Taking Care of Your Antique Quilt

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.


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.
W12 ES Cigar Quilt 1

An antique cigar quilt; it is unusual to see them large and in pretty good condition.

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.



Foxing and molds on a suitcase liner.

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.  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.


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.  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.

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.

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, and 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.


Talas acid-free storage boxes.

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.


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 clean small nylon screen (fully edged), and 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.  Turn it over to vacuum both sides.

DO NOT WASH OR DRY-CLEAN AN OLD QUILT.  Contact a conservator, and if the conservator thinks 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, unless the conservator is dry cleaning the quilt.   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 cotton or silk thread, not polyester thread.


The safest display for a very old quilt without professional assistance is to cover the top of a guest bed with a clean sheet 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.

W HOYT UNFINISHED 5 LINEFor 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

Smithsonian Institution:

American Institute of Conservation: Caring for Your Treasures.  They have pages of good information about many items, including Textiles.


 ©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
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