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Ask the Experts

How do I care for an antique quilt?

antique quilt

“I received a quilt my grandmother made. It was left in my mother’s garage, and it is not in very good shape. Some of the patches are shredding, and it is very discolored or dirty or both.

I want to know how to care for a quilt that could be as old as 75 to 100 years old.

I was also given a quilt that my great aunt knitted. It was kept in the house and it is in good shape. How would I care for this one, since it is not a fabric quilt like the other one?”

– A Quilter’s Review reader

antique quiltPlease think of taking care of the quilt more or less as you would take care of your grandmother — in other words, easy does it. It’s hard to give proper advice without really seeing the quilt’s condition and knowing what materials it is made of.

If you think the quilt can stand the handling, you can try to clean it very gently, following the suggestions I’ve made below. But if the quilt feels as though it will fall apart — you mentioned it not being in good shape — then I would suggest not doing anything but loving it, spots and all.

If it’s made with wool or silks I would encourage you to pretty much leave it alone. You might want to vacuum it very gently, using the lowest setting of your vacuum cleaner and putting a panty hose leg over the suction hose so you don’t suck up pieces of fabric.

Above all you do not want to do any more damage to the quilt — you only want to remove surface dust. So if the whole quilt is flaking, don’t vacuum it.

If it’s made with cottons, you could hand-wash the quilt on a clear, dry day, again treating it with great gentleness. Here’s what to do: put an old sheet into the bathtub. Fill the bathtub with lukewarm water. Put the quilt into the filled tub, gently pushing it down into the water.

Let it soak for an hour or so. Don’t scrub it, just let it soak. Let the water out of the tub. Add new water, being careful to not have the water spout pouring directly onto the quilt.

If the quilt is extremely dirty you can add a bit of very mild soap — or special soap for washing linens — but if you add soap you’ll have to repeat the soaking phases several times to make sure all the soap rinses out of the quilt.

Again, let the quilt soak. Let the water out of the tub. Gently press on the quilt to squeeze out as much water as possible. But don’t wring it!

Let it sit for awhile, so that as much water drains out as possible. Now this is where the sheet that you’ve put into the tub comes in — use it to help you lift the wet quilt out of the tub.

The idea here is that you’re lifting the sheet, with the wet quilt in it. You’re not lifting the wet quilt.

Wet quilts are heavy, and the stress of tugging on a corner of the wet quilt could tear the fabric — so let the sheet take the stress of being lifted.

Take the quilt outside — remember, you want to do this on a clear, dry day. Put another clean dry sheet down on the grass in a shady spot. Spread the wet quilt out on the dry sheet to dry.

Please understand that this is suggested only for cotton quilts that are not “masterpiece” quilts — for common everyday quilts that can stand up to a bit of washing. If you have any idea that the quilt may be out of the ordinary, take it to your local quilt store and ask them what they think.

An experienced quiltmaker who has been in the field for many years should be able to tell you whether the quilt is unique, or more common. If you have a unique masterpiece I would definitely urge you to get the quilt appraised, and possibly professionally treated.

After your quilt is dry, keep it out of the sun, and don’t hang it — it sounds like it would put too much stress on the fabric.

Instead, spread it out on a bed if you have one that’s not normally used, or fold it, gently padding the folds with old sheets. Refold it every 4 months or so to avoid making permanent creases. You also want to avoid ironing your quilt as it may reduce it’s lifespan.

As for your afghan (this is what I’m guessing your “knitted quilt” is), I would simply air it outside, as described above, and use it. Keep it away from moths, and it should be fine to use for years and years.

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