It doesn’t really matter whether a quilt is from 1850, 1950, or present day; taking good care of a quilt can greatly help to extend its life. According to Cathy Coho, a textile conservator at Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT. (which is an institution that has been tasked with preserving more than 500 antique and heirloom quilts), “The more careful you are from the beginning, the longer the quilts in your collection will last.”
Two authorities – Cathy and Patsy Orlofsky, (a co-author of the book Quilts In America written in 1992 and a quilt conservator) weighed in on two of the most common issues that face collectors and simply those who just want to keep their family quilts in good shape: how to clean these quilts as well as how to store them.
Dirt Vs Disintegration – The Tradeoff
A lot of quilt collectors are warned that they should never clean or wash their antique quilts. But let’s face it – sometimes an awesome flea market gem is truly and utterly dirty and needs to be cleaned. And nothing can 100% prevent accidents such as spills or other incidents that might harm a quilt that is carefully on display. In these cases, what are the options?
Tread Carefully. Patsy Orlofsky urges people to make an educated decision over whether or not a quilt can withstand the rigors of a cleaning. Check to see if your quilt is stitched securely and isn’t falling victim to frayed threads or holes. If your quilt is made of cotton or linen and isn’t displaying a lot of signs of disintegration or wear, it could probably withstand some gentle cleansing within your household. Wool or silk quilts could be dry cleaned – but by HAND, and by someone who is experienced with vintage fabrics. Ask ahead or see if your city has an heirloom quality dry cleaner. If your quilt is not holding up well and seems fragile, then Patsy cautions that it’s “advisable to have a person trained in textile conservation carry out the cleaning.” (simply Google for a conservator in your city or region and check out quilting community forums).
Check The Dyes – before you begin cleaning acotton or linen quilt, test the fabric to see if the dye is fast and won’t bleed. Pick a corner of the quilt that isn’t too obtrusive and put a few drops of water on the fabric. Pat firmly with a white blotter or cloth and see if the color appears on the blotter. If so, it wouldn’t be advisable to clean the quilt yourself. If the dye does seem fast, check the other colors before proceeding. Then repeat with drops of water mixed with a mild detergent.
Clean In A Tub Or Basin – fill your container or tub halfway with a mild lukewarm water (a larger tub or container is better as it does not require the quilts to be crumpled or folded during washing). Lay the quilt out in the water and allow it to soak for 30 minutes. Drain the tub of the dirty soakwater, then refill. Add ½ cup of a liquid dish detergent such as Ivory, Dove, or Palmolive. These soaps are mild and can be rinsed out easily. Harsher detergents or bleach should be avoided at all costs. Hand-agitate from time to time for around a half hour, then drain and refill the tub with cooler water and repeat until evidence of soap or suds is gone.
For All-White or Mostly White Quilts, you can use dilute solutions of oxygen bleach such as Clorox 2 for mild bleaching. ½ cup per half tub of water is sufficient and soak between 15-20 minutes. After that, you can do the detergent bath. Rinse as stated above. Remember – don’t get too crazy about stain removal. Some old stains may be there for good and nothing you can do will remove them – you will only risk damaging the fabric. If you notice colors bleeding during the cleaning process at any point, rinse and remove promptly.
Once your final rinse is done, gently squeeze out any extra water from the quilt but do not wring or twist. If you can, it’s better for two people to lift the quilt out of the basin or tub as this will put less stress on the seams and fabrics. Remember – textiles can get rather heavy when they are wet and the seams may not support this.
Lay the quilt flat on highly absorbent towels to dry, lightly press out as much water as you can. If it’s a sunny and dry day you could dry the quilt outdoors so it doesn’t become mildewy. Put it face down on a sheet or a cotton mattress pad out of the direct sunlight. Ensure that the quilt won’t get dirt on it or get bird or insect droppings on it. Covering it with another sheet can help this. DO NOT line dry, as it will put uneven stress on the fabric and stitches.
Modern quilts, although mostly made from fabrics that don’t bleed and are more sturdy, can still experience color bleeding. It really just depends on the origin of the material. Ensure that you still test for colorfastness like you would with a vintage quilt. Even if the quilt was just made, washing in the washing machine and drying in a dryer can put a lot of stress on the fabric and stitches over time. Washing it gently in a tub will preserve the quilt the longest and give it a longer lifespan. Also remember that any quilt with special attachments such as buttons, writing, sequins, paint, or other things should be given special care or concern no matter how new or old.
Many large museums and universities that have quilts in their care rely on large storage spaces and climate controlled interiors that cost lots of money. But what about the everyday collector’s home? Most people can’t afford all that. Here are some ways you can improve your quilt storage game in your home.
Choose a spot that has the most stable temperature and humidity. Bedrooms are likely candidates according to Cathy. Basements are too damp and attics have too many temperature swings. If you have a finished basement however, this could also work. Quilts can be stored under beds in acid-free boxes or on closet shelves. Keep them away from dust, insects, and direct sunlight.
When folding quilts, do so as loosely as possible. Stuff the layers with acid-free tissue or paper, and wrap them all in clean cotton sheets. Don’t store quilts in plastic as this can trap moisture and the plastic tends to degrade over time, and can become sticky in certain cases.
If you’re storing quilts in any kind of wooden container, a coat of polyurethane can help reduce the direct contact with the acid in wood.
Wool and silk material quilts can benefit from mothballs, but these shouldn’t touch the quilt itself.
Two or three times a year you should take the quilts out, lay them gently on the bed, and inspect them for any damage or issues. Air them out on dry days (not humid or rainy). Remember to keep them away from direct sunlight or pets. You can use fiberglass screening to hand vacuum the quilts.
Also remember to clean out the storage area of dust while you are doing this. Refold the quilts using different lines to avoid creating permanent creases.
And remember to ENJOY the quilts that you are keeping! Put them out for a few days to admire them. What good is a quilt that you never see?