Quilts as a Microcosm of History

I am sure that more eloquent history writers than I have written on the role of quilts as historical objects.  I want to share my perspective on the single object that we:

  • see the most distress over condition issues, even to the point of panic . . .
  • are asked weekly how much they are worth monetarily . . .
  • are most often asked how to take care for . . .
  • talk about the most with potential clients, yet —
  • do the least amount of treatment toward, because they can be expensive to treat.

I am writing several articles on quilts (and other family textiles and clothing); this is the first, on preserving history.  How to care for them in general will follow.


In our business you hear lots of talk about preserving history, but I want to bring it home to family history, which is often wrapped in a quilt.  Quilts are the most damaged objects we see, are usually extremely sentimental to a family member, and generally have little monetary value.

There are two parts to preserving history, there is the object, and there are the stories.  Let’s look at the latter first.  Think about that excellent movie, “How to Make an American Quilt.”  The story is in the quilt, as each quilt tell a story.   Even if you don’t have a story quilt, think of the stories surrounding the quilt you own.  In my own Hoyt family quilt, I was told that my great-grandmother Hoyt made suits and ties and shirts and dresses for the family.  When you look at the lovely crazy quilt, you can see both men’s and women’s rich fabrics scattered around the quilt, and I often think that this striped silk must have been a man’s tie, this beautiful floral damask, one of her dresses!  I am sorry I am the youngest of the grandchildren, because I might have asked more questions of the quilt that was often stored away.

One of the most commonly asked questions is, “Do you think I can display this, because I’ve been told to put it away.”    I have questions before I give my response:

  • How damaged is the quilt?
  • Is its home frequented by small children?
  • In what environment will the quilt live?

If its home is largely populated by very young children on a daily basis, perhaps putting it away for a few years is advised.  When children are a bit older, however, then I believe it is time to take the quilt out of storage.  Why?  A common comment I hear from younger owners is that inherited their quilt, and never saw the quilt they bring to me because it was stored away.  They know it is a family piece, but don’t even know who actually made the quilt — they think it may have been their grandmother.   They want me to tell them about their quilt.  “Is it valuable?” they ask.  My answer to the latter is, “Probably not.”

If history is to be preserved, objects in a family need to have context.  Who made this quilt?  Do you have a picture of her, or him?  Were they rich or poor, and how did s/he obtain the fabrics?

I think about my great-grandmother, long ago, who still valued the scraps on this Crazy Quilt enough to save them, despite her money.  In my great grandmother’s day you didn’t walk into a warehouse-sized store and buy fabric.  If there was fabric available for sale on rolls, it was in short supply and not on sale!  Was she able to buy this in the small town of San Fernando, or did she go elsewhere in Los Angeles to select fabric?  She valued the smallest of scraps, which may say something about her but also may say more about a time when fabric and many items were not easy to purchase.  Did she think about the colors of her crazy quilts as she brushed her long hair every night before bed?  She laid out the various bits into a cohesive pattern on the dining room table in the large dining room I later stood in when another family bought the home, which was about to be torn down, and moved it board by board to a new location in Pacoima, California, away from Hoyt Street, named after our family ranch.  She pinned each piece, then stitched every single stitch on this entire quilt before embroidery began.  Was there a quilting bee of sorts or did she do these alone?  I know some of my history because my mom and grandmother told me the stories as we looked at the quilt, and so, the quilt and my family memories are entwined.

I believe children need to be told their family stories and also how to take care of valuable items.  It is true that accidents sometime happen to objects that are handled, however, objects that are never seen are forgotten.  Heirs need to be connected to the pieces that may someday be theirs.  It is always good to write all the history of an object down and store it in a plastic bag with the object, but for the stories to be dear to the heirs, the need to be told, sitting around the quilt, every year.

In terms of environment, the points of concern are usually heating and humidity.   More will be said in the next posting, but suffice it to say that wood stoves and oil heaters are very bad for old textiles, as they produce fine particles that are trapped in the textiles (and can even be greasy) and quite difficult to remove without a conservator.  If a home is heated with wood stoves or oil heaters then displaying the quilt only in warmer months is preferred.

An environment with heavy smokers is also a problem, which becomes exacerbated if the quilt is displayed near a source of high humidity.  In our post on Ken Ellis’ textile art, Shore Family, we had to remove a combination of smoke that accumulated on the top of the artwork, shown below, and was exacerbated because it lived in the dining room, where the family steamed vegetables every night and the steam came into the dining room.

After cleaning, a good deal of the smoke was lifted!

After cleaning, a good deal of the smoke was lifted!

Stable humidity, that is, consistent medium humidity, is much preferred to wild fluctuations of damp and dry.

The condition of the quilt then determines how and when and where the quilt is displayed.   If the quilt is sturdy and in good condition, then I believe it can be placed on a guest room bed at least some of the time, or brought out for special occasions and used carefully, or displayed permanently in a location away from bright light.   I have used Great Grandma Hoyt’s quilt this way.  There are many who advise differently, but who will enjoy them when they are rotting away in a box in the garage or attic?  Taking care to display them appropriately for their condition is an important consideration.

I've never figured out the initials.

I’ve never figured out the initials.

Great Grandma Hoyt is the woman bottom right; my grandmother Lyle is the woman behind her, with her brothers.

Great Grandma Hoyt is the woman bottom right; my grandmother Lyle is the woman behind her, with her brothers.

I will describe possible ways to store and display, in the next post, Taking Care of Your Antique Quilt.

 ©MPF Conservation.  May be printed for your own use.
May be reposted if our url +copyright is used as reference.

About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
This entry was posted in antiques, CAUTIONS, decorative motifs, history, musings, preservation, textiles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Quilts as a Microcosm of History

  1. How lucky you are to have this artifact from your family history. My ancestors weren’t quilters – and though I can sew, I prefer knitting. I am fascinated by quilts- this one looks amazing. Thanks for sharing.

    • I am getting ready to speak at the museum, and so am using the opportunity to write about quilts and quilts care. I love crochet, but will knit for scarves!

  2. Pingback: Taking Care of Your Quilt | Mpfconservation's Blog

  3. Pingback: Taking Care of Your Antique Quilt | Mpfconservation's Blog

Leave a Reply