How to Care for Quilts

By: CCI - ICC
Publication Date: 4/1/2002 12:00:00 PM

Quilts

Introduction

As with many other collectibles, quilts often serve a dual function: as bed coverings and as decorative art. In the past, quilts as bed coverings were made from a variety of materials... everything from scraps of cloth, previously used fabrics, and purpose-bought quilting cottons, to specialty satins and silks. Other quilts are more elaborately sewn with a view to handing them down from one generation to the next. Sometimes we decide to display quilts on the wall as art.

Every quilt is unique, whether it is sewn by hand or with the help of a sewing machine. The unfortunate side of the equation is that enjoying quilts sometimes means using them up! The following is a guide to caring for your quilts.

Causes of damage

The most common cause of deterioration is use. If your quilt is in daily use, it is inevitable that, over time, it will show signs of wear and tear. Another common problem is caused by putting a quilt through the washing machine and dryer. When wet, a quilt is heavy and the mechanical actions of a washer and dryer place stress on the stitching and fabrics. Detergent is also unkind to a quilt. The heat and tumbling action from a dryer, even on a delicate cycle, can create additional problems.

Exposure to strong light (both natural and artificial) hastens the deterioration of all textiles. It will cause colours to fade as well as thread and fabric to weaken. It is important to remember that such damage is both cumulative and irreversible.

Severe or rapid changes in temperature and humidity cause fibres to either swell or shrink as they adjust to the environment. The result of this is that the material loses its natural properties of resiliency, elasticity and strength. When this occurs, textiles are more vulnerable to attack by mould and insects. Mould is obstinate and difficult to remove completely, and can grow when conditions (especially high humidity) are favourable.

Dust, dirt and air pollution are also enemies of textiles and so is contact with cigarette smoke, cosmetics and perfume. All of these can impregnate and soil fabric and accelerate degradation. Insect pests are attracted to textiles, especially wool quilts or those with wool batting. They feed on the fabric and then lay their eggs, often moving into hard-to-see places where they are less likely to be noticed. Signs of insect infestation on a quilt include small, round holes in the wool or silk fabrics, live larvae, cast larval skins, excreta, and debris such as webbing or cases. If you have a quilt with insect problems, isolate it by placing the quilt in a plastic bag and sealing it with tape. Consult a professional textile conservator about the best course of treatment.

Top of page

Handling, storage, and display

The desire to preserve a quilt must sometimes be balanced with its use. Try to keep your quilt away from strong light. When making a bed, watch that the quilt does not catch on sharp mattress edges or bed frames. Fragile quilts, when displayed, should not hang over the edges of the bed, because they may not be able to support their own weight. It is best to avoid stacking and folding quilts. The creases may damage the quilt and encourage insect infestation.

Quilts can be stored by rolling them onto an acid-free cardboard tube slightly longer than the quilt. Because quilts are often thick, multi-layered constructions, it is best to use a large diameter tube (minimum 15 cm) to lessen compression of the layers. If an acid-free tube is not available, cover a cardboard tube or wood dowel with Mylar (polyester) or polyethylene plastic sheeting. For very heavy quilts, plastic plumber's tubing or metal tubes may be required for rolling. For quilts with areas of 3-D relief, pad around these areas and roll with these facing out. Lay the quilt face down, smooth out wrinkles or bulges and roll up carefully. For very large quilts, it may be helpful to have two people rolling in order to maintain an even tension on the roll. Afterwards, wrap the entire roll in pre-washed unbleached muslin or cotton sheeting for storage. Avoid using plastic. It blocks air, allows light to get at the fabric as well as moisture to build up. To place in storage, a strong dowel can be inserted through the tube (it should be slightly longer than the tube) and then suspended at each end from a support, such as "S" hooks on chains bolted to the ceiling or set into brackets that protrude far enough from the wall so that the quilt does not come into contact with it.

Because of their size, it is not practical to store quilts flat. If you must fold a quilt for storage, pad the folds well with rolled acid-free tissue paper, muslin or polyester batting. Re-fold regularly to avoid creases and dirt lines.

The best way to display a quilt is horizontally, but most houses have a limited number of beds! Hanging quilts on walls can lead to problems. Because they are generally large and heavy, a quilt hung on a wall puts major stress on both the stitching and the fabric. Avoid hanging quilts that are in poor condition. Outside walls can be damp and often fluctuate greatly in terms of temperature. Placing fabric in such a situation can promote mould and mildew growth. Avoid hanging quilts near radiators and fireplaces and, of course, avoid direct or bright light.

If a quilt is to be hung, it is important to distribute its weight evenly. One way to display a quilt is to hand stitch a fabric casing or sleeve to its top edge. Then, insert an enameled metal extension curtain rod through the casing and suspend it from wall brackets. Another display method is to hang the quilt using Velcro. An appropriate width of Velcro is chosen depending on the size and weight of the textile. The looped side of Velcro is stitched by machine to a wide cotton tape. The cotton tape is then hand stitched to the top edge of the quilt. The hook side of Velcro is stapled to a sealed wood batten, which can be attached to the wall. This is not always practical if the quilt is later to be used as a bed covering. No matter how a quilt is displayed on a wall, over time it will become distorted.

Top of page

Another way to display quilts in very good condition is to drape them over one or two dowels that have been sealed and padded. It is important to remember that in order to maximize the preservation of prized quilts, alternate their display with periods in storage.

Cleaning and repair

You can vacuum quilts to remove particulate soils and any possible insect debris. Place fibreglass screening over the quilt and, using a hand-held vacuum on low suction, gently vacuum by lifting the nozzle from place to place, not rubbing (which can be abrasive) across its surface and working from top to bottom. Avoid using brush attachments. Vacuum both sides of the quilt.

Wet cleaning a quilt is possible, but is not easy because of the size and weight of a wet quilt. It is best to consult a professional to wet clean prized quilts. It may not be possible to wet clean quilts that have silk fabric components or quilts that have never been wet cleaned. Avoid using the washing machine and dryer to clean and dry quilts. Old, oxidized stains may remain after wet cleaning.

Typically, minor repairs would be done after cleaning a quilt. The threads and fabrics chosen should be as similar as possible or slightly finer than the original, and should be the same type of fibre (e.g. silk, cotton, linen, etc.). All stitching repairs should be done by hand. The appropriate stitching technique is just as important as the choice of repair materials. Coloured repair fabric and threads should be washed before use and tested for colourfastness; they should be used only if they are washfast. Stitching should be relaxed, otherwise tension can cause buckling, strain and eventual breakage of the threads of the fabric. Sew with the textile on a flat surface and, whenever possible, stitch through existing holes and avoid piercing the threads of the item. Plan the placement of stitches and use as few stitches as possible. Broken seams can be repaired using a stitch similar to that in the original broken seam. Losses and worn bound edges can be repaired with patches or overlays of similar fabric or a sheer silk netting by loosely stitching around the area of loss into sound areas. Note the placement of repair threads and fabrics. Keep a sample of the materials used, along with the supplier information.

Because quilts are seldom, if ever, signed, you may want to write down the history of the maker and any other provenance or information you have about the quilt. Take a photograph and keep these documents together for documentary and insurance purposes.