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Antique Quilts: How to Buy, Repair, Wash, and Store Vintage Finds

Whether you are a collector of antique quilts, inherited a family heirloom quilt, or came across some vintage orphan blocks at a flea market, you may have questions about how to care for your fabric treasures. Bettina Havig and Darlene Zimmerman, both experts on historical quilts, give you the answers on how to treat older quilts right.

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Should (or can) I wash antique quilts?

Bettina Havig: Only wash a quilt if it is cotton and then only if absolutely necessary. A gentle bath in a tub can do wonders but also can do damage. Make all repairs before washing. Use a gentle detergent (no soap) and dry flat, if possible, making sure that the weight of the quilt is supported. Because lifting a wet quilt puts huge stress on the fibers, lift it with a sheet or fiberglass screen under it. Squeeze out the water as you would a fine sweater; do not wring it. Never dry-clean a cotton quilt. Most silk/wool crazy quilts cannot tolerate the dry-cleaning process either.

Darlene Zimmerman: Only wash a quilt if it shows visible signs of soiling, is smelly, or the fabrics are stiff with starch. Reducing dirt, grime, body oils, and starch on the fabric will prolong the life of a quilt. If a quilt is of museum quality, then leave the cleaning for experts. Dry cleaning is not recommended. Before cleaning, repair any open seams, loose appliqué, or unstitched binding. Pretreat stains with a minimal amount of spot remover. (It’s better to have a stain than a hole in your quilt.)

    Some experts recommend washing a quilt in a bathtub, but I find this to be uncomfortable because a wet quilt is difficult to handle. I recommend soaking it in Biz, Oxiclean, or special quilt wash in your washing machine for several hours or overnight, depending on the soil level. Include a Shout Color Catcher to catch any errant dyes. After soaking, spin the quilt in the washing machine to remove excess water. Spinning a quilt in the washer does not damage the fabrics or thread, and it removes excess water quite well. Wash it with quilt wash on a gentle cycle in a front-loading machine, if possible. Rinse and spin twice to remove all residues.

    To dry, lay the quilt flat on a sheet outdoors or on a bed. If drying it outdoors, cover the quilt with another sheet to protect it from passing birds. If drying it indoors on a bed, turn on a fan over the quilt to speed the drying time. Turn the quilt over after several hours. Leave the quilt out and unfolded for a few days to ensure it’s dry all the way through. If necessary, fluff the quilt on air dry in the dryer for a short time.


What should I look for when buying an antique quilt?

Bettina Havig: First check the condition, then the pattern. Determine if the pattern is intricate or unusual. It’s nice to have a representation of common patterns, such as Log Cabin, Dresden Plate, Star, and basic appliqué, but a collection needs more than just familiar designs. Be wary of buying a quilt without actually seeing it. Be sure you have the option of returning it if you feel it was misrepresented.

Darlene Zimmerman: I look for quality, visual appeal, and rarity. Those are the characteristics that make a quilt valuable in the marketplace.

Quality: The piecing must be fairly accurate and the fabrics unfaded and sturdy. The quilt should be in the best condition expected for its age.

Visual Appeal: Buy quilts that speak to you, that appeal to you on emotional and visual levels. Are the color combinations interesting? Does the quilt make a statement? If displayed on a wall or bed, does the quilt grab your attention?

Rarity: Some quilt patterns are ubiquitous. Unusual or rare quilt patterns are more collectible. Also valuable are an unusual or excellent example of a common quilt, such as a Grandmother’s Flower Garden made with tiny fussy-cut hexagons.


How can I tell how old a quilt is?

Bettina Havig: Many good resources are available. Clues in the Calico by Barbara Brackman (EPM Publications; 1989; out of print, but used copies are available through online sellers) is one of the best. So many aspects determine a quilt’s age that it takes experience to make a determination. One clue is fabric. Looking at good photos of dated quilts can be a great way to build up some dependable knowledge. The style and size are also important. Extremely large quilts are often older than one might suspect. Quilting motifs can help, but regionalisms can fool you. Just because a quilt shows wear doesn’t mean it’s an antique. Remember that a quilt is only as old as the newest fabric in it.

Darlene Zimmerman: A quilt can be no older than its newest fabric. Identify the era of the majority of the fabrics. If there are some modern fabrics, were they recent repairs or part of the original quilt? For example, you will need to do some detective work if you believe you have a Civil War Era red-and-green appliqué quilt but also notice a few leaves are a color or print from the 1930s. Are the newer leaves replacements for the originals or was this an unfinished quilt that was finished at a much-later date?

    Remember, early quilters had stashes as we do today. While some of the fabrics in a quilt can be dated quite early, if the majority of the pieces date it later, the quilter likely was using what she had on hand.


My quilt has rips/tears/holes. Should I fix them or not?

Bettina Havig: Stabilizing a frail quilt can help preserve it. I almost never recommend total reconstruction. Small repairs are advisable to simply keep problems from getting worse. Fine tulle or crepoline (a stiffened silk gauze) can be used to protect an especially worn area. Never use a fusible or glue. And do only repairs that can be reversed. For example, if you rebind a quilt, put the new binding over the original and work by hand in case there is a need to revert to the original. Be conservative about any changes or repairs you might undertake.

Darlene Zimmerman: Definitely. Repairing rips/holes/tears will preserve the life of the quilt. It has been suggested that disintegrating fabrics be only covered by new fabric, leaving the original in place. However, if this is a family quilt and not destined for a museum, you can repair it however you think best. Do try to match the new fabrics to the original quilt in color and style, which may require sun-bleaching a modern reproduction fabric to match the color in the original quilt or searching for similar vintage fabric scraps for repair purposes.


Should I use antique quilts or keep them stored safely away? Do you have any ideas for displaying them?

Bettina Havig: If you are collecting quilts for possible resale, use may affect the value. If you are using and enjoying family quilts and are careful to be kind to them, then using them seems to fulfill their basic purpose. To protect them, keep pets off, do not wash them frequently, and avoid long exposure to direct sunlight or artificial light. Store them at a living temperature and environment—not in a hot attic or damp basement. (If you don’t want to live in the environment, neither does your quilt.) Do not store a quilt in plastic. Textiles need to breathe so clean sheets or pillowcases work well.

Darlene Zimmerman: Museum-quality quilts should be preserved professionally, except for short periods of appropriate display (low light and proper hanging).

    Family quilts or vintage quilts you have collected can be displayed. Keep them out of direct sunlight, away from pets or small children, and avoid extremes of temperature and humidity.

    Hang quilts so they are evenly supported across the top edge (a rod or dowel in a sleeve works well). If folded and displayed on a chair, shelf, or bed, take the same precautions. Rotate the quilts you have on display several times a year.

    Be sure the fabric is not in direct contact with unpainted wood or paper when in storage. Both wood and paper have acids that eat into fabrics over time. Plastic bags do not let your quilts breathe. An old pillowcase or well-worn sheets are excellent for protecting your quilts.

    When stored, quilts should be refolded occasionally in different ways to prevent the fabric from breaking along the fold lines. Wash them only when visually soiled; they do not need to be washed when only displayed carefully and/or stored.

    Store quilts in a dark closet; avoid hot (attics) or humid (basement) conditions. Do not use mothballs. If concerned about moth damage, use lavender or cedar to deter the bugs.


Do you have any ideas for what I should do with orphan antique blocks?

Bettina Havig: The condition of the blocks may be the best answer. There is often a reason why tops or blocks never became quilts. Handling old tops and blocks can make matters worse. My personal preference is to leave both tops and blocks as you found them, as a collection. A really special block might deserve archival framing. If the assorted blocks are square and well-pieced, it’s fun to make a sampler quilt. The fun comes in designing a setting that can include all of the various block sizes. This way you can use the blocks and preserve them at the same time.

Darlene Zimmerman: Orphan blocks could be mounted and framed or made into decorative pillows. Or you could add borders (if needed) and create a small table mat or table runner. If the pieces in the block are small enough, perhaps a vintage doll quilt could be created.