The smell is probably from one or two sources: mildew or the delamination/degrading of the polyurethane (PU) coating. The latter is inevitable after 15-20 years or more, and increasingly obvious.
Lemon juice is the best remedy for mildew, if that is your problem. (Mildew grows really well on wet, dark, dirty surfaces like inside panniers.) If you are treating for mildew with the lemon juice, wash the panniers afterwards with a mild soap.
If you wash the panniers, remove any metal hardware (springs, hooks) that you can first. Wash them by hand with Woolite or a mild liquid (hand) dishwashing soap, then rinse several times. (Do not scrub the coating or use a bristle brush.) Air dry thoroughly.
Mechanical agitation (such as washing panniers in the washing machine) is never recommended: a) the stainless steel and aluminum hardware will noisily beat your panniers and the washing machine to death, and b) agitating the fabric (scrubbing, machine washing, etc.) will greatly speed up the removal of the coating from the nylon.
If you really love the panniers and want to restore them after the coating has all disappeared, replacement paint-on PU coating products may still be available. (You can also buy new Cordura fabric, carefully disassemble the panniers, make a pattern using the old pieces, and remake them. (This is akin to the difficulty level of brazing your own bike frame, but there are people who can do this well. You will need an industrial machine equipped to sew into the tight corners required and sew bar tacks, of course. The rivets can be drilled out and replaced either with new rivets or nuts and bolts. Kirtland and other major manufacturers of expedition-quality panniers and backpacks used high-quality "industrial" stainless steel and aluminum hardware that can often be reused.)
Good luck with your project!
Jon Spangler in Alameda, CA with his 2 sewing machines on the TDF's last rest day
From: Matthew 'Devotion' Bowne <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: [CR] "Funky" Old Panniers To: "CR discussion list" <email@example.com> Date: Monday, July 19, 2010, 9:41 PM
Hi Gang, I was mighty pleased when I picked up a nice old set of Kirtland panniers at a Tag Sale this weekend.? Classic nylon/cordura construction, a matching Jim Blackburn rear alloy rack...and that unmistakable vomit/cheese smell that often permeates old camping gear.? I recall reading an old thread with tips as to how to eliminate the most unpleasant smell of dead animals from vintage camping/touring gear, but a search of the Archives has produced no results... Can any of you suggest a method one might try to eliminate this foul odor from these otherwise perfect bags?? Is there some sort of magic recipe or secret concoction?? Or is the best method of elimination to tie them off in a contractor bag and leave them curbside for the Wednesday morning pickup by the NYC Dept. of Sanitation? Any pointers appreciated...