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.
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.
- 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
- Hydrogen peroxide and a make-up sponge
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Request shortened cycle times and cabinet drying to lessen the stress on the quilt.
- Specify the quilt shouldn’t be steamed, pressed, or treated with any finishes after cleaning.
- 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
2 replies on “Caring for Antique Quilts”
Thanks, Sherri. I also have a Sunbonnet Sue quilt. It was made for me by my paternal grandmother. So it’s an antique only if I am one. (!) I haven’t tried to clean or repair it yet, but hope to at some point. All your advice is welcome info.
I hope you find it all helpful! Thanks again for reading!