Rule #1: When in doubt, ask a conservator before proceeding. Most conservators will offer assessments at a low rate, and an hour of their time might save your heirloom. You can find a conservator in the USA here: https://www.culturalheritage.org/about-conservation/find-a-conservator
A good rule of thumb is to treat your antiques like you would your grandmother:
- She doesn’t like to be too warm to too cold
- She doesn’t like to be left out direct sunlight or rain
- She doesn’t want to be stuck in the basement, attic or the garage
- She wants to be handled with care
- She doesn’t want to breathe smoke, steam, or airborne grease.
Taking care of an antique quilt is not as hard as it sounds, if you follow sound advice.
Sunlight and fluorescent lighting causes irreversible damage to fabrics, and silk is especially susceptible. Fading, brittleness and splits are all evidence of light damage. If your quilt is eligible for light use or year-round display, make sure the room’s windows are north-facing, and draw the drapes as even ambient light is hard on older fabrics.
Ocean salts can be detrimental to quilts, and so, fragile quilts should not be displayed unprotected year around in a seaside environment.
Smoke and accumulated tars, whether from cigarettes, pipes, cigars or wood stoves, are extremely damaging to textiles. If your home is one in which this is a frequent occurrence, it is not advised to display your quilt.
Keep even a sturdy new quilt away from a kitchen, as steam and grease can accumulate and/or add to the dust and debris that is normal to a home causing stubborn stains which cannot be removed.
PESTS + MOLD + FOXING
Foxing exhibits as a small dot-like stain that many people think is an odd rust stain. Zerophilic fungi create the rust-colored spots, which are not rust, but the result of a melanin type exudate. NOTE: Clients often ask about bleaching these spots, and hydrogen peroxide may reduce the color but will weaken the fibers in the cloth.
Insects, including moths, can be kept at bay with a drop or two of pure essential oil of lavender, refreshed monthly. Lavender or cedar oils interrupts the insects ability to find one another and mate. KEEP THE OIL FROM TOUCHING THE QUILT! I keep mine away from the objects in storage by placing the oil on a tissue, then placing the tissue in a small clean box, so that the oils cannot come into contact with the objects, but the scent disperses.
Textiles containing foxing, mold, or harboring insects should be isolated from all other textiles and treated by a conservator.
If your quilt is ever drenched (flood, roofing problem) contact a conservator immediately; do not lift from the storage box unless you see dyes running or there is no one to contact. In that case handle as discussed below, and carefully lay out on a clean pale sheet to dry in normal temperatures.
STORAGE: BOXES / DEVICES
A common problem we see is clients who have tucked a quilt into a cedar chest for safekeeping, hoping to keep away the moths and other insects. Wooden boxes, and especially cedar, contain acids, oils and resins which continue to fume for years, even when you cannot smell the cedar scent, which is wonderful for pest control, but unfortunately, woods can leach out color onto the quilts. We have seen clients place quilts into their hope chests and come back to them years later and find large swaths of brown-orange stain on the quilts.
A quilt may be folded and placed in undyed unbleached and unstarched muslin, or in acid free paper. The folds should be padded with muslin or acid free paper to avoid permanent creasing and splitting, especially if the fabric has been painted or has a very crisp hand, such as is shown left. From time to time should be refolded to minimize damage from creasing.
Textiles expand and contract with humidity shifts and temperature shifts. At risk, fragile or brittle fibers should never hang or be folded tightly as the folds can cause abrasion of the strands and damage quilts that are sitting in boxes, without human interaction. Acid free boxes can be purchased from many places, and Talas is but one; the acid-free box containing the quilt can then be safely placed in a cedar chest. Do not store quilts long term in plastic bags (a short time to contain pests is fine) due to moisture from condensation or fumes from plastic, and never use the vacuum-seal bags on any fragile textile.
The following items should never contact the quilt: brass pins, iron, wood, newsprint or newsprint paper, post-its, unwashed cloths, plastic films, acidic tissue papers (including anti-tarnish tissue papers with a pinkish cast), labels, or tapes. All will cause irreversible damage. History or notes about the quilt can be written in pencil on acid free paper and placed on top of the tissue or taped inside the box.
Above, MPFC assessing a Bengali Quilt from the Campbell House
(a house museum in Washington State); everyone used the protocol below.
- When handling the quilt, use clean cotton gloves. If you do not have these, wash your hands, do not touch your face or hair (body oils), and do not have creams on your hands.
- Assume the quilt is fragile.
- Especially if it is a large fragile quilt, have help in carrying and opening the quilt.
- Never grasp at a fragile textile with your fingers; use your broad hand splayed open to lift, fold or cradle.
- Make sure you do not have anything on that can catch the quilt and rip it as you handle it — rings, watches, etc.
Dust and dirt can do a great deal of harm to quilts. Once each year, thoroughly but gently vacuum the quilt, which also gives you a chance to inspect it if it is in storage. To do this, lay the quilt flat on a large table or a large bed covered with a clean sheet (with no starch or softener added to the cleaning.) Purchase a small nylon screen (fully edged) and clean it with soap and water, then dry. Using a canister (hose-style) vacuum cleaner on the lowest possible suction, vacuum the quilt through the screen, using the upholstery attachment tool. (Suction is controlled by an adjustment slider on the wand — set the holes to an open setting.) Do not rub back and forth, and lift the screen to reposition it. Gently turn it over to vacuum both sides.
Above, Kate trying to remove dyes which ran when a person tried to clean a lovely new quilt,
and the green dyes ran. Unfortunately, the quilter had not tested the fabrics
before using them to see if their dyes were prone to running.
DO NOT WASH OR DRY-CLEAN AN OLD QUILT! Contact a conservator to see if they can clean it for you. If not, and if the conservator believes the quilt can be cleaned, follow their advice. Common dry cleaning solutions can dry fibers and very little research has been done on the long-range effects of dry cleaning. The dyes and paints used in older fibers and quilts are not necessarily water-fast and may run on adjoining areas. Wet cleaning quilts is not advised.
From time to time repairs are necessary in order to save a quilt. These should be done with the advice of a conservator.
If you decide to undertake any small repair, use a brand new, very small needle (sharper needles cause less damage), and use cotton or silk thread, not polyester thread.
A safe display for a very old quilt in a home where neither cats, dogs, nor small children will interact with it is to cover the top of a guest bed with a clean sheet or clean light-colored bedspread devoid of perfumes, bleach or softeners, and gently open the quilt on the bed. Any other display should be created with the advice of a curator or professional, if not a conservator.
Specialty display boxes can be made to show off your quilt and protect it; a conservator can tell you if it is strong enough to be placed over a painted pole. Note: If a sturdy quilt is to be laid over a wood pole, do not allow the wood to be raw — seal with an acrylic paint and let thoroughly dry. The best way to find out who in your community might have experience creating these boxes is to contact your local museums and ask who they use, or a seasoned quilting society. Some historical societies have lists of members who have experience with antiquities.
For further reading I have an article on Quilts as a Microcosm of History.
Again, when in doubt, ask a conservator before proceeding. Most conservators will offer assessments at a low rate, and an hour of their time might save your heirloom. Stay away from MOST quilt websites, as their advice is for modern quilts and modern materials. This applies to most quilters, because their experience is most likely newer quilts, though they may be able to give you invaluable tips on proper stitches to match the stitches in your quilt. Stay far, far away from DIY sites, such as about.com, eHow.com, and even Martha Stewart.
Resources to trust:
Our pick for an all-around book to have in your home as a guide to caring for many items is Don Williams’ book, Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions, New York, NY: Fireside. 2005 If you choose to follow any of his recommendation on DIY, follow them exactly, especially any advice on taking care of yourself when using a chemical.
Victoria and Albert Museum: Cleaning Textiles
- Care of Victorian Silk Quilts and Slumber Throws
- How to Handle Antique Textiles and Costumes
- Mold and Mildew
- Climate and Textile Storage
- Gently Vacuumed (If you vacuum, then do as I recommend above.)
- Note that I do not recommend their Stain Removal page, as it encourages someone with no training to venture forth, and I disagree with what advice they give here. I believe a layman might cause damage with the information attached.