Caring for Old Quilts

Caring for Old Quilts

Follow these sew-savvy hints to keep your heirloom quilt in tiptop shape and save its history.

They’ve been keeping Americans warm for centuries, and you likely have at least one or two in your own home. Whether they’re prize-winning showpieces or well-loved comforters, quilts serve as records of our lives—and those of our ancestors. If you’re lucky enough to have one a relative stitched, keep your heirloom in tiptop shape—and save its history—by following these sew-savvy hints:

Make a clean sweep.
If your quilt is more than 50 years old, it should be cleaned only by a professional conservator, if at all. You can easily clean a newer quilt with a vacuum cleaner. Lay the quilt out on a flat surface, and put a nylon stocking over the end of the nozzle or use a soft brush attachment before vacuuming. You also can air the quilt outside on an overcast day to remove dirt and odors. Wash your quilt only if all dyes are colorfast and it doesn’t have any inked signatures. Never launder silks, wool, velvet or hand-painted quilts.

Just encase.
You can store your quilt in an acid-free box, wrap it in a piece of washed, unbleached muslin or fold it in a pillowcase. Never keep it in a cardboard box or plastic bag. If you want to store it in a wooden drawer, first paint the inside with polyurethane varnish and after it’s dried, line the drawer with acid-free paper, cotton sheets or muslin. Refold the quilts a few times a year to avoid permanent creases. Smaller quilts can be rolled around a cardboard tube wrapped in acid-free paper.

Go to bed.
The best way to store—and display—a quilt is on an unused bed. Keeping pets and sunshine off the quilt will extend the lifetime of the fabric. Don’t banish your quilt to the attic or basement; opt instead for a low-humidity, constant-temperature area. Periodically rest hanging quilts to reduce the stress on the fabric. Never nail or tack a quilt to the wall, and don’t pin anything to your heirloom—the pins can leave rust marks.

Fabricate a date.
A quilt’s fabric can tell you a lot about its age. The earliest quilts were made of homespun cloth; print materials became common after 1820. Nineteenth-century quilts used cotton—calico, gingham, muslin and solids—along with wool and challis. Frontier women employed muslin, sacking and sample swatches. Victorian-era quilters incorporated expensive fabrics such as silk, taffeta, velvet and satin. By the mid-1800s, women were buying fabric specifically for quilting. During the crazy-quilt mania of the 1880s, manufacturers started selling bundled scraps. Some turn-of-the-century quilts incorporate feed or sugar sacks and even silk swatches that were put in cigarette packs to encourage women to smoke.

Shape up.
Since certain patterns were common to specific groups, eras and regions, a quilt’s design might give you clues about its creator. All Pennsylvania Amish quilts, for example, feature straight-edge geometric shapes. Tiny patchwork pieces demonstrate frugality and patience—quilting was an early form of recycling, after all. When using design motifs to estimate a quilt’s age, keep in mind that the fabrics might be a decade or two older than the quilt itself.

Get more information.
Learn more about dating and preserving old quilts from these museums:

  • American Folk Art Museum
    45 W. 53rd St., New York, NY 10019
    (212) 265-1040
  • Museum of the American Quilter’s Society
    215 Jefferson St., Paducah, KY 42001
    (270) 442-8856
  • New England Quilt Museum
    18 Shattuck St., Lowell, MA 01852
    (978) 452-4207
  • Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum
    37 Market St., Lancaster, PA 17603
    (717) 299-6440
  • Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum
    1111 Washington Ave., Golden, CO 80401
    (303) 277-0377
  • San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles
    520 S. First St., San Jose, CA 95113
    (408) 971-0323
  • Shelburne Museum
    US Route 7, Shelburne, VT 05482
    (802) 985-3346
  • Virginia Quilt Museum
    301 S. Main St., Harrisonburg, VA 22801
    (540) 433-3818
  • Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts
    N50 W5050 Portland Road, Cedarburg, WI 53012
    (262) 546-0300

Learn to care for 10 types of family heirlooms—from jewelry to  textiles—in our Preserving Heirlooms download, available in Family Tree Shop.


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