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Yesterday’s and Today’s Charm Quilts

This week’s blog topic is charm quilts.  While some of you may think we’re talking about these:

 And we are…later on in this blog.  However, technically and historically quilts made from these wonderful pre-cuts aren’t charm quilts.  So, what are charm quilts?

Well, they actually began with buttons.

From 1850 to 1870 it became very fashionable for young ladies to collect one-of-a-kind buttons.  Lots of buttons.  Hundreds of buttons.  A young woman would string all these buttons on a “charm string” with the hope she would meet her “Prince Charming” before there were 1,000 buttons on the string. 

Quilters took this idea and altered it to fit their fabric narrative.  It became very chic to make a quilt out of hundreds or thousand pieces of fabric, with no two pieces of material alike.  Quite often these were also called “Beggar Quilts” since the women making these quilts would ask their friends and relatives for pieces of fabric.  The US Postal Service became a vital part of these quilts and the lives of their quilters.  Packages of scraps were mailed across the country regularly, resulting in eagle-eyed quilters eagerly monitoring their mailboxes.

There were two loose rules concerning the quilts.  First, no two identical fabrics were allowed; and second, generally these were one patch quilts – only one style of block unit was used.  Sometimes hexagons were chosen (this one was pretty popular).  Skillful quilters could turn the hexagons into Tumbling Block units or stars.  Sometimes simple squares or rectangles were used.  Triangles and diamonds were also incorporated into these quilts. The four-patch quilt block was second in popularity to the hexagon, although sometimes you had to squint to recognize it.  Often the quilter would be picky about the fabric she begged or borrowed.  She would want as many lights as darks or mediums so when she pieced the quilt, a pattern would begin to show. 

Some charm quilt designers really bent the rules and used one consistent light throughout the quilt so a distinct pattern would show. The use of this single light fabric unified quilts and made all the colors play nicely together.   Most of the charm quilts were made from prints, although some quilters did use solids if needed. 

By the third quarter of the 19th century, fabric manufacturers had caught on to the Charm Quilt fervor.  They began to offer bundles of small scraps, with no two being exactly alike, for purchase.  But by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Charm Quilt’s popularity began to decline.  It was revived in the 1920’s-1930’s, when the Great Depression set in, and every scrap of fabric was used to make utility quilts.  It waned in popularity again in the 1940’s and onward as women entered the work force and quilting itself took a hit.  In the 1970’s, our Bicentennial revived interest in quilting and with the new-found fascination in the art, many old quilt patterns once again flourished, including Charm Quilts.

From the 1970’s to present, quilting itself has held steady in the number of quilters as well as its popularity.  When the Millennium was on the horizon, lots of quilters found the idea of making a Charm Quilt out of 2,000 unique fabrics just the challenge they were looking for.  While I didn’t do this myself (I was way too busy teaching school then to even think about undertaking this challenge), I personally know several quilters who did. 

By the year 2000, with quilting design software flourishing and  a wide variety of fabrics in almost every palette available, new patterns were developed, and these quilts were much more sophisticated than their late 19th century Charm Quilt counterparts. 

With the major rule of “no fabric can be used more than once”, I think lots of quilts which aren’t normally considered Charm Quilts can fall into this category. 

For instance, Dear Jane may be considered a Charm Quilt.  While the blocks and the border triangles are all different, a “true” Dear Jane never uses the same fabric more than once.  The same theory goes for a Dear Hannah Quilt and one of the many Farmer’s Wife quilts.  If a quilter makes a quilt and no fabric is used more than once (except for a consistent light), it falls in the category of Charm Quilt.

Today, the definition of a Charm Quilt gets a little foggy.  If a quilter mentions “Charm Quilt,” most of us (myself included), tend to think about these wonderful, little pre-cuts

And the quilts made from them.  Indeed, many of the patterns for these 5-inch and 2 ½-inch squares use the term charm quilt in the title. And technically, if no two fabrics are the same in these packets, it’s a true charm quilt.  So let’s take a look at these charm packs and see how easy they make any quilt’s construction.

Let me be upfront and tell you, I love these charm packs.  They give you one 5-inch or 2 ½-inch cut of most the fabrics in a line – the only fabric which may be left out is one in which the print is so large would lose its integrity is such a small space. 

If you’re thinking about using one of these to make bed-sized quilt, remember:

For 5-inch Charm Pack Quilts

456 5-inch squares or 11 charm packs for a full-sized quilt

480 5-inch squares or 12 charm packs for a queen-sized quilt

600 5-inch squares or 15 charm packs for a king-sized quilt

The largest quilt you can make with one 5-inch charm pack is 27-inches x 31 ½-inches.  The largest quilt you can make with two 5-inch charm packs is a 40-inch square quilt.  Of course if sashing and/or borders are added, the quilt will become larger.

If you have a quilt pattern you think would be 5-inch charm pack friendly, it’s super-easy to figure out how many 5-inch squares you may need.  Simply divide the length and width of the quilt by the finished square – this means instead of dividing by 5, you’ll divide by 4 ½-inches, allowing for a ½-inch seam allowance taken in when piecing the quilt.  So, let’s say we want to make a quilt 45-inches wide by 62-inches long. 

For the width, simply divide 45 by 4 ½, which comes out to be 10. Now we deal with the length, which is 62-inches.  When we divide 62 by 4 ½, we get 13.77778, which we will round up to 14. 

Then we multiply 10 and 14, to come up with the number of 5-inch squares needed.  This gives us 140 (if you remember your geometry, we just used the formula to find the area of a square or rectangle).  This doesn’t mean we need 140 charm packs.  Most charm packs contain 42 squares.  Divide 140 by 42 to get 3.333333, which we’ll round up to four.  We would need four 5-inch charm packs to make a quilt 45-inches wide by 62-inches long.  There are a couple of issues to keep in mind at this point.

  1.  Read the label on the charm pack do determine exactly how many squares are in it.  Once you determine the area of your quilt, it’s that number you divide by, not necessarily 42.  Most  charm packs have 42 squares, but not all of them.
  2. If you can’t find the number of charm packs you need, always remember you can add length and width to your quilt by incorporating sashing and borders.

Let’s take a look at the little guys now – the 2 ½-inch charm pack.  Sometimes these small packs are called mini-charms.  Moda calls them Candy.  I have to admit, after I first saw these in my LQS, I wondered what in the world anyone could make with these.  Pieces of fabric this small usually found their way into my circular file.  I didn’t even keep scraps this small in my applique bins.  However, I found out these mini-charms had lots of uses and were pretty cool pre-cuts.  First, let’s look how they fit into quilts. 

Admittedly, it would take a lot of these small squares to make a quilt – even a crib size – although a doll quilt or mini-quilt would work well with these.  But just to see how many packs of 2 ½-inch charms it would take to make a crib quilt (which is normally 36-inches wide by 46-inches long), we can apply the same area formula used with the 5-inch charms.  First, let’s figure out the finished size of the 2 ½-inch charm.  We do this by deducting ½-inch from the unfinished size (1/4-inch seam allowance on each side):  2 ½ – ½ = 2.

36-inches divided by 2-inches = 18

46-inches divided by 2-inches = 23

18 x 23 = 414

Like it’s larger counterpart, most mini-charms also have 42 squares (be sure to read the label to make sure).

414 divided by 42 = 9.857143 or 10 packs of the 2 ½-inch charms to make a crib quilt.

Also like its larger counterpart, you can add sashing and borders to add to the length and width. However, at this point, you gotta be thinking, “If I have to add sashing and borders to a quilt made solely from mini-charms, they’ll have to be small, too.”

And that is true.  To stay in proportion, both the borders and sashing would have to narrow.

What I have found these small squares are great for is block units.  Many, many quilt patterns call for 2 ½-inch squares. If they’re incorporated into a scrappy quilt, you’ve reduced the cutting time.  They are also wonderful to use in Cathedral Quilts as the center color and perfect for Postage Stamp Quilts.  And if the sashing in your quilt is 2 ½-inches unfinished, a pack of the mini-charms would make great cornerstones.

There is an additional use for both of these charm packs in my quilting world. I use them a precursor to large yardage orders. As much as I love my LQS, sometimes I have to order fabric off the internet.  If I must order significant yardage, and especially if what I order needs to coordinate with fabric I already have or harmonize with a current décor, and the mini-charms or 5-inch charms are available in the fabric line I need, I will order the charms first.  Fabric colors are often altered by web pages and computer screens.  When I have the charms in hand, I can accurately decide if the fabric will work.  If it doesn’t, I’m only out a few dollars verses the perhaps hundreds of dollars I would have spent for yardage.

Of course, now the question is what do I do with these charm packs once I’ve ordered yardage?  If they can’t be incorporated into the blocks themselves, I can use them in the borders or perhaps the applique, if the quilt has applique in it.  But my favorite way to use them is this:

These wonderful charm packs are available in all one solid color.  I can order a pack of white or another neutral, match those up with my other charms and make half-square triangles.  I really enjoy doing this.  After a difficult week in the office, Friday nights with a glass or two of wine, some mindless sewing and Netflix binging are just what I need.  Once I get all the HSTs made, I can arrange them into quilt squares (the number of different quilt squares which can be made from HSTs is nearly endless).  I can sew all of these together in rows and make a small quilt which I can send to one of the charities I sew for.

I hope this blog has done one of two things (but hopefully both).  First, challenge you to make a “true” charm quilt at some point during your quilting career.  This is a great way to organize your stash or arrange fabric swaps with quilty friends.  Second, I hope it allows you to see the potential of “today’s” charm quilts with pre-cuts.  The math isn’t hard, and it allows for a lot of creative potential.

_____________________________________________________

I am sad to tell you, this will be the last week my blog will be signed by Sam and me. Sam went over the Rainbow Bridge at 1:46 p.m. on June 17, 2022. The weekend prior, I went to the mountains with the grand darlings for one night. As soon as I returned on Saturday, he began to go down hill pretty quickly.

Sam was 22 years-old, which in human years equals 154. He just celebrated his 22nd birthday April 15. I’ve had three cats in my lifetime and he was absolutely the smartest of the three. His routine began at 5:30 a.m. He would meow to be let out of my bedroom to use his litterbox. Around 6, he’d amble back in and meow for me to get up and feed him. If I didn’t budge by 6:30, he’d get louder. Whatever room I was in, he wasn’t far. And if anyone walked into the kitchen, he’d stalk them in there and stare a hole through the cabinet which held his treats until you gave him some.

By 9:30 p.m., he was staring me down in my studio, because that was our “couch time.” I’d turn off my machine, stop whatever I was doing, and we’d park ourselves on the couch for an hour, watching television and eating one last snack before bed — usually yogurt. I’d open a container and give him a couple of teaspoons in a separate dish.

He wasn’t much of a mouser, but in all honesty, we didn’t have many mice. He did love a good steak and shrimp, but wouldn’t turn his nose up at a nice piece of poached chicken, either. I hope, if animals do go to heaven, Scooter and Garfield have met him there. I hope all three have all the catnip they can deal with.

Sam’s blankets are put up, his bowls are washed and stored. His food has been donated to the local animal shelter.

But the pawprints on my heart will never be erased.

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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SewCations

It’s that time of year again.

Time when – if gas prices don’t gouge the fun out of life – at some point this summer, bags will be packed, tickets purchased, hotel rooms reserved, and we’ll bail out of reality for a few days of non-reality at a beach, resort, mountains, or some other vacation destination.  Most families realize this means tucking swimsuits, a few days’ worth of clothing, toiletries, needed medications etc., into bags before heading out. 

For quilters (and their long-suffering significant others) these getaways produce an entirely different quandary:  Can I take any quilting and if so, how much can I take?

This is the subject we’re talking about today.  And this “sewing-on-the-go” blog is a little different from other quilting-while-traveling blogs.  This blog touches on how to pack your quilting for vacation, not a quilt retreat.  Having done both, I can tell you each is different.  When I pack for a quilt retreat, the car is loaded down with projects, machines, cutting mats, ironing stations, scissors, and enough quilting notions and fabric to open a small LQS.  Packing my quilting up to take on vacation is an entirely different animal.  For one, I’m sharing my living quarters with at least one non-quilter (the hubs), and quite often my daughter’s family and my son’s (all non-quilters).  So neither the rental house nor our vehicle can be filled with tons of my “stuff.”  There has to be room for arm floaties, boogie boards, fishing equipment, and the like. 

I have to par it down.  Decisions must be made.  Priorities must be set. 

And this is what I hope today’s blog does for you – help you figure out what and how to pack for vacations which may include lots of fun and sun—but also for your sanity includes quilting (because most of us can’t go a week without quilting). 

The first item up for discussion is space, both in your car and in your rental.  If you’re driving separately in your own vehicle, you’ve got a lot more wiggle room with this.  Your car can literally serve as a “quilting annex” where you can swap out items as needed.  If not, compromise is in the vehicle equation.  Is there room for a machine or could it cause too many disruptions?  If I really want to bring a sewing machine on a family vacation (and I only did this once and only because I was on a deadline), I have a small travel machine which takes up less space than a lot of tackle boxes (which I may or may not use to my advantage when my husband’s slew of tackle looks as if he’s opening a bait shop).  If space for your quilting supplies is limited, you may want to only take hand sewing, which can normally  fit into one bag.

Best case scenario, you have tons of car space.  You can take whatever you need to satisfy any quilting itch you may have on vacation.  However, the next point up for consideration is the space in your hotel or home rental.  We all know quilting can be a “big” hobby:  It needs a lot of room.  If you’re vacationing in regular hotel rooms, spreading out a machine and all needed supplies may encroach on other folks’ need for space.  If this is the case, even though you may be able to fit tons of your quilting supplies in your car, it may not be the best (or kindest) thing to spread them out all over your hotel room.  Air BnB’s and rental homes may offer more space.  If it’s just you and your significant other, this would probably work just fine.  However, if multiple people are going – especially if there are kiddos involved– you should consider if all your supplies will remain safely in place or if there’s a possibility someone could decide to play with your scissors or rotary cutter.  It may be best to limit the supplies to ones you can safely keep in your room when you’re not around. 

Finally, the last thing to consider is time.  Will you have the time to quilt?  Some vacays are definitely laid back.  Sand and surf.  Mountains and brooks.  You are there to unwind and refresh.  There is no itinerary.  You can get up when you want to, laze about or go find something to do.  The option of sewing is available, and it isn’t confined to a few minutes here and there.  Other vacations aren’t like that.  Vacations spent with family or vacations spent at family homes are different.  Often spare time is spent with folks you don’t see often, and they want to engage you.  Other trips involve cruise ships or flights or group trips where everything is scheduled.  Sometimes if this is the case, it’s better to either take small hand sewing projects or none at all. 

After weighing the space available in both your vehicle and your lodging and giving your itinerary careful consideration, you decide you can bring some quilting to work on.  Best case situation, you can bring a sewing machine and have the space and time to get up close and personal with some long-delayed projects or languishing UFOs.  Here’s where you build a literal portable quilt studio to take with you.  It’s important to take a critical look at your home sewing area and determine what you must have and what you can live without for a few days.

  1.  Sewing table.  Will you have room at a dining room table or some other area at your hotel/rental home to situate your machine?  If you have a portable sewing table you’ve fine-tuned to your back and neck needs, you may want to bring that, especially if you think you may have hours of sewing time ahead.
  2. Chair.  I know this may sound like a little thing, but nearly all quilters have a chair they sit in to sew which accommodates their height, back, and neck.  Is it vital you take this chair with you, or can you make do with a chair there?  If you opt to go with a chair at your lodging, you may want to take a cushion for your rear and back– especially if the chair isn’t padded.  Most of the time, this is the compromise between taking your sewing chair and using one where you’re staying.
  3. Cutting Station.  In my opinion, it’s always best to do “large” cutting (i.e. cut out the quilt) before you leave to go on vacation or quilt retreat.  I tend to do my most accurate cutting at my home cutting table (because I don’t have to bend) with my large cutting mat.  This means you only need to pack a small to medium-sized mat to do small cutting and trimming, and can use a space available (such as a desk or countertop) where you’ll be staying.  Pre-cutting before leaving also means you can leave large rulers and rotary cutters at home and only need to pack a small cutter and a few small rulers. 
  4. Ironing Station.  One of the great things about rental houses and most hotel rooms is they come with their own ironing board and iron.  A small pressing area (such as wool mat) may be the only item you need to pack.  If applique is part of your quilting vacation equation, you may also want a small iron for quick touch ups or to prepare finished edge applique.
  5. Miscellaneous Items.  These include scissors, rotary cutter and blades, extra sewing machine needles, the manual to your sewing machine, the cord to your sewing machine, pins, pincushion or container, stiletto, thread, Wonder Clips, and spray starch/starch substitute.
  6. Project Boxes.  These should contain cut out quilts, the pattern, and any special notions or thread.

If you find yourself not wanting to haul your sewing machine and everything it entails with you on vacation, hand sewing and hand quilting are easier to deal with and take up less space – unless you’re taking a king-sized quilt to bind.  Hexies, English paper piecing, regular hand piecing, hand quilting, or hand applique are great take-along projects which take up little space.  Honestly except for one or two trips, this is my go-to “quilt-fix” for vacation.  I can fit everything I need in a large-ish bag and I’m out the door.  Projects and/or current blocks can easily fit into two-gallon sized Ziploc baggies.  Beeswax, thimble, several packets of needles in various sizes, small scissors, fabric glue, fabric markers, and thread can nest in a small bag.  This is the bag I take:

This bag was a gift from my son and daughter-in-law. Not only is it a great bag, it also has the Harry Potter theme going on.

There are pockets along the inside to fit all my hand sewing notions in and project bags and small boxes go in the middle.  There is usually enough room left over for my iPad or Kindle.  If you’re hand quilting a quilt, this may mean a second bag depending on the size hoop you use and how big the quilt is. 

Normally, my hand applique goes with me on any trip, no matter how short or how long.  If I have several small quilts, such as table toppers or wall hangings, I’ve found vacation is a great time to bind them.  I can sit and watch TV or talk with friends and family without having to concentrate on my sewing too much.  These go into my suitcase last so I can pull them out first and have them available to work on. 

As I’m winding this blog up, there is one more quilty vacation concept I’d like to throw out – don’t take any quilting with you.  I know, I know…this seems pretty radical for a quilter who would rather quilt than eat, but hear me out.  Time away, whether it’s a day, a week, two weeks, or month, is all about recharging and relaxing.  It’s a time to hit the pause button on your life and spend the time with family or friends.  It’s a time to explore and see new things.  Taste new foods.  Drink new drinks. 

Maybe it’s time to hit the pause button on your quilting.  Maybe it would be a good idea to recharge your creative juices, drool over quilts on Pinterest, or sketch some new ideas.  Visit some quilt shops for inspiration.  You may come back a rested, ready-to-get-back-in-the-studio quilter brimming with new ideas.  If you feel kind of burned out, this may be exactly what you need to do.  Leave your quilting at home, or if you do bring it, give yourself permission to not touch it unless you really want to sew.

It’s up to you.

Anyway, as you’re hitting the road or flying the skies, be careful and take good care of one another.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Caring for Antique Quilts Part II and Caring for Your Special Quilts

As promised, this week’s blog continues our discussion on how to take care of your antique quilts, as well as how to treat your own special quilts that you’re making. 

The next step is support and repair.  No matter if you plan to display your quilts or store them (more on how to store them in a bit), some antique quilts need a little help on the repair side of things.  If there’s a hole in the quilt, it’s real tempting to find a current fabric which blends in with the quilt top and sew it on.  While that is an option, it is one of the last resorts.  All repairs should be done by hand, as this will result in a more accurate and inconspicuous “fix” than one done by machine.  And repairs done by a quilter may be different than those done by a professional conservator.  If the quilt is truly a family heirloom which has been handed down from generation to generation, holds a special place in your heart, or is a serious financial investment, my advice is to call the National Quilt Museum, the International Quilt Museum, or the textile curator of your state’s history museum and see if they can recommend a local conservator to undertake those repairs. 

For small repairs, a single strand of silk or matching cotton thread (no larger than 50 weight) will work best.  Don’t use nylon or polyester filament, which can cut into antique fabric.  If applique pieces are loose, stitch them back down with the smallest stitches possible.  For areas that are frayed, tack down a sheer fabric over them to prevent further damage.  Cut a sheer overlay the same shape and size as the damaged area and baste it on (sheer overlay such as crepe line or tulle can be found in the wedding fabric sections of some fabric stores or can be ordered online). 

However, if there are badly damaged areas in the quilt, you may need to make some hard decisions.  Badly damaged areas, such as the one below:

Need sturdier support than a sheer overlay.  A cotton percale works well.  Baste it a piece to the front of the damaged area, and also baste a piece of cotton percale to the back of the quilt in the same location.

If the quilt has several large, badly damaged areas, the only resort may be to cut down the quilt.  Yeah…ouch…that hurts.  But if there is a lot of damage to a quilt, sometimes the blocks can be salvaged and framed, or a smaller quilt can be made from what is left.  This can be a heart-wrenching decision.  Give yourself some time to think about it before applying scissors to quilt. 

If your quilt is missing pieces, consider the final results before deciding to replace them.  Leaving the space uncovered and allowing the backing show is often preferable to adding fabric from a different time period. If you do decide to replace missing quilt pieces, don’t remove the old damage fabric, but place the new fabric over it.  If it’s binding which needs repaired, sew the new binding over it – don’t remove the old. 

 If you have an antique feed sack quilt or a quilt with Civil War era fabrics in it, your repair options broaden a bit.  There are still feed sacks and Civil War fabric available.  These would be preferrable to other material.  Added bonus is both types of material have abundant Reproduction Fabric available.  A close match or even an exact one may be possible. 

The fourth step is to decide how to store or display the quilt.  The first step in either one is don’t store or display your quilt if it’s dirty.  Sometimes molds and insect larvae can hide in the stains and will become big problems if they’re not removed.  The second step is to store the quilt in an area with a controlled temperature, controlled humidity, and out of direct light.  This means attics, basements, and sometimes closets don’t work well for quilt storage (many modern closets are temperature and humidity controlled).  Cedar chests (unless they’re new) aren’t particularly good storage options either.  After a while, cedar chests lose their ability to repel rodents and bugs.  Chests and trunks made of wood or lined with paper give off an acid which is harmful to some dyes and fibers and actually can create an acidic environment, not to mention limit air circulation.

Since air circulation is mentioned, let’s park it here and discuss why it’s important.  Any storage method which cuts off air circulation can produce harmful by-products the longer the quilt is stored in that specific container.  This means that plastic bags and regular cardboard boxes are also out.  The cardboard acidifies pretty quickly, and this acid is harmful to the quilt’s dyes and fibers. 

How should you store your quilt?  There are several options:

  • Acid-Free Boxes and Paper.  There are cardboard boxes which will remain acid-free indefinitely, as well some acid-free tissue paper.  These boxes are large enough to hold a quilt or two.  Fold the quilt, making sure there are some acid-free tissue sheets tucked in the folds. 
  • Fold them in well-washed cotton sheets or fabric.  This will protect them from dust and light, as well as any abrasive surface.  For smaller quilts, pillowcases may work.  Larger quilts don’t work well in them because they must be folded too many times to fit in the case.   This puts a great deal of stress on the quilt. 
  • If the quilt is folded for storage, refold them frequently to prevent any permanent creases.  I always do this the first weekend of any month – this is just an easy way for me to remember to do it. 
  • Roll the quilt on a tube.  I mentioned storing quilts this way in my blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/07/28/in-praise-of-pool-noodles/comment-page-1/. For an antique quilt, cover the tube in a clean cotton sheet or fabric and roll the quilt onto the tube with the right side of the quilt facing in.  You probably will also want to cover the rolled quilt with another sheet or cotton fabric to protect it against any dust.
  • Store them on a spare bed.  Hands down, this is the best way to store antique quilts.  Laying them flat on a bed will not stress any seams or stitches and the quilts will be in a climate and light controlled area.  You may want to place a clean sheet between the quilts and add a sheet on top to protect the surface of the last quilt. 

Displaying your quilt is always a great option.  You may choose to display your quilt all year, or if the quilt is a little on the fragile side, only at certain times.  Regardless, you want your display area to be climate controlled and not near a heating vent or fireplace or in direct sunlight.  It’s probably best to avoid any area near a kitchen due to oily dust.  Remember to check the quilt regularly to see if it needs vacuuming (as described under the cleaning section of this blog).

If you chose to hang an antique quilt, use the rod and sleeve method.  Put a hanging sleeve on the back of the quilt (this is handsewn on and won’t damage the quilt) and hang it from display rod.  The length of the sleeve along the top of the quilt allows the weight to be distributed evenly, so no one section of the quilt is stressed more than another.  Experts recommend not to hang an antique quilt more than six months and then rotate it out.

There are lots of pretty quilt stands available, and it’s fine to display your quilts on them.  For antique quilts, you may want to use the entire stand for one quilt.  Lay some batting over the horizontal dowels to create a padded surface, and then lay your quilt over that. 

The last step to take is to record the treatment and use information.  Recording information about a quilt is helpful to future owners of the quilt who may wonder about its use and care.  And you may need to reference this information for yourself at some point, too – especially if you find yourself possessing several antique quilts.  There is some specific information you should write down, beginning with everything historically you know about the quilt – where you bought it, anything about the original maker, etc.  It’s also important to record:

  • Tasks you have completed for each quilt, including cleaning or repair.  Include the procedure used, supplies and the dates.
  • Before and after photographs are great reference points.  This can show how cleaning and repairs affected the quilt’s appearance.
  • If you displayed the quilt, when you displayed it, and how you displayed it.

And these are the ways you take care of yesterday’s quilts.  Quilts which were probably made with a great deal of care and attention to detail.  These are heirlooms which came our way through wills, letters of intent, or (in most cases) a lucky purchase from an antique store.  But what about our quilts – the quilts we make which we hope will go on to last several lifetimes.  There are some procedures we can go through now to protect tomorrow’s heirlooms today.

Much like conserving antique quilts, taking care of our own special quilts is a bit of work.  But let me preface that by saying not every quilt we make is destined to be a future heirloom.  I have a few but can count those on one hand with fingers left over.  I would much rather have my quilts used up and loved to death.  However, I’ve made some for special people I really want to take care of.  The steps will sound a lot like taking care of antique quilts.

Step One:  Wash Your Fabric Before You Start Your Quilt

I realize there are Color Catchers, and these can be used after the quilt top is completed and quilted.  However, let me remind you, a future heirloom is a special quilt.  Pre-washing your fabric pretty much assures there will be no crocking or fading from the fabrics.  If dark colors or batiks are used, I strongly suggest you go here:  https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2017/09/01/to-prewash-or-not-to-prewash-thats-the-question/and read my blog on how to prevent colors bleeding on one another.

Step Two:  Stay as Organic as Possible

Cotton fabric, cotton thread, and cotton or wool batting.  These items have mostly a neutral pH balance and can maintain that if cared for properly.  If you use glue, make sure it’s of archival quality (such as Sew Line) and pH balanced.  If you need to mark your quilt, be wary of any markers that cannot completely be removed (such as Frixion pens). A water-soluble marker, Roxanne’s pencils, or a Hera Marker are your best bets.

Step Three:  Care after Quilting

Once the quilting process is completed and before the binding is put on, square your quilt up.  If the quilt isn’t square (even though it may look trued-up to the visible eye), the un-squaredness of it may become more apparent over time.

Step Four:  Wash Your Quilt After the Binding is Complete

Wash the quilt to remove any glue or markings.  Be sure to use a pH balanced detergent such as Quilt Soap, or one of the detergents mentioned for cleaning antique quilts.  Allow to air dry. 

Step Five:  Store or Display the Quilt Properly

Store or display the quilt using the same methods suggested for antique quilts.  If you chose to store the quilt, be sure to check on it every few months to make sure it’s okay.

Step Six:  Record the Details

I tend to probably go overboard with this.  I journal about the process I go through choosing the pattern, the fabric, and the issues I have in construction.  I include sales receipts and other miscellaneous information the future owner may find interesting.  Bottom line, the minimum information should include how to care for the quilt, how long it took to make it, your full name, the town it was made it, etc … the same information you would put on a quilt label…which by the way, make sure the there’s a label on the quilt, too.

This last tidbit of information comes from a person who has quilted over thirty years, made numerous quilts, given a lot of those away, and have some designated special quilts for a few special people…

You don’t have to give the quilt away the moment it’s complete.  Making a special quilt – a future heirloom – is an investment of both time and money, and both are equally important.  You’ve spent a good chunk of your quilting time making this special quilt.  You may have pulled some of the fabric from your stash, but I’ll bet you also spent some money on additional fabric to make the quilt “just perfect.”  I personally think it’s completely appropriate for the recipient to respect both the money and the time involved.  If you think the person who will receive the quilt can’t do this, or the quilt may be put in a situation it could be destroyed (such as an unruly pet or living situation), it’s perfectly acceptable to hold on to that quilt until you feel the time is right to give it away.  I have done this.  I have no regrets.

However, once you give the quilt away, release it. It’s gone.  You have no control over it.  If you find out it’s been mistreated, grit your teeth and bear it, but don’t allow the situation to impede any relationships.  It’s not worth it.

Just don’t make them another quilt.

I hope this lengthy blog series helps those of you who have old quilts in your possession.  My antique quilts bring me a lot of joy – especially my Sunbonnet Sues.  I just wish they could talk.  I would love to hear their story.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours … and take care of those old quilts and the future heirlooms you’re creating today!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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Caring for Antique Quilts

Well….the Met Gala is over. 

I did not receive my invitation this year…again.

I know what you’re thinking.  “What does the Met Gala have to do with quilts?!”

In and of itself, nothing.  But if you watched the Red Carpet introduction or caught some of the news headlines afterwards, this iconic dress

Made a sudden, and in most cases, unwelcome appearance on the carpet.  This iconic dress is the one Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy.  The dress is as iconic and once-in-a-lifetime as Marilyn herself.  It was purchased by Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum for $4.8 million in 2016 and is worth at least $10 million today.  And Kim Kardashian wore this dress on the Red Carpet at the Met Gala.

The following day Twitter and YouTube were lit.  I mean completely on fire with conservationists and dress historians who were livid – not so much at Kim – but at the museum for loaning the dress out.  The rhinestones on the dress were hand placed on a chiffon fabric which is highly flammable. So flammable that now the fabric is no longer sold.  Marilyn had to be sewn into the dress and it was made to fit her and her only.  In the following days, many heated discussions went on about the harm Kim did by wearing this dress. The dress was too long.  The hem drug along the floor.  The dress had to be manhandled in order to get it on Kim.

Which brings me back to quilts – sort of.  Hang on.  I promise we’ll get there.   Historically and currently, textiles must prove they’re worthy of preserving.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume and Textile Department receives no federal funding.  The building it’s housed in does receive 10% of its funding from New York City, but what’s inside has been purchased or loaned from public appeals and fund raising.  The Gala is put on to help fund and preserve collections – and part of the collection is clothing and costumes and textiles (RE: quilts).  And as far as art collections go, textiles are pretty low on the totem pole with almost any museums.

Why?

Because historically sewing these items was considered women’s work and women’s work has always (and still is in many cases), not valued as much as the other art forms (thus Kim could pay to “borrow” Marilyn’s dress and wear it willy-nilly with no thought to the consequences).  Yes, many museums have a textile section, but generally these are much smaller in comparison to other collections and a great number of the items have been donated.  Conservation and preservation may be spotty and incomplete at best and non-existent at the worst.  Thank God the United States has several quilt museums that do a wonderful job at taking care of these uniquely American art forms. 

So, with all that buzzing through my head this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us have antique quilts in our collection and are we doing enough to properly take care of them?  And are we taking the right steps in preserving tomorrow’s heirlooms we’re creating today? According to various quilt conservation web sites, there are six steps we need to work through in order to give our antique quilts a long and well-preserved life. 

The first step is analyze the quilt.  This is important because determining what fibers were used in constructing the quilt will help us make the best decision on how to treat and clean the quilt.  We tend to think of quilts as being made from all cotton fabrics, but this is not always the case – especially after 1910.  It was then the fabric market was flooded with man-made material.  The fabric which makes up the quilt depends on when it was made, the region it came from, and the financial background of the quilter.  Quilts can be constructed from wool, silk, sateen, velvet.  Quilts from the late sixties and through the seventies may contain polyester material – a time when it was almost impossible to find 100% cotton fabric.  Knowing the fiber content is the first step in conserving our antique quilts.  If we know the type of fabric, we know how to treat it.

The construction method is also important to know.  Is it hand pieced or machine pieced?  Is it hand quilted or machine quilted?  Is it a combination of both?  Is it tied?  Is it all applique or is it pieced or a combination of both?  A hand quilted or a tied quilt usually requires a bit more delicate handling.  And while you’re analyzing the construction, be sure to look for loose or missing stitches and weak or frayed fabric, especially around the binding or along fold lines.  Identify decorations such as embroidery (hand or machine), painted or inked work, and metallic thread.  All of these figure into the construction method and it’s important to take note of these things. 

Lastly, identify soil and stains.  One glance at an antique quilt may tell you nothing more than it’s dirty and needs a bath.  However, if you can identify stains, you know how to correctly treat them – it’s kind of like doing regular laundry.  An oily stain has fuzzy edges.  Water-based stains can form a ring.  Dirt or soil can be caked on.  Aged starch discolors some fabric.  Fold lines are often yellowed.  While not all of the stains can be removed completely, it’s critical to identify them because in some cases they can cause continuous damage to fibers and dyes or attract insects.

One thing I have found helpful at this point is to make a rough sketch of my quilt.  On this sketch I draw the soil and stain locations and number them.  Beside the number I list what I think the stains are.  This is invaluable as you try to clean your quilt because what you use on a water-based stain is different than what you use on an oil-based stain.

Once this is done, the next step is cleaning the quilt.  And this can really open a can of worms.  Many quilt conservationists believe washing a quilt can take ten years off its life.  But many times washing a quilt is one way to get rid of stains which can shorten a quilt’s life more than ten years.  However, it’s important to remember not every quilt needs to (or should) undergo an immersive water bath.  There are options.

If the quilt smells musty, consider airing the quilt.  If you have a room in your house which is well ventilated and you could spread out the quilt and allow it to air out undisturbed for a few days, this is the best-case scenario.  You’re avoiding direct sunlight, bugs, and temperamental weather changes. 

If you don’t have a spare room, the next best thing is to allow the quilt to air all day outside.  Lay a sheet on the grass, ground, picnic table, etc., to protect the quilt from the surface.  Do not, under any circumstances, hang the quilt from a clothesline.  This pulls on the fabric and stitches, causing severe stress along the folded area.  After the quilt is spread out, also lay a sheet on top of it.  This will protect it from leaves, pollen, and the occasional paw print from a critter.  Turn the quilt over several times during the day.  One day of outside airing may do the trick, but if the musty smell lingers, a second or even third day may be needed.  If more than one airing day is needed, be sure to bring the quilt in at night and then put it back out the next day. 

If the quilt is lightly soiled or you think it’s too fragile for washing, vacuuming may be your answer.  If the quilt is lightly soiled or just dusty, it’s easy to think a quick shake of the quilt outside may take care of the problem.  However, shaking can put stress on stitches and fold lines.  Vacuuming the quilt is the better option.  If this is your choice, the first idea to dismiss is the way you vacuum floors or upholstery.  Yes, you can use your regular vacuum cleaner, but you need to place a square of fiberglass or nylon screen (you can get this at your local hardware store) on the surface of the quilt.  Place the upholstery attachment on your vacuum hose and begin to vacuum.  Just allow the attachment to touch the screen and don’t press down.  Be sure the dust is not being redistributed on the quilt surface from the collection bag and don’t vacuum over any painted designs which are peeling or cracking.

Wet cleaning is tricky option.  If there are deep stains, heavy soil, water damage, or old starch discoloration, you have two choices:  You can either learn to live with the stain or you can wet-clean it.  If you opt to wash the entire quilt, part of it, or only in stained areas, know any type of wet cleaning is not easy and has the possibility of damaging a quilt beyond repair.  Quilts become heavier when they’re wet, which strains the fabric and can cause stitches to break.  They’re also heavier for you to handle, which can strain your back, knees, and arms. 

However, wet cleaning offers some benefits, too.  Dried out fibers may become more flexible.  Cotton and linen fabrics which may be acidic as a result of aging or improper storage can regain their neutral pH.  Fold lines and creases may relax in the water, improving the overall appearance of the quilt.  And while not all dirt and discoloration may be removed, they will at least be lessened. 

The dangers of wet cleaning an antique quilt are about the same as washing a quilt you just finished.  Dyes can run. Inks can dissolve.  Any glazing is removed.  Silk quilts are especially vulnerable to wet cleaning due to their production process.  Metallic salts are often added to silk to increase the body of the fabric.  Wet cleaning removes these salts, leaving the silk extremely fragile. 

So, wet cleaning is really a crap shoot.  You have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of it and decide if it’s worth it.  And if you decide wet cleaning is the route you want to take, there are a few steps to go through before you immerse the quilt.

  • Blot test the darker colors – Drop a few drops of water on the darker colors and allow the water to absorb and sit for two to three minutes.  Blot with a clean towel.  If no color appears on the towel, you’re good to go. 
  • Test the same way with the detergent you plan to use – More on detergents shortly.
  • Check for weak or damaged areas – Sometimes these may not hold up to the washing process.  The added weight may stress them out even more.  Consider “mending” the holes by tacking net or tulle over them.  Can you sew down loose patches or applique pieces?  If the backing has some compromised areas, hand stitch some fabric over those spots to support it.

There are two ways to wash your quilt – the bathtub or the washing machine.  In the past, we were told to avoid top-loading washers due to the agitator.  Even on delicate cycles, the quilt could get wrapped around the agitator and this could cause added stress on the cloth fibers and stitches could pop.  Some of the new washers no longer have agitators, so now many top loaders work just fine.  Use a delicate cycle, cold or warm water (not hot…never).  Once the water has drained from the washer’s tub, lift the quilt out and roll it up in a sheet (if it’s a bed-sized quilt) or towels if the quilt is smaller.  Get as much excess water out of the quilt, then lay flat to dry.  Do not hang or drape over a drying rack.  This can cause stress on the fibers and the stitches.

If the bathtub is chosen, be sure to clean it first to remove any oils from body wash or shampoo.  If the quilt is bed-sized, it will be heavy after washing and difficult to remove from the tub.  You may want to enlist the assistance of a fellow quilter or other friend to help you get it out of the tub.  Since most bathtubs are not “quilt-sized” (and if you have one that is, I am super jealous), the quilt will have to be folded to fit.  As one section is cleaned, you’ll need to refold the quilt to expose another part.  It’s much easier to do this when the quilt is still floating in the water, as the water will help support the quilt and you won’t have to tug and stress your back or the quilt.  Once the quilt is repositioned, drain the water, refill the tub, and proceed until the entire quilt is cleaned.  When you’re satisfied with the process, fill the tub with clean water to rinse out the detergent.  Then drain the tub one more time and then gently press the quilt with your hands to get out as much water as possible.  The quilt will be heavy (especially if it’s a bed-sized quilt) and it’s a good idea to have some help at this point. Lift the quilt out of the tub, supporting it to take as much stress as possible off the fibers and stitches.  Lay it on a sheet and roll the quilt up in the sheet to get rid of as much excess water as possible.  Lay flat to dry. 

With either washer or bathtub, the job is easier if you vacuum the quilt before either process.  This can get off quite a bit of dirt and soil, so the washing won’t be quite so arduous.  Stains should also be treated before washing.  I think every quilter out there has his or her own favorite stain remover.  I can tell you what I prefer, but you will want to do your own research to see what works best for you.  I start with the gentlest remover and then proceed to the harsher ones. 

  1. A make-up sponge, water, and blue Dawn dish detergent.  I use a sponge because they won’t do as much damage as a brush – even a soft toothbrush
  2. Hydrogen peroxide and a make-up sponge
  3. Oxyclean Max and a make-up sponge

Try using an up-and-down motion with the sponge instead of a rubbing it across the surface.  If the stain is heavily set or the soil is caked on, you may want to try removing the stain several times before washing.  Rust stains are particularly difficult to remove.  The only thing I’ve found which will remove most of those stains without harming a quilt is Rit Rust Remover.

And whatever you do, avoid straight chlorine bleach like the plague.  It can harm fibers.  If chlorine bleach seems like your only answer to remove a stain, dilute to three parts water to one part chlorine bleach.

Now let’s talk about detergents.  We’re used to laundry detergents which do lots of things to our clothes.  They can brighten colors and whites.  They can lift and remove stains.  They can infuse our laundry with scents which last for weeks.

You don’t want any of that in your quilt.  The object of washing a quilt is to remove the dirt, stains, and soil and return the quilt back to a neutral pH.  An all-natural detergent is best.  Charlie’s Soap, Quilt Soap, Mrs. Meyer’s, Orvus, Lacey, and Quilter’s Rule are all wonderful detergent brands to use. 

Avoid any detergent that’s loaded with chemicals or brighteners.  The object of all detergent (which is a base) is to turn a stain (most of which are acidic) into a salt so it washes cleanly away.  You will also want to reduce the amount of detergent used.  The rule of thumb is five tablespoons of liquid detergent to 4 gallons of water.  This ratio of detergent to water will clean the quilt, but won’t be so sudsy you have to rinse the quilt numerous times.

If, after you take all of these wet-cleaning steps, there are still stains on the quilt you can’t seem to remove, there is always the possibility of dry cleaning the quilt.  Before any quilt conservator faints (because dry cleaning involves chemicals and chemicals aren’t good for antique quilts), let me add this is the very last resort, you want to shop your dry cleaner, and it may not involve the entire quilt – just the heavily stained area.  You would only employ the dry-cleaning process if the quilt was stained with oil, grease, paint, or tar. 

Let’s talk dry cleaners first.  Google dry cleaners in your area which work with wedding gowns.  Those dry cleaners are used to handling heirloom textiles and may be your best bet in a successful quilt dry-cleaning process.  Whoever you decide to entrust your antique quilt to, be prepared to communicate clearly what you need, and if they can’t promise to do what you want, move on to another dry cleaner.  Specifically, this is what you want them to do:

  1.  Pre-treat the soiled area.  This may be all you need to remove the stain.  If the pre-treatment leaves a circle, the entire quilt will need to be dry cleaned or wet cleaned.
  2. Ask the cleaner to use a clean supply of solvent in the dry-cleaning machine.  Dirty solvent can redeposit even more soil on your quilt.
  3. Request shortened cycle times and cabinet drying to lessen the stress on the quilt.
  4. Specify the quilt shouldn’t be steamed, pressed, or treated with any finishes after cleaning.
  5. Ask that the quilt be rolled on a large diameter rube rather than folded after cleaning.

So far (fingers crossed), I’ve had wonderful results washing my quilts.  There is only one I had to work with a dry cleaner with.  I purchased a Sunbonnet Sue quilt several years ago from a thrift store at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  At some point, this sweet quilt hit a flood zone, because you can see where the flood water marked the quilt.  I washed it twice, and regular wet cleaning improved it.  Fortunately there is a dry cleaner in my area who is familiar with treating heirloom textiles, and he was able to get a bit more of the stain out without harming the quilt.  At this point, I think “it is what it is” and the stain will remain – lighter, but still visible.  A testimony in part to the quilt’s survival.    

This is a lengthy topic, so I’m breaking it into two parts. Next week, we will continue to discuss how to care for your antique quilts as well as how to treat the heirloom quilts you’re making today so they last for generations to come

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam