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: 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: 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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