Family Archivist: Piecing the Past

By Denise May Levenick Premium

A cover that Grandma hand-pieced is equal parts artwork, rich tradition and homemade comfort. Naturally you want to enjoy such a treasure and display it with pride—just be sure to follow our guidelines for preserving your heirloom and its story.


I inherited several quilts relatives made in the 1920s and ’30s. They’re fairly sturdy and in good condition overall. I’d really like to enjoy these treasures and share them with others. Is it safe to display them hanging in my home? 



Displaying any kind of textile, particularly large quilts, can be a challenge, but museums have some good advice: 

Always handle quilts with clean hands or wear white cotton gloves, and avoid eating, drinking or smoking near them. Before hanging or displaying your quilt, gently remove surface dust and dirt by vacuuming both sides with the upholstery attachment. Cover the nozzle with a screen or old nylon stocking to reduce the suction, and avoid rubbing or applying pressure to the fabric. Don’t dry clean or machine launder old quilts.

The Michigan State University Museum Quilt Project’s recommended options including mounting in a sealed frame or hanging from a rod. The latter is the easiest way to display a quilt in most homes. Add a 4-inch-wide tube of unbleached muslin along the top edge of the quilt by stitching through all layers of the quilt with large, secure stitches. Seal a wooden dowel with polyurethane and insert the dowel through the sleeve to hang the quilt from the wall or ceiling.

Select a location that’s protected from direct sunlight, heat sources and windows. Occasionally take down the quilt to clean it by vacuuming, and to let the fabric “rest” from the stress of hanging. Spreading it over a clean sheet on an unused bed is a good option. Consider rotating quilts on and off display, as a museum would.

 Archival Quilt Box

Archival storage in acid-free containers can prolong the life of any textile. Specialty quilt boxes will accommodate bulky quilts and protect them from dust and light. These economical, lightweight, corrugated polypropylene boxes also are moisture-resistant. Purchase a box large enough for your quilt with lightly crumpled acid-free tissue padding the folds.

Tip: Know When to Fold ‘Em 

To prevent stored heirloom textiles from fraying along folds, periodically inspect them and refold before returning to storage. If a quilt was previously folded in half or in fourths, refold it in thirds or sixths. See my book How to Archive Family Keepsakes for more tips.

 Old Quilt Talk

Quilts come in all sizes, styles, patterns and even shapes. Each component in quilt construction tells part of the story of a quilt: where it was sewn, the age and experience of the quiltmakers, and their the economic and social standing. Quilt historians study each aspect when dating and identifying old quilts.

Most commonly, “quilt” refers to a coverlet comprised of a backing, filler or batting and a top. The quilt top may be made from a single large piece of cloth, stitched-together pieces (a “patchwork” quilt), appliqué or embroidery. Traditional patchwork quilt patterns have endless variations and their intricacy may reflect the skill level of the quilter.

The batting or filler in old quilts might have been new or old fabric, cotton, wool, silk or other fiber. The entire “quilt sandwich” is held together either by stitches through all the layers in a decorative all-over design, or by quilt ties—snips of thread or yarn inserted through the layers and tied at regular intervals. 

Inexpensive imported quilts confuse some buyers with a “handmade” label that doesn’t necessarily mean a quilt was part of the American historical tradition. For more information on old quilts, dating them and determining their pattern, see <>. Find a qualified quilt appraiser through the Professional Association of Appraisers: Quilted Textiles.