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Caring for Quilts—TLC for old and new quilts

October 31, 2019

If you’ve ever made a quilt, you know the time and love that goes into its creation. If you’re lucky enough to own a quilt, you’ll want to know how to take the best possible care of it. 

My dear friend Ona taught me to make quilts when I was in my twenties. She was in her eighties and patiently taught me the traditional quilting she had done all her life. We spent hours piecing on her treadle sewing machine and hand quilting on a big wooden frame in the living room of the Iowa farmhouse where she was raised. Once my stitches were small enough, she took me to a Mennonite quilting bee, a day I’ll always remember fondly. 

I still have two of the quilts Ona and I pieced and quilted together, as well as a quilt made by her mother in the early 1900s. They’re among my most cherished possessions, so I do what I can to take care of them. Here’s what I learned about taking care of old—and new—quilts.

Cleaning

Carefully snip any loose threads and repair any seams that are coming undone before you wash your quilt. 

If you have a new-ish, machine-quilted quilt that’s in good shape, you can safely wash it in the washing machine on the gentle cycle. Use cold water and a mild detergent, with no perfumes or bleach. I like to take quilts to the laundromat, where they have room to tumble in a big machine, rather than stuff them into my top-loading washing machine. 

You can put a new, machine-quilted quilt in the drier, but only on low heat. Take it out before it’s completely dry, then lay flat to air dry (see below) completely. 

For a fragile, vintage, or hand-stitched quilt, soak it in a (spotless!) bathtub in cold water with a little mild detergent (again, no perfumes or bleach). If your water is hard or contains iron (which can cause brown spots or yellowing), you’ll want to use distilled water instead. Gently swish the quilt around for a few minutes, then let soak for about 15 minutes. Drain the soapy water and replace with clean rinse water. If you like, add about half a cup of vinegar to the first rinse cycle, to remove any detergent and soften the fabric. Repeat rinsing until all the soap is removed. 

To remove the quilt from the tub, enlist a helper. Together, place a white sheet under the quilt and lift the sheet by the corners. Let it all drip into the tub for a couple of minutes, then gently squeeze out more water. (Some people like to use the sheet to wring the quilt at this point — but twisting an older quilt generally isn’t a good idea.) 

Another option—to remove more water—is to gently roll the quilt in large towels, then unroll. 

Although it looks charming, don’t hang your wet quilt on a clothesline, as the weight can cause the seams to pull apart and the batting to tear. It can also cause stitches to pop. 

Instead, lay your quilt flat to dry. I don’t have a rack that’s big enough to handle a quilt, so I like to lay mine on towels covered by a clean sheet in the grass on a sunny day (though not directly in the sun, where it can fade).

Don’t wash your quilt too often, or it will age more quickly. Air it occasionally, and wash it when it’s soiled, but otherwise, go easy on the washing. I only wash quilts once or twice a year. While I do use them on beds, they’re always on top of other bedding, and we don’t have pets sitting on them, so they don’t get dirty. (And I never wash the 100-year-old quilt from Ona’s mom.)

Storage

To store a quilt, make sure it’s perfectly clean and dry. Then fold it gently, with acid-free tissue paper between the layers. Place it in a clean white cotton or muslin bag (never in plastic) in a dry location. Don’t keep your quilt in a hot attic or damp basement. Every couple of months, take the quilt out and refold it so that it doesn’t get permanent creases. 

Ona’s mother’s quilt is stored in a large white pillowcase, tied with a wide satin ribbon and labeled with her name, Ona’s name, and the date. It sits atop a shelf in my bedroom closet, where I see it (and remember to take it out to admire and refold now and then).

Unless your quilt is very fragile, put it on a bed—it’s really the best place to “store” it, and you’ll get to enjoy it, too!

Do you have a favorite quilt? Please share its story with us!

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