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The dictionary says an heirloom is "a valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations." Did you inherit a quilt that is family heirloom? Or, have you adopted an antique quilt you simply couldn’t leave neglected in a second hand store? How do you care for these wonderful links to the past? Are they folded up in a tight little bundle, sealed in a plastic bag, and stuffed in an already too-full linen closet? Are they hung in your sun room for all to see? Are they on your kid’s bed?
Textiles are extremely fragile. Eventually the fibers in any cloth will begin to disintegrate. Nothing lasts forever, especially textiles. Our job, if we own one of these treasures, is to lengthen their life by protecting them to the best of our ability. A few enemies of our treasured quilts include light, dirt, humidity, heat, insects, and pressure, among others.
As we discussed in a previous article, never put any quilt in direct light, whether natural or artificial. In antique quilts the fabrics were either colored with natural dyes or the "new" synthetic dyes, which began to be used toward the end of the 19th century. With few exceptions, most of these dyes were not very color-fast, which is why we see greens that have faded to yellow or dull blue, purples that have faded to tan, and blacks have disintegrated the fiber completely. Even today, the dyes currently available can fade fairly rapidly when exposed to light.
Before you put a quilt in storage, take time to clean it. Bugs like to eat food stains and spray starch. Be sure to take care of any problems before storing your quilt. Usually, just a good vacuuming will take care of most problems. Place a 12" x 12" square of screening (with the edges covered with masking tape) over your quilt and gently use a hand-held vacuum to remove surface dust. Consider wet cleaning only as a last resort and realize that it will deteriorate your quilt to some extent. Be sure to consult some knowledgeable sources before attempting to wash an antique quilt. Never have your quilt dry-cleaned; the chemicals used can be very harsh to the fibers and are never completely removed.
Never store your quilts in plastic bags. Textiles need to breathe. When excess heat and moisture build, mildew will inevitably occur. Once the quilt is spotted with mildew, it is very difficult to remove the stains. Instead, if you need to store your quilts in a closet or other enclosed space, wrap them in clean, un-dyed, un-bleached muslin. Be sure to remove them from storage every three to six months. Spread them on a flat surface and air them out, first on one side and then the other. While you have the quilt out, be sure to inspect for signs of bugs or new stains.
When you return the quilt to storage, fold it in a different way. If you had folded it in half last time, then fold it in thirds this time. Don’t crush your quilt and fold it as little as possible. When you fold it, do it so the backing is on the inside. The most wrinkles will occur on the inside of a fold. You can minimize the wrinkles by cushioning the folds with crushed, acid free tissue paper or a roll of muslin.
Enjoy the wonderful quilts you have inherited or adopted, but be sure to care for them so other generations will be able to enjoy them too.
Article originally published November 2000
© 2000, Maria Elkins