name.” If you mean “what people tend to call that shiny, durable tape that gets used for everything under the sun, up to and including prom dresses, and sometimes even ducts,” well, then, the correct name is duct tape. If, on the other hand, you mean “the (nick?)name that the product was given when it was originally produced, (allegedly) because of either its waterproof qualities or the fabric of which it was made, then the real name is duck tape. Finally, if you want to talk about the brand of this product that (in my honest opinion) is vastly superior to all other brands, then you mean Duck Tape, or, as the company prefers you call it, Duck Brand duct tape. I’m gonna call it duck tape, because that’s what we called it when I was growing up.

[2] As I researched the jacket for this piece, I learned, to my amusement, that the company is now selling a “retro” version of my exact jacket, for a much heftier price than I paid. Yes, the look — the very look of my original jacket — is “back.”

[3] I didn’t yet know about the specialized tape for nylon garments, so that wasn’t yet an option I could consider. And obviously I wasn’t going to be using iron on tape — the quickie repair material of my childhood — on a nylon garment.

[4] As a young faculty member, I had a colleague who, for years, wore a pair of loafers he held together with duck tape. Silver duck tape. I knew full well that he could buy a new pair of shoes, that he was choosing to keep “repairing” these shoes because he didn’t want to be wasteful. And still I couldn’t help but want to stay away from him. What a powerful message he (unintentionally!) sent me by wearing those silver-striped shoes! Better: how easily I snapped to judgments about someone, because of some strips of adhesive.

[5] While the cool, off the grid twenty-somethings in northern Minnesota thought I was the bomb, the women of my own age with whom I went on a rafting trip that summer in arctic Alaska regarded my jacket and my raggedy thrift store clothing with something that smelled a bit like pity…or maybe wariness. After so many years of packing for dogs and fires, I found myself in a group of people wearing spiffy, often new, outdoor clothing. I felt…ridiculous. Cue Dolly Parton.

[6] Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[7] Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 149.