Quilt Care Tips: How to Help Your Quilts Live to 100
Copyright 2010 by Barb Gorges
A quilt in an environmentally-controlled vault might last forever, but nobody will get to enjoy it. I think the biggest compliment a quilter can receive is that someone enjoyed a quilt she or he made so much it was loved to pieces. It is up to the quilt owner to decide which quilts are everyday quilts and which are special occasion quilts.
The following tips are geared for bed quilts and are not suitable for art quilts with treated surfaces, adhesives, embellishments or non-cotton fabrics, nor for fragile older quilts or any damaged quilts.
To share your quilt care experiences, please contact me, email@example.com.
Please contact me for permission to copy this article for your guild, quilt shop, students and friends and I’ll send you a sample Gorges Quilt Care Label.
- Sew a Gorges Quilt Care Label on the back of your quilt so care instructions are always with the quilt.
- Use good quality materials.
- Test fabrics for washability and fade resistance.
- Hold quilt layers together with more than an adequate amount of quilting to prevent batting from clumping.
- Avoid using any chemicals that don’t completely wash out. Test marking pens and pencils, spray basting, starch, etc.
- Avoid any treatments that continue to degrade the fabric (dyes that can’t be neutralized), weaken the fabric (bleach discharge) or that won’t age well (some paints and fusible materials).
- Ask yourself, “What did Great-Grandma do? How do her quilts look 100 years later? What modern day treatments and materials did she not use? ”
Quilt washability test
For important projects or if a sample of a fabric bleeds, I make up a patchwork sample of the quilt top fabrics, making sure light and dark colors alternate. Then I sandwich it with the batting and backing I intend to use and quilt it by machine. I wash the sample the way I intend to wash the future quilt. I dry the sample the way I intend to dry the quilt, which in most cases is to lay it flat on a carpeted surface protected by a sheet. Sometimes the moisture wicks the fugitive dye to the other side of the quilt, especially along quilting lines.
If the suspect fabric is already in your quilt and the dye has migrated and left its mark, try applying a commercial spot or stain remover product to the marks and offending fabric and wash it again. When the marks are gone or faint enough, put the quilt in the dryer to dry more quickly.
Retayne is a product that is designed to use in the washer to keep excess dye from staining fabric.
- Fold enough of the top sheet over the top end of the quilt to protect it from hands, chins and beards.
- When making the bed, lift the quilt into place rather than tugging at one end.
- When using the bed for sorting laundry, packing suitcases or sitting, fold the quilt back first.
- A quilt kept away from pets, food and dirt will need less washing and thus live longer.
- A tubular fabric sleeve sewn to the top of the back of the quilt in which a rod is inserted is a better way to hang a quilt than tacks, nails or contrivances that pinch or cover part of the front surface of the quilt.
- Rotate quilts on display every couple months, especially if they are being hung up. The fibers need to rest.
- Avoid direct sunlight on the quilt.
- Expose the front of the quilt to light evenly. Quilts in display cases or folded over couches or quilt racks need to be refolded regularly to avoid fade marks, even from man-made light sources.
- The cleaner the environment the quilt is in, the less washing it will need and the longer it will live.
- Quilts should only come in contact with surfaces that won’t degrade the fabric. Wood surfaces should be sealed. Use display rods that won’t rust. Or cover questionable surfaces with cotton batting or cloth.
Hanging sleeve construction
- Cut a strip of fabric that is as long as the top edge of the quilt and is 9 inches wide.
- Fold and press the short ends of the strip towards the right side of the fabric twice, about an inch or so each time. This will allow 2 inches clearance for the rod supports at each end. The folds of these short ends will be visible on the outside of the tube and will be less likely to be snagged when the display rod is inserted. Stitch the folds down to the right side of the strip by hand or machine.
- Form the tube by folding the strip lengthwise, wrong sides together, matching raw edges. Stitch along the raw edges with a scant half-inch seam allowance. This seam allowance will be hidden between the quilt back and the tube.
- Fold the tube lengthwise, parallel to the new seam, locating the fold just beyond the raw edges of the seam allowance. Press. Then press the seam allowance open. This is the back side of the tube.
- Turn the tube over, seam against the ironing board. The flattened tube should measure 4 inches wide. Use a ruler to help you press a second fold the length of the tube, along the back side, about 2.5 inches from the first lengthwise fold.
- Temporarily mark two parallel lines along the back of the quilt, parallel to the top edge. One should be at least 1.5 inches from the top edge of the quilt. The lower line should be about 2.5 inches below it, the distance between the two lengthwise folds of the tube.
- Match the center of the upper line of the quilt and the center of the top edge of the tube and pin. Pin the top edge of the tube in place without stretching it or the quilt. Fold the fullness of the tube out of the way as you pin the bottom fold of the tube to match the lower line.
- Stitch the tube in place by hand. Include batting, but not the front of the quilt. Use the ladder stitch, with the thread traveling back and forth between quilt and tube, so it doesn’t show.
- Stitch the “back” of the tube all the way around, including the short ends, so that the display rod isn’t accidentally shoved between the quilt and the tube.
- The advice given here is not meant for art quilts or old or fragile quilts. If you aren’t sure, consult an expert. For antique quilt care, see the International Quilt Study Center and Museum’s information.
- If a quilt smells but otherwise looks clean, air it. Lay it flat between two sheets on the lawn, if safe, or flat in the house somewhere with good air circulation. Or try fluffing for a little time in the dryer without heat. Or bag it in plastic for a few days after wadding it up with little cloth bags filled with cedar chips or dried lavender.
- If a quilt is dusty, try vacuuming it. Lay a piece of screen over a section so that the vacuum hose doesn’t suck it up. Or put a stocking over the end of the hose.
- Dry cleaning is not good for cotton and cotton/polyester quilts. It may be OK for a strong quilt made primarily of fabrics normally dry cleaned, such as some wools and silks.
- Never wash a quilt until all damage has been repaired.
- Be sure a quilt is washable before getting it wet. If you made the quilt, you should have tested the fabrics. If someone else made it and you don’t know if they tested, check suspect fabrics (red, hot pink, dark blue) by rubbing a wet, white piece of cotton fabric on them to see if any color comes off.
- In a top-loading washing machine, substitute agitation by hand for the machine’s agitation cycle.
- A home-type, front-loading washing machine’s “hand wash” setting is suitable for a quilt in good condition.
- Test a commercial front-loading machine to make sure it doesn’t have residual soap by running it through a complete cycle without adding your quilt or soap.
- Rinse the quilt enough that the water from the last rinse is not soapy.
- Avoid all laundry products (bleach, chlorine-free bleach, fabric softener, detergents) except the plainest sodium lauryl sulfate type soap you can find.
- Never hang a wet quilt on a clothesline. It will be heavy enough to break the stitching.
- Laying a quilt flat to dry is best. If you have to use a dryer, use it on medium heat only until the quilt is nearly dry.
Quilt washing instructions (from the Gorges Quilt Care Label)
–Fill top-loading washer with low-chlorine, 80-degree F (27 degree C) water. Add plain sodium lauryl sulfate-based soap.
–Shut off washer. Add quilt. Gently agitate by hand. Soak 5 – 10 minutes.
–Drain. Refill with 80-degree water. Agitate by hand. Repeat this step until soap is removed.
–Let spin cycle remove excess water.
–Lay quilt flat on white sheet on carpet or other surface. Block quilt.
–Fluff on dryer air cycle when nearly dry.
Front loading washer instructions
- Use delicate or handwash cycle and warm or cold water.
- Mix quilt soap with warm water before pouring into machine’s soap receptacle.
- Do not use the “Max(imum) Extract” setting.
- Run through a complete wash cycle again without soap, and as many times as needed until you can’t “hear” soap when you manipulate the wet quilt.
Orvus Paste Quilt Soap – A 50-year-old Proctor and Gamble product originally designed for washing valuable livestock, it is packaged in small quantities by Quilter’s Rule and is the most widely available soap at quilt shops and online.
Soak Wash – A new product available at quilt shops and online, its directions for use say rinsing is not necessary.
Ensure Quilt Wash by Mountain Mist (quilt batting manufacturer)
QuiltCare Liquid Wash by Fairfield (quilt batting manufacturer)
If you can’t find one of these, look for a soap that has no detergents, phosphates, perfumes, softeners, or optical brighteners.
- Store quilts in a people-comfortable climate: no damp basement, no cold shed or garage and no oven-hot attic. Closets and dark, spare bedrooms are great.
- Storing a quilt flat, on a bed, is best.
- The second best storage technique, especially for small quilts, is rolling from top to bottom. Each time you roll the quilt, change which side of the quilt is on the outside. Roll the quilt around a cardboard or plastic tube covered in batting and/or plain cotton muslin. Or make a fabric tube stuffed with batting scraps.
- Never fold a quilt perfectly in halves. At least fold it in sloppy thirds so permanent creases won’t develop. Or stuff wads of acid free tissue paper or plain cotton muslin in the folds. Or fold the quilt on diagonals to the grain of the fabric. Or just loosely wad up the quilt.
- Avoid leaving a quilt in contact with raw wood (cedar chests, unfinished wood shelves). Don’t store it in a cardboard box that is not of certified archival quality. Some quilt supply companies carry archival boxes and tissue paper. Hollinger Metaledge, hollingermetaledge.com, and Light Impressions, www.lightimpressionsdirect.com, specialize in archival storage of all kinds.
- Use plain cotton muslin to protect your quilt from wood surfaces and dust. Wrap it around a rolled quilt. Or make a storage bag like a custom-sized pillowcase made long enough for the open end to fold over. Use muslin in place of crumpled tissue paper to keep folds from creasing. Wash the muslin whenever you take the quilt out to use or air.
- Use air tight containers only if you have a dust or pest problem and if you can take the quilts out for airing many times a year, to avoid moisture problems.
- The higher the stack of quilts, the more likely the one on the bottom will suffer from folds becoming permanent creases.
- The quilt owner’s name and contact information must be permanently or firmly attached to the quilt.
- Protect the quilt in a clear plastic bag. Never use leaf or garbage bags.
- Never leave the quilt unattended. Only hand it over to the proper authorities at the quilt show. Keep it out of sight if it is left alone in a vehicle or motel room.
- A professional appraisal of the quilt’s replacement value, such as those made by people trained by the American Quilters Society, is the best guarantee you will be able to claim the amount you insured your quilt for. Be sure you have photos of the quilt.
- Always consult the recipient of the quilt to determine where to ship (home or office) and with which shipper and what the arrival date will be. For quilt shows, follow their rules.
- Attach both the recipient’s and your name and contact information to the quilt.
- Place the quilt in a plastic bag in a box cut to fit perfectly or fill the spaces with packing material.
- Address the package neatly with permanent marker. Never use the word “quilt” anywhere. When buying insurance, identify the quilt as a textile or bedding.
- Request delivery confirmation, track the package and keep in touch with the recipient.