The Care and Feeding of Antique Quilts

There is much to know about finding, collecting, and keeping antique quilts. Here I hope to offer some advice on taking care of your quilt so that it remains a treasure for years to come.

Why collect antique quilts? Maybe the old-fashioned, warm-home feeling of a quilt appeals to you, or perhaps your interest in history or textiles compels you to gather those things near you. Maybe it's the mystery of wondering who made or used the quilts in those bygone days. Whatever your reason, you join a growing number of collectors who are fascinated by quilting.


What do you do once you've got this thing home? Before you begin take a good look at the quilt. Knowing what condition the item is in will help you decide what care it needs. Don't automatically assume that it needs to be washed.

Look for:

  • wrinkling, shrinkage, and puckers along seams --this tells you the quilt has already been washed and the fabric has probably already shrunk and/or bled.
  • surface stains or dirt --this might be cleanable.
  • mildew --black spots and musty smelling fabric --unfortunately almost impossible to remove.
  • tears, rips, and holes --indicate heavy use and strain on the textiles, and can worsen with handling or washing if not properly repaired or stabilised.
  • previous repairs --may have strengthened the quilt, or could be causing further damage.
  • color loss or fading --indicate either heavy use, or exposure to strong sunlight.
  • creases and fold lines --stress the fabric and become permanent over time.

    The controversy over quilt repairs is a long one. The debate asks whether it is better to repair a quilt and make it look "new" and conform to modern aesthetics, or whether it is better to leave all the original work as historical evidence.

    If you are not sure what you should do with the quilt, don't know whether it is strong enough to withstand cleaning, or whether it warrants repairs, please seek the personal advice of a textile conservator near you. A professional conservator can look at your quilt and make a decision for your individual needs. Attempting to clean or repair a very old or fragile quilt can permanently damage it.

  • Dusting the quilt is probably all it needs. To do this, you get out your vacuum cleaner with it's hose attachment, put in a new, clean bag, and find yourself a piece of plastic screen like those in your windows or porch door. Tape around the edges of the screen if it isn't encased in a frame. You don't want to rip the quilt on a sharp edge. Lay the quilt out on a clean surface and place the screen on the areas you want to dust. Vacuum through the screen. This sucks up the dirt and dust without too much stress on the fabric. Important note: never, ever, use carpet freshener on antique textiles. In fact, you shouldn't even use it in your house if you have antique fabrics or books around. It causes rapid deterioration of natural fibers and can be the kiss of death for your quilt.

    Should this quilt be washed?

    Carefully examine your quilt and ask yourself these questions:

    If you can answer yes to any of these questions, it is probably not a good idea to wash this quilt. Wet washing may cause further deterioration of damaged areas, or it may permanently destroy the value of a really special old quilt.


    Test for Bleeding.

    Use clean cotton balls and dab a little bit of warm water on each of the fabrics in the quilt. Make sure to saturate the fabric, but try not to get the quilt soaking wet, just get that top layer. Rub the cotton ball on the fabric and look to see if any of the color is coming off. If color comes off on your cotton ball, there is a very good chance that more color will come off in the wash, and it may ruin the quilt. If no color comes off, there is still the possibility that lengthy soaking and exposure to soap will cause some bleeding later on.

    Washing it.

    If you do decide that the quilt can take a washing, don't head for the washing machine. Instead, commandeer the bathtub for an afternoon. This is a simple process, but not a quick one, and since your quilt will be at its most vulnerable, be prepared to give it the time and attention it deserves.

    By the way, you also want to avoid the dry cleaners. Not only is the chemical solution they use too harsh for your delicate antique, but many establishments will refuse to take responsibility for something that is obviously old or valuable.

    Find yourself either some Ivory Soap Flakes (this is not the same as Ivory powdered detergent) or Orvus veterinary soap from a local feedstore. (You can get it in quilting shops sometimes, but it often costs significantly more there.) Fill the tub about half full of cold water. Swish in the soap and let it dissolve. Add your quilt and gently push it under water to soak.

    It is important that you do not use any soap product that has bleach in it or that says it contains "brighteners". Both of these kinds of soaps are fine for sturdy modern fabrics, but will cause rapid deterioration of fragile antique textiles, and worse, won't really clean them either.

    If you live someplace where either you don't drink the tap water, or you know you have very hard water, or some other water problem, consider cleaning your quilt with bottled and distilled water. You will need a lot of it, however...

    When the quilt has soaked for a bit (at least 15 minutes) you need to squish it around a little to get the dirt out. Ideally, you get a small child to walk back and forth on it for a few minutes to agitate the quilt and squeeze the soap and water through it. You can also walk on it yourself, but be gentle on the quilt and make sure you don't slip or fall. On smaller pieces you may be able to get by with using your hands to squeeze the fabric and swish it around to get the dirt out.

    Repeat the process as many times as necessary until the water no longer turns black and the rinse runs clear of soap. This may mean four or five (or more) cycles. (This is why you scheduled all afternoon for this, remember?) Make sure to rinse the soap out very well. Soap left in the quilt will attract dirt more than perfectly clean fabric will.

    Drain the tub and let the quilt sit a while to allow water to drain from it. Gently squeeze the quilt (do not twist or wring it, the fabric is extremely delicate when wet). Get as much water out as you can.

    You'll need a bedsheet or a large towel and a helper to get the quilt out of the tub. Push the wet quilt to one side and lay the sheet or towel under it. Roll the quilt back onto the sheet or towel. This is a lot like moving an invalid or hospital patient. You do not want to lift the wet quilt because you risk tearing the weakened fabric.

    You and your helper lift the four corners of the sheet or towel and move the quilt on this makeshift "stretcher". Ideally, you want to lay the quilt, on the sheet, on your lawn in the shade, covered with another sheet. If you don't have a lawn, maybe you can borrow one, or use a tile floor instead. Resist the urge to hang it on the clothesline, as the stress can be damaging to the wet fabric.

    Check the quilt periodically to make sure it stays covered, that it's drying -- you may need to turn it over, and that it doesn't get stolen. (Yes, people will steal a quilt off your lawn...) It may take more than a day to dry, so expect to bring the quilt in at night and start again the next day.

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