How To Best Preserve, Care & Protect Your Quilts Collection?

If you have an heirloom quilt you want to preserve, there are a few basic dos and don’ts you will need to understand.

First of all, fabrics don’t last forever. You can, however, extend the life of a fabric with proper care. The care techniques you choose will depend greatly on whether you plan to use or store the quilt.

If storing it, clean it first. Use a hand held vacuum to clean the quilt, especially if it is very old.

Remember, water breaks down the fabric fibers. Look for any food spots or stains. Bugs love to feed on stains so you will need to remove any that you find.

Use a hydrogen based cleaner (like the OxyCleaners that are so popular) to remove the stains. If you used a liquid spot cleaner, allow the quilt to dry thoroughly before storing it.

Never store a quilt in a plastic bag because fabrics need to breathe. Plastic can also trap in moisture and cause your heirloom quilts to mildew. Instead, fold them and wrap them in a lightweight fabric like muslin or a white broadcloth.

When you do your annual spring (or fall) cleaning, take the quilts out, refold them and once again wrap with the outer fabric before returning to your storage closet. This gives you a chance to check for bugs and to refold them a different way to avoid developing permanent folds in the quilts.

Avoid the urge to store them in boxes, too. Bugs are attracted to the glue used in cardboard. Termites can even attack corrugated cardboard. You don’t want any kind of destructive bugs to attack your stored heirloom quilt.

When it comes to storing your heirloom quilts, use common sense. Don’t store them in a closet that is prone to molding and mildew. Plan to take them out, vacuum (with a hand vac) and refold them on a regular basis.

If you plan to use your heirloom quilt on a bed, you will need to be able to wash and dry it. Always use the most gentle cycle your machine offers and dry at the lowest possible setting. But, take special care to make sure your quilt is thoroughly dry so it will not mildew or develop mold spots.

Hanging heirloom quilts is not the best way to display them. Hanging pulls on the fabrics and can cause stretching of the fibers, which leads to much quicker disintegration of the quilt. Instead, display the quilt by using it for its original purpose – as a bed covering.

If you do use your heirloom quilt for bedding, be extra careful not to expose the quilt do direct sunlight. A large window might beautifully brighten your bedroom, but that sunlight can horribly damage your quilt.

Having said that a bed is the best place to display a quilt requires a little disclaimer. It is not best to display an heirloom quilt on a child’s bed. The biggest reason is the wear that the quilt will get. Children inadvertently get crayon or pencil marks on their bedding. Stickers with super sticky adhesive can ruin and heirloom.

Children are more likely to have viruses or incontinence issues that will require more frequent cleaning of their bedding. An antique quilt might not be able to withstand that kind of frequent, thorough cleaning.

If you have inherited or bought an old lap quilt or wall hanging, consider using it as a table topper for a barely used table. Never use an antique quilt on your frequently used dining table because spills will require frequent washings. Again, remember not to use them on tables in front of windows to avoid sun damage.

How To Protect Your Quilt?

Although this idea dates back in history, it’s still a good idea.

“Hence protect the ends by saving an extra piece of the lining material sufficient to cover the quilt for six inches deep on each side of the end. Or tack on a piece of calico, cheese-cloth, or other suitable material over each end to a depot of five or six inches. Tack this on by hand, or attach with feather stitches.

“When soiled this protective strip may be ripped off, washed, and replaced, and the quilt itself will not require washing for a long time. These strips do not injure the appearance of the quilt when in use, as the lower end is tacked under the mattress and the upper end covered by the pillows or turned back under the top sheep if the bed is partly opened.”

From “American Quilts, Quilting, and Patchwork” by Adelaide Hechtlinger, ©1974

Why do I need a label? 

How often have you purchased or been given a quilt and wondered who the maker of the quilt was?  Maybe an older relative made the quilt, and by the time you became interested in the quilt, there was no one to ask about it.  A quilt history can be lost if time is not taken to label the quilts.

So now you have a wonderful quilt- the history begins with you.  You can make a label out of a piece of muslin.  It is important to use a pigma pen when signing your labels.  This is an archival pen that will not harm your quilts. you can alo use many of the new products that will help you utilize your computer and your creativity!

My suggestion is to put as much information as you know about the quilt: the name of the quilt, the maker, the quilter, perhaps the occasion for which the quilt was made, the year if you know it, etc.  If a quilt has passed down from generation to generation, be sure to list that and leave room on the label for future owners of the quilt.

Remember, your quilt is not finished until the label is on!

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Do I need to wear white gloves to touch my antique quilt?

While it is not necessary to wear white gloves to touch your own quilts, it is wise to take some precautions in handling your quilts to keep them from becoming soiled. Here are some basic tips:

Wash hands; remove sharp jewelry and tie back long hair before handling textiles.

Do not smoke, eat or drink around textiles

Keep quilts on clean dry surfaces. Do not place textiles directly on, in or next to cardboard, unsealed wood or non-rag  (acidic) paper.

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How To Remove Marks From Your Quilt Top?

Here is a collection of tips for removing marks from quilt tops:

  • Remove pencil marks with Baby Wet Ones, Spray ‘n Wash
  • Baby shampoo and cold water
  • Orvus quilt soap and warm water
  • Formula 409
  • Fels-Naptha Soap
  • Saturate a cloth with rubbing alcohol and rub it on the quilt; or 3 ounces of water, 1 ounce of rubbing alcohol and 3 drops of Ivory dish detergent
  • Remove fat chalk marks with plain cold water, dabbing with a clean sponge
  • Use a clean art gum eraser — available at an office supply store
  • Remove ink with hair spray

My quilt has smoke and/or water damage – what do I do?

There are three levels of damage that occur with textiles from smoke. First, there is the particulate matter that occurs from the burning—the smoke, soot and ashes. In addition to soiling the quilts, the acidity level of the fabrics becomes dangerously high. Second, the water used to extinguish the fires often saturates the now dirty quilt. Last, there is often cross-contamination, more ashes as things are moved around, mud from people walking through the area.

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What is the first thing to do?

The best thing to do is to immediately place the damaged quilt in plastic and put it into a deep freeze. Do not allow the quilt to dry, keep it wet—in a bathtub if necessary—until you can find a large freezer to place it in.

The next step is to contact a Textile Conservator. You can check with the American Institute of Conservators (AIC) for a local listing. This specialist can then determine the proper course of action for your quilt. It may be wet and dry cleaned; placed in an ozone chamber, or carefully washed on a flat screen.

More information is available through AIC at

1717 K Street NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20006
202-452-9328 (fax)

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