Saturday, November 05, 2011

Ask Bonnie!

Today’s topic:

Washing old, musty string blocks!

I received an email the other day from Anna who has acquired some really great string blocks…but there is a problem. They are still attached to the paper ((Dated 1955!!)) and some have stains…and they smell musty.

Her question:

Hi Bonnie,

I just received two old string quilt tops that were sewn on the machine and pieced on newspaper. One of the papers was from 1955.


They have been stored in a basement and have a couple of small stains on them and are a little smelly. How do you suggest I clean them before are finished?


Thanks and Have a Great Day!

Anna S, Oakridge, TN

Wow! What GREAT blocks!! Can’t you imagine all the 1950’s dresses and skirts made out of these fabrics?

And just because these are 1950's blocks, I found this lovely 1950’s laundry ad just to put us in the mood! LOL!

I love old string blocks! These are so neat, and the fact that you can still read what's on the paper on the back makes it even more fun. The first thing you are going to have to do is remove the paper.

You can wash the blocks by hand, but edges can fray and seams may unravel.

If you think you can wait on the washing --- quilts wash BETTER after quilting and binding.

To minimize the musty smell, you can close them up in a plastic bag with a bar of strong smelling soap, like Irish Spring, for a week or so...that might be enough to make it so they are not so smelly, and you can stand to get the quilt pieced, quilted and bound before throwing it in the washer.

You can also, if you HAVE to wash them before completing and don't feel like doing a sink wash by hand...put them in a zippered laundry bag for delicate lingerie....wash them in the bag, in the washer, gentle cycle.

Vinegar in the wash water will also help remove smells.

I wouldn't dry them in the dryer, but lay them out on a towel to air dry when done washing. If you iron them while they are still a bit damp, you should be able to get all the seams pressed back into some order.

But I have to tell you, that my OWN preference is to quilt first, wash later!

Do you have any hints/helps experiences that can help Anna with her smelly dilemma? Leave comments below, I think this is info that we ALL need to learn from those of you who have been there, done that, and succeeded! ((Or failed!! Tell us about those too!))


  1. I just did a repair/re-sew/re-invent on a quilt top made with strings that were pieced on muslin and feed sack materials. All were pieced by hand and the quilt dates from the 30's and 40's (I believe based on the fabrics). It was filthy and extremely smelly (like old kitchen grease with dirt mixed in!) I waited until I repaired and put it back together before I washed it. I tried to ignore the smell. When it was washed and dried I could not believe how much brighter the colors were and all the "stinky" was gone! I had to make a few more repairs to it after the washing but I am pretty darned excited at how it turned out! If you want to see it, here is a link to the photo:


  2. I have laid things out on a sheet in shade and let them air out. I have also febreez'ed them to control the smell long enough to quilt them. Then, any febreeze comes out in the wash.

  3. I'm with you Bonnie - No matter how stinky . . I would still just go ahead and make the top, quilt, bind, and THEN stick it in the washer. . I wash all of my finished quilts anyway.. I love the laundered quilt look!

  4. if you have a serger, you can serge the edges of the quilt and wash it on gentle, with just vinegar. Let it sit in the vinegar wash for about an hour, drain it, refill then add your detergent and wash on gentle. Air drying in the sun is best but the dryer is okay too. Good luck, Ann!

  5. Anonymous8:05 AM EDT

    This came at the perfect time for me. I am sewing two sets of old blocks together for my future sister-in-law and had the same problem. Thank you!

  6. Serge around the edges before washing. It helps keep the edges from fraying in the wash.

  7. Anonymous8:20 AM EDT

    That is pretty cool, to see the newspaper from the year the quilt was made. My suggestion for the smell would to spray with Bio Kleen and let it air dry. It is found with Natural cleaning products and smells like limes, and works great for mold and mildew.

  8. Anonymous8:29 AM EDT

    Beautiful quilt blocks! Instructions I received from ladies at the state fair say to secure edges with masking or painter's tape, then soak blocks in warm water in the wash basin with some Fels Naptha soap which has been grated. After 20 minutes or so, gently squeeze out the water and lay the blocks on a towel or blanket (process is like hand-washing sweaters) until dry enough to iron. They didn't say anything about rinsing, but I would rinse the blocks before letting them dry, and certainly before pressing them!

  9. It may be the wrong time of year for this advice, but I have found that putting musty fabrics out in the sun over a couple of chairs for an hour or two often gets rid of musty smells - and the UV is free! Turn them over once or twice.

  10. I agree with Bonnie to quilt first wash afterwards. I just did a quilt for a customer that was mildewed and I spritzed it with Fabreeze so the smell would not overpower me as I quilted. I am very allergic to mold. It took the smell away and I was able to get through the quilt. I am sure it did not remove the mildew and it still needs washed, but now it can be safely washed.

  11. Put them in a box with UNUSED kitty litter!

  12. I suggest putting the quilt in a large plastic bag. Then liberally spray a wash cloth with febreeze and add to the bag. I did this for a suitcase that had held sweaty sports attire for a week and the smell disappeared.

  13. I wish I had read this before I started on my 'found' quilt top. The one I found at a thrift store was covered in cat hair, so I washed it, not once, but twice in the washer. I had to repair a lot of seams and frayed edges! Lesson learned!

  14. I have heard that newspaper also absorbs smells-we had ice skates that went through the flood and I stuffed them with newspaper. It seems to have worked!

  15. Also give it a toss in the dryer with NO HEAT and a few dryer sheets, it helps too. If it still smells a little put it in a plastic bag with some other dryer sheets and leave it for a week.

  16. I use this for all kinds of old musty linens. This can work after quilting, but if it's so bad that the tips from other posters don't work (I've found "baking" in a very hot car does help), I suggest the following. Acquire one of the big plastic tubs so many of use for storing things (I prefer one of the clearer ones). Set the plastic tub in the bathtub or shower and make a solution of an Oxyclean type product and cool to warm tap water. Move the plastic tub to a more convenient spot. Put the textile into the solution and let it sit--if you're busy, it can sit there for several days.
    Then dump the solution, gently rinse, spread the textile to dry. Then you're back in business.
    I hope this helps. It does minimize the fraying edges if the textile is so repulsive that it can't be quilted and bound first.

  17. Anonymous10:34 AM EDT

    I attended a lecture from a quilt restorer...she said that soaking in biz is great for stain and odor removal.

  18. Febreeze makes a liquid laundry additive. This is not the spray stuff, it is a liquid and I find it in the laundry detergent section at Walmart near where they have Oxi-clean, Biz, and all of those detergent boosters. I have yet to find an odor that the liquid Febreeze won't fix. No worry about residue, as it is used in the wash cycle and rinses out.

  19. I have placed musty, old quilt squares from my husband's grandmother's estate in a plastic bag with an open bowl of coffee grounds, let it sit for probably two weeks before I got back to them, and wala! no more musty smell.

    I still need to get the stains out. I bought some Retro Clean at a quilt show but haven't tried it yet.

  20. I too received an old stinky and stained quilt top from my husbands family to finish. I referred to it as 'the ugly quilt' for years. I finally finished the top, had it quilted (with apologies to my long arm quilter) and bound it before washing. It turned out great and now I love it. Now I wonder why I didn't try Fabreeze on it.

  21. liked the old ad. i watched twice, first time i thought Harriett said put the damn (instead of damp) clothes in the dryer. haha :>)

  22. Lots of great advise already given. I'd run a bead of basting glue along the edges before I did anything, this will wash out after it's been quilted and it's so much easier than stay stitching the edges. (less handling of smelly fabric)

  23. Baking soda sprinkle lightly over the fabric for a few hours will absorb all smells. When ready to lay out the quilt just shake off the baking soda.
    Good Luck

  24. Anonymous2:16 PM EDT

    All good suggestions, so now here is my two cents worth. I have discovered that Vodka will remove mildew in a bathroom. Yes, straight Vodka. If you spray it on, the mildew will just 'peel' off the wall or whatever. I have not tried it on fabric, but it could be an "Absolut" solution. (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun!)
    Faye Bushey

  25. Anonymous2:55 PM EDT

    Ahhhh, Harriett Nelson's ad was great. Good advice, as usual Bonnie for Anna. I also have 5 string block tops of various sizes that I need to finish for a niece. Her grandmother pieced them on sheeting. I'm thinking I will put the 5 pieces together to make one large quilt for her queen bed and I was thinking I should use just a flannel for the middle in place of batting. Good idea??
    Hoping you have flat seas.
    Maryella in Maine

  26. I think you should buy a Hotpoint washer and dryer, they sound like they work miracles! I'm going right now to 'drop a hint' to my husband!!
    Loved the video and the strings.

  27. Try putting them in the freezer. this really works ! It may take a few days but then you can sew awithout the yucky smell and then wasn.

  28. Anonymous8:38 PM EDT

    I'm allergic to most perfumes, so Febreeze and dryer sheets are out for me. If you have the time and the weather, you can air it on the line for as long as it takes (it could be up to a week). My line is in the shade so I don't have to worry about sun fading. If that's not an option, I have removed smells by shutting the item up in a box with crumpled up newspaper. Every few days remove the old paper and put in new. The paper will absorb the odors, or you can also use clean kitty litter as already mentioned.

    Best of luck!

  29. Washing with Oxyclean has gotten bad odors out of some clothing, etc. I'd try it.

  30. Anonymous10:39 PM EDT

    I have put musty fabric into a plastic bag along with a bar of deodorant soap (Dial) wrapped in a paper towel. Need to leave it there for a while (couple weeks or more??), but it does help.

  31. I'd put them out in the sun if at all possible - I realise there's not much strong sunlight in November any more, but if they've sat for over half a decade, surely they can sit until next summer? Failing that, and if they're still super stinky (which I would not be able to quilt in that state), I'd put them in a bag as Bonnie suggested, and soak them in vinegar (or even oxiclean) before a gentle wash (perhaps on the handwash cycle to minimise agitation to minimise fraying). and definitely lay out to dry until damp then iron. Good luck!!

  32. Nobody has mentioned using plain (not match-light which is treated with fuel accelerants) charcoal briquettes, about a dozen of them, nestled into lightly crumpled newspaper so that they don't actually touch the fabric, and put into a large sealed plastic bag.

  33. harriet nelson a spokesmodel? who knew?

  34. I am going to save all these wonderful solutions. I recently acquired some yardage that was very smelly, in fact, one washing didn't do it! There is a new Fabreez Antibacterial spray out so I again washed, added vinegar and before I dried it, I sprayed it really good with the Fabreez and hung it all out doors to dry and air overnight. It smells wonderful now. You can tell if the smell is gone as soon as you put an iron to it. I sure one of these suggestions will help you out Anna.

  35. Anonymous12:11 AM EST

    I purchased the product Retro Clean too, to try. After spending my $$ for it, we discovered that the ingredients are the same as 20 Mule Team Borax. (My 86 yo Mom figured it out. Anyone else remember the commercials, or the show? It was Death Valley Days w Ronnie Reagan. You can still buy it.) Some modern products can slightly bleach some of the colors, I have had that happen with OxyClean.

  36. Thanks Everyone for the help. I will pick one and give it a try. They only have a few small stains but do smell musty. They have been sitting in my office at work since I received them. I think it is time to take them home and see what I can do. I djust can't believe that the lady that made them or her son (that gave them to me) did not want them. Oh well yay for me.


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