How to Care for and Clean Your Quilt

General Care of your Quilt

  • Avoid temperature extremes, high humidity and poor ventilation.
  • Display in an area with low light levels since both sunlight and artificial light cause fading.
  • Evenly distribute the weight of the quilt over an unused bed if possible. Cover with a sheet or muslin to keep dust off.
  • If you don’t have a spare bed, fold it with acid free tissue paper between the folds and place on a quilt rack or the back of a chair. Refold every month or so along different lines.
  • If hanging, use a non-wood rod threaded through a hanging sleeve. To make a hanging sleeve, sew a four-inch wide tube of fabric along the top back edge with stitches every inch or so through all layers of the quilt. Make sure the hanging sleeve is sewn securely. Watch for signs of stress.
  • Never use nails, pins or staples to hold a quilt on the wall.
  • Rotate your displayed quilts periodically.

Should I clean my quilt?

It may not be necessary to clean your quilt if you are going to simply display it folded over a rack. It is not always best to clean it if it has serious damage such as holes, rips, frayed seams or if it has delicate fabrics or embellishments (as in a crazy quilt.) Yet, dust and dirt can do damage to fibers, actually cutting them, as they expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. So... if you plan to display the quilt on a bed or hung on a wall and have decided it really needs to be cleaned, the question is: How should I clean my quilt?
  • Air It Out - Often, simply airing out a quilt on a breezy day to remove dust and freshen it may be enough. You can:
    • Lay it out on the lawn with a clean sheet under and over it to protect it.
    • Hang it over a wide railing. Do not hang it on a clothes-line. The stress of hanging over a small piece of rope may damage it.
    • Vacuum it with the brush attachment. Place a clean fine mesh screen over it first and use a low powered vacuum to protect delicate fabrics or embellishments. This is often the best choice for quilts you do not want to wet wash.
  • Wet Washing
    Be aware that no matter how careful you are, you may cause permanent damage to your quilt by wet washing it. Do not wet wash your quilt unless absolutely necessary. If you wish to seek the advice of a professional textile conservationist first, the American Institute for Conservation can help you find a list of professional conservators in your area.

  • What should I consider before wet washing?
    • Age: Often 19th century dyes are unstable, tending to run or “bleed,” change color, or disappear altogether.
    • “Stains”: “Dye Rot,” is a condition caused when dye has damaged the fabric so badly that upon washing the dye disappears, taking the fabric with it, making your quilt look like it has the measles.
    • Condition of the quilt: Does it need any repairs first?
    • Fabrics that may bleed: test for bleeding first by rubbing a damp white cloth on all the different prints. Test them ALL. Just because one red print didn’t bleed doesn’t mean another won’t. Even after testing, you may find some bleeding when completely saturated with water.

  • Should I spot treat an area before washing?
    Spot treating a stained quilt before washing is sometimes useful but may result in areas that are noticeably cleaner than others. Also, trying to decide what kind of stain you have so you can properly pre-treat it is difficult because old quilts are made of natural fibers which absorb easily. That is why you find white glove ladies at quilt shows. They are there to protect those natural fibers from body oils, liquids and other soiling substances. What may start as invisible stains turn into colored stains as they oxidize over time.

    Antique quilts have other challenges too, like molds and bugs. The scattered spots known as foxing are the result of the growth of these molds and the damage they cause. Sometimes what we think is a blood or rust stain is really what is left of a dead bug. The brownish stains that often look like furniture polish may actually be dye migration which is caused by temperature changes. Trying to remove the permanent stains from dye migration can do more damage.

  • What should be used to spot clean?
    • Sodium perborat, which has long been used in textile conservation, is recommended. It will not bleach past the original color or in other words to a lighter color than the original. Sodium perborate is the active ingredient in Clorox 2.
    • A paste made of Biz, Ivory Snow flakes or Shaklee’s Nature Bright may work. Brush this paste onto the spot and allow it to dry, then vacuum well with the brush attachment.
    • Using old home remedies like bleaching with lemon juice or laying on the lawn often result in a temporary brightening which in time usually reverts back to yellow.

  • What kind of soap / detergent can be used?
    Actual cleaning agents or surfactants, which come in two forms, anionic (detergent) and ionic (soap) each attract different types of soil molecules. The most effective cleaning agents use a combination of both such as Ivory Snow Liquid or Dreft which combine anionic and ionic surfactants as well as a few enzymes.

    Suggested Cleaning agents include:
    • Ivory Snow Liquid or Dreft.
    • Any mild soap such as Ivory Soap Flakes, Fells Naptha, or Orvus may work.
    • Equal parts of Dove liquid dish soap and Clorox II POWDER in hot / warm water often works.
    • 1 Gallon water + 1 quart Buttermilk (1% butter fat content or less) + 1 T. Lemon Juice is a recipe using natural ingredients. Be sure to rinse well.
    • For really dirty quilts try a detergent or enzyme cleaner like Axion or Biz. Soak for 20 minutes or less.

    What ever method you use, be sure to rinse well since residual soap will attract dirt.

  • Instructions:
    • Using a Washing Machine: Fill the tub with water, HAND agitate the quilt and then let it set for a while. Use the machine to spin out the excess water. (While there is some controversy over the stress a spinning machine may put on the wet fibers, at least it is controlled and may be less stressful than lifting a heavy wet quilt up out of the water and trying to remove excess water by hand. Plus, it will dry quicker, reducing the chances of mold, mildew or streaks from drying.)
    • To dry the quilt, cover a flat surface with clean towels and lay the quilt out flat or lay it over a padded railing. Cover with a clean sheet. To speed drying, circulate the air with a fan set on low and turn the quilt periodically so it dries evenly.
    Note: Do not take your quilt to the Dry Cleaners since dry cleaning is not really a “dry” process and may do more harm than good.

  • Antique Quilts: How to Buy, Repair, Wash, and Store Vintage Finds
    Bettina Havig and Darlene Zimmerman, both experts on historical quilts, give you the answers on how to treat older quilts right. --June 06, 2019

    For information on storing your quilt long term, view the long-term quilt storage page.

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