Caring for Antique Quilts

Caring for Antique Quilts

Caring for Antique QuiltsYou’ve just purchased or inherited an old quilt. It’s a real beauty, a geometric design in red and blue. The quilting is exquisite. But it’s looking a bit dingy. So how do you clean and care for it?

Based on the straight-edge geometric design and the colors, your quilt was probably made by a Pennsylvania Amish woman or a group of them. Based on its fabrics, it may date from the turn of the 20th century. Tiny patchwork pieces demonstrate frugality and patience. However, wWhen using design motifs to estimate a quilt’s age, keep in mind that the fabrics used in it might be a decade or two older than the quilt itself.

A quilt’s fabric can tell you a lot about its age. The earliest quilts were made of homespun cloth; print materials became common after 1820. Nineteenth-century quilts used cotton—calico, gingham, muslin and solids—along with wool and challis. Frontier women employed muslin, sacking and sample swatches. Victorian-era quilters incorporated expensive fabrics such as silk, taffeta, velvet and satin. By the mid-1800s, women were buying fabric specifically for quilting. During the crazy-quilt mania of the 1880s, manufacturers started selling bundled scraps. Some turn-of-the-century quilts incorporate feed or sugar sacks and even silk swatches that were put in cigarette packs to encourage women to smoke.

Handling an Old Quilt

Wear a pair of white cotton gloves when you handle an antique quilt. The oils on your fingers can do damage to the fabric over time. Keep quilts on clean, dry surfaces. Lay a clean bedsheet down first, then lay the quilt on top of it.

Cleaning an Antique Quilt

Caring for Antique QuiltsIf your quilt is over 50 years old, it should be cleaned by a professional. Many conservators recommend not cleaning an antique quilt because the fibers can become brittle over time. One of the best ways to clean a newer quilt is with a handheld vacuum cleaner with a small brush attachment. Lay the quilt out on a flat surface and place a nylon stocking over the end of the nozzle or use a soft brush attachment before vacuuming. You also can air your quilt outside on an overcast day to remove dirt and odors.

Since fabric of different types make up most quilts, it’s best not to wash a quilt. Also, today’s powerful washing machines will mostly likely damage it.

Antique quilts are also susceptible to molds and insects. The growth of molds can lead to scattered spots known as foxing, similar to those found on old prints. What may look like a blood or rust stain is what’s left of a dead bug. These stains are nearly impossible to remove. Many quilts folded and stored for years will have brown stains that often look like furniture polish, blood or rust but are actually caused by dye migration. Changes in temperatures can cause this to happen and most stains caused by dye migration cannot be removed because the dye has permanently stained adjoining fabrics. It’s best to leave this alone, as you can do more damage trying to remove dye migration.

Storing an Antique Quilt

Caring for Antique QuiltsThe best way to store—and display—a quilt is on an unused bed. Keeping pets and sunshine off the quilt will extend the lifetime of the fabric. Don’t banish your quilt to the attic or basement; opt instead for a low-humidity, constant-temperature area. Periodically rest hanging quilts to reduce the stress on the fabric. Never nail or tack a quilt to the wall, and don’t pin anything to your heirloom—the pins can leave rust marks.

You can store your quilt in an acid-free box, wrap it in a piece of washed, unbleached muslin or fold it in a pillowcase. Never keep it in a cardboard box or plastic bag. If you want to store it in a wooden drawer, first paint the inside with polyurethane varnish and after it’s dried, line the drawer with acid-free paper, cotton sheets or muslin. Refold the quilts a few times a year to avoid permanent creases. Smaller quilts can be rolled around a cardboard tube wrapped in acid-free paper.

If space is at a premium or if your quilt contains thick stuffed work or embellishments, it’s preferred to store it folded or around a cardboard tube that has been first wrapped with aluminum foil and a white bedsheet.

If you have several quilts, don’t stack them to store them, but buy special acid-free boxes online in which you can store each quilt. While you’re at it, also purchase some acid-free tissue paper to lay in the folds. You can also store your antique quilt in a clean white pillow case.

Remember, you own an original piece of American history. With proper care, your quilt will last a long time.

Article By Bob Brooke

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