Friday, August 30, 2013

Q & A: Caring for Old Quilts & Textiles

Every once in a while an email comes in with a question that would really make a great topic for a blog post.
This is a question I’ve had to answer many times from readers, and I think if I put the answer here, in the archives that it would be a good place to refer folks, rather than my having to write it out time and time again as the need arises, as it does quite often.
This email is from Judy, and she writes:
I am a faithful follower of your Quiltville blog  and enjoy it very much. 
I have a question regarding old quilts.  I have quilts made by my husbands mother who passed at the age of 97.  She would have been 100 years old this year had she lived.  The quilts I have are VERY old and were made, according to her, before she married in 1940, by her, her mother and/or her sisters. 
 My question is how to handle these quilts.  Fabric in some of them seems very fragile and binding is worn or frayed, but centers appear to be okay.  The fabric on some of the quilts is worn and torn and appear to be beyond repair.  We talked about quilt making through the years, but I did not become an active quilter until about 10 years ago and by that time she was in a nursing home and memory was slipping badly.  She did indicate to me that they used cotton from the field as batting for their quilts as she was raised on a farm in AL and made do with what they had.  These are rough country quilts, pieced by hand and quilting is not fancy.  Once she married and moved to the “big city of Birmingham” she never quilted again.
It seems a shame to leave these quilts stored in trunks, which has been the case up to now.  I am not sure how to clean these quilts or display them (they do not appear stained or dirty).  I have no expertise in the history of fabrics and frankly they look more like utilitarian quilts; I’m sure some of the fabrics were feed sacks; backs are pieced and multiple fabrics used for backs, but the front of the quilts appear to be patterns that appeared in newspapers.  I guess I would like to display some of the “better” quilts.  I do not want to use them as bed quilts as I think they are too fragile for that kind of use.  To my knowledge she never used these quilts on the beds in her home, as I don’t remember ever seeing them when we visited in Birmingham.  However, I would like to honor my mother-in-law by displaying some some of her work.
We now live in Raleigh, NC (transplants from IL) and I found your blog after moving here.  I know you have an interest in old quilts and while I know these have no great monetary (only sentimental) value, I hoped you could give me some advice on how to take care of them.
Thanks in advance,
Judy F

If your quilt already has damage, washing can enlarge holes, bunch up batting and cause further deterioration of the fabric, so only you can choose whether it is best to actually wash a quilt, or to leave it as is, folded to display the best parts as show-pieces.  I recommend mending BEFORE washing.
That said, I feel perfectly fine machine washing sturdy utilitarian quilts that were made past 1940, including my own quilts in my front loading washer on the hand wash cycle. Quilts older than that must be hand washed, if washed at all.

How I handle  really old vintage quilts and textiles:
Vintage quilts require special care during cleaning. Do not dry clean or machine wash an heirloom piece. Dry cleaning chemicals can permanently harm old fabrics and the agitation action of a washing machine can cause fibers to shred or disintegrate
If your quilt is musty, try airing your quilt outside on a sunny day to restore freshness. To remove dust, vacuum with a nylon stocking over the end of vacuum hose and hold the hose slightly above the top of the quilt.  You can also place a layer of window screen on top of the quilt, and vacuum through the screen.
If you feel that you quilt must be washed, begin by checking the fabric for colorfastness. Testing is simple, wet a piece of white cloth with cold water and gently rub it over each different color or fabric in your quilt. If there is any color transfer to the white cloth, don’t wash your quilt at all. Washing will result in discoloration, bleeding and/or fading.


To hand-wash, fill a deep, laundry sink or bathtub with cold water. Be certain that the sink or tub is very clean and has no residue from cleaning agents that could cause damage to the quilt. Use a liquid detergent that is gentle and free of dyes and perfumes.  I like to use Orvus Soap, a paste found in feed stores and used for washing livestock. 
Place your quilt in the water, being certain that the entire quilt gets wet. Gently move your quilt around in the water. Allow the quilt to remain in the water for about 10 minutes. Next, drain the wash water and fill the tub again with fresh water. Repeat draining and refilling the tub until the water and quilt are soap free – clear water and no suds.
You may add 1/2 cup vinegar to the rise water to both brighten colors, remove odors and soften the quilt.
Proper drying is also important in keeping your quilt at its best. Wet quilts must be handled gently. Pulling or wringing can break seams and cause damage. The quilt will be heavy and should be dried flat. To lift the quilt from the tub, use a white sheet to create a sling. Allow the excess water to drain than place the quilt on a bed of heavy towels. Cover with more towels and roll up to absorb water. Move the quilt to another bed of dry towels, spread out flat and allow to dry. Placing a fan in the room will help to speed the process.
If you have space, place a sheet on the grass outside and spread out the quilt. Cover the quilt with another clean sheet and allow to dry. Do not dry in direct sunlight, which can cause fading, without the top sheet in place. Never suspend a wet quilt from a clothesline. This causes too much stress on seams and cause tearing and can displace batting.
I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it is.
There is a lot of discussion going on about using things like Oxi-Clean for stain removal, and the jury is out on that one for me.  I don’t want to do anything that is going to damage the fibers of the fabric any further, but some say that you can remove most stains by mixing a solution of OxiClean, Clorox 2 or Purex Color Safe Bleach and cool water. Follow the package directions as to how much product per gallon of water. Completely submerge the quilt in the solution and allow it to soak for at least eight hours. Check the stain. If it is gone, rinse well and dry. If it remains, mix a fresh solution and repeat. It may take several soakings to remove the stain but it should come out.  Do this at your own risk.  I have not tried this myself --- yet.  Fear has got the best of me!
I know we are a wild world of quilting knowledge, and I would love it if you can add your comments and advice in the comments section below.  I plan to list this page in my tips & techniques tab for future reference for everyone – so please share!
This afternoon we are cabin bound!  Hard to believe it is Labor Day weekend already ----
If I can get to it today, I’ve got a bunch of things I want to list for a Labor Day Yard Sale of quilt items.  Yes, I know it’s last minute…..but I’ll put up a linky if anyone else is interested in clearing out some sewing stuff?  Leave me a comment and let me know and if there is enough interest, we will run a Labor Day Yard Sale!

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  1. I'm interested as a buyer, but not a seller.

  2. I am on it if you do it... Have stuff to sell!

  3. Great post, thank you. I have repaired my old quilts by applique, or if possible, backing the old piece with fabric, but leaving the old intact.

  4. Bonnie - I have one precious quilt dating to 1847. When it had been washed before I bought it, who knows. The fabrics seemed dull perhaps by residual soap from years gone by.

    I do not have a front load washer. BUT, I had an idea. I filled the washer with cold water, gently pushed the quilt under the water. NO WASHER MOVEMENT OF ANY KIND!!! After soaking the quilt for 10 minutes, I pushed the dial to where it drains water from the machine...no agitation. Did this twice.

    Lifted the quilt from the washer and spread it to dry on a large sheet of plastic in our tile floored Sunporch (no sun that day). Blew fans on it to help drying time.

    This method worked extremely well. And the soap scum rinsed out --- leaving beautiful colors including the gorgeous Prussian Blue!

    And yes, the one tear in the fabric I mended before soaking.

    Thanks for repeating your information for all of us

    1. I use the no-agitating method, too, for my 1930's quilt. Works like a dream!

  5. Can you explain how a "yard sale" works??? thanks! :) Kathi

  6. that would be great

  7. Bonnie, A friend asked me to look at a quilt she has had for years to see if I could repair it. It is not a treasured antique and she does not know its provenance. I would estimate it to be from the 70s, with the wear and tear you would expect from a utilitarian quilt in a house full of dogs & cats.

    My first task was to eliminate the musty odor, and thanks to advice you posted in the past, that effort was successful. Now I'm trying to figure our what to do about the damage. The binding has separated; I can fix that. But the fabric is worn throughout --- far too much damage for me to try to repair, bit by bit. A quilter friend suggested adding a layer of mesh or a sheer fabric over the top. Have you (or any of your followers) tried anything like that? Any thoughts?

    1. I have a similar problem w one of my first quilts. I'm thinking of making wall hangings or framing parts of it for my children. I haven't tried to sew up the areas that are ripping from all the ues over the years. But my girls all want it.

    2. I believe it's bridal veil material that is used in quilt restoration--usually appliqued over deteriorating fabric patches.

    3. Thank you, Judymc. My friend wants to use the quilt, not display it, so I'm looking for something durable and not too scratchy. Making wall hangings out of parts of it won't meet her needs. I'll do a test with a bit of bridal veil material. Restoring/repairing is really not my thing; I'd much rather make a brand new quilt, but she's a good friend, so....

      Maybe if this doesn't work I'll ask her whether she would be happy with a couple of pillows using the least damaged blocks. Still utilitarian, and a lot less work.

  8. As far as displaying old quilts - I have been to quilts shows and seen wooden trunks/chests with glass sides. You could fold the quilts and display that way. I would refold the quilts from time to time.

  9. I have a similar question that perhaps you or some other quilters out there can answer. My brother found six unfinished quilt tops pieced by my Grandmother, born 1879 in Kansas. She died in 1964 so I'm sure these were pieced before 1960 and made from dress scraps, feed sacks, scraps, etc. Is it possible to quilt those now? They have been stored in boxes in my Mother's attic for years before we found them after Mom passed. I'd like to finish them but fear it might be a pretty big project.

    1. I hand quilted a top that was stored in a box in the garage for many many years. A butterfly quilt made from feed sacks, it turned out wonderful. It was not stained so I did not feel the need to wash it first, the only drawback, if it is one, I had to use current fabrics for the binding so it is not in original condition as they say, but since it was for sentimental reasons anyway I did not care, do it is a finished quilt now and the label shows who actually made the top and my name in the quilter. Wonderful memories.

    2. I hand quilted two double wedding ring tops made of 1930's fabrics. They quilted beautifully with no problems. 20th century quilt tops should be fine to quilt, but 19th century and earlier tops should probably be left as a top due to fragile fabrics. Some of the dyes deteriorated the fabrics of those old tops and quilts. Also, the value of some 19th century tops could be affected if quilted today--you would need to get an appraiser's opinion.

    3. Becky, Yes you can quilt those old quilt tops. I have machine quilted professionally for nearly 11 years and have quilted many antique tops. I first check the fabrics with a needle to see how pliable the fibers are. As long as they are not brittle or falling apart, seams are completely stitched and all mending has been done, these tops can and should be completed. Quilting will actually make these tops stronger so they can be loved for years to come.

      One more thing: Never, ever machine wash a quilt top, antique or new, before quilting. If you do, you'll end up with a wadded mess with lots of raveled threads and even more mending than you originally had, if it can be salvaged at all. Instead, stabilize it with quilting and binding, then wash by hand or on a gentle cycle in a front loading machine. Stitch on!

  10. Another good way to clean if they are just dusty is to use a section of fiberglass screen and wrap the edges with duct tape so it doesn't catch on the material. Use your upholstery attachment on low suction and hand vacuum the quilt thru the screen. Works pretty good.

  11. I would love to participate in your Monday Tag sale but I have no blog so guess I will just be a shopper!

  12. Anonymous9:26 PM EDT

    Thanks for the post. I have inherited some older quilts and want to was has well!

  13. I have a friend who saw this on the BAQS blog and tried it- she was impressed with the results on a small quilt.


  14. I'd be interested (as a buyer) in a yard sale for Monday (Labor Day).

  15. I was making miniature basket blocks and when I sprayed one with water before pressing, it RAN! The muslin was really pink where the seams were. I decided to try soaking it in oxi clean. It was amazing as the pink did disappear. bUT the muslin was bleached as well. I guess this is why I pre wash and dry before I make a quilt. I try to preshrunk as wellso there are no surprises when I wash the quilt. It is funny that the tiny old scrap that I used re enforced my practices .

  16. Do not use OxiClean on antique fabrics. When the soil gets disbursed into the water, it will take the color it is attached to with it. I made this mistake on a 1930s quilt that was not faded when I washed it. The Oxiclean took out the yellowing, but it also faded the quilt. Lesson learned.

  17. Anonymous5:59 PM EDT

    I soak my old quilts outside in a blue plastic kiddy pool, then, after draining, I place them carefully on a new plastic tarp. Gently spread out with no wrinkles, I use a piece of PVC pipe as a rolling pin to squeeze out excess water. The batting stays put, no bunching or shifting. Air dry on a sheet with a sheet for cover. n_rembert@hotmail.com


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