Expert Q&A: Preserving Heirloom Quilts

By Sunny Jane Morton

Got a cover quilted by Grandma or Great-grandma? Textile conservationist Julia M. Brennan shares tips on caring for and displaying old (or new) family quilts.

Q. What makes heirloom quilts so special?

A. Quilts are a unique form of textile, made of fabrics reflecting a certain time in history and a certain wealth or status. Women often made quilts to mark events or anniversaries; they might have monograms, names or dates. Passed down from generation to generation, quilts become intimate parts of a family’s history.

Q. Why do quilts require special care?

A. Quilts are complicated. They’re constructed in multiple layers, usually with batting or padding inside, and fabrics of varying type, strength and color fastness. Outer layers may have delicate embroidery, stitching, ribbons or other embellishments. Quilts are also usually large, making them tricky to manage.

Q. How can you safely clean a quilt?

A. Examine it for condition problems. Vacuum the front and back with a soft brush attachment and low suction, if you can, to remove surface soil, dirt and insect debris. If the quilt is delicate, frayed, split, has a lot of surface embellishments or is a crazy quilt, I recommend holding a piece of nylon mesh—such as a window screen—over the quilt as a protective screen while you vacuum.

Most dry cleaners don’t have experience with heirloom textiles, and their cleaning process isn’t gentle enough. Don’t put a quilt in a washer or dryer. If you’re certain it won’t bleed, run, tear, fray or fall apart, you can wash it passively in a tub and lay it flat to dry. But beware: You may do irreversible damage.

Q. What’s the best way to store quilts?

A. Fan-fold the quilt and put crushed archival tissue between layers. Wrap it in tissue or clean cotton sheets. Don’t use plastic, which traps moisture. Periodically refold the quilt in a different way to avoid permanent creases. Store it in an acid-free box. If you’re using a cedar chest or dresser drawer, line it with a clean cotton sheet as a buffer between the quilt and the acidic wood. There’s an instructional video on my website. Display a valuable quilt only on a limited basis and make sure it’s not exposed to a lot of light (natural or artificial).

Q. How can you preserve the story behind an heirloom quilt?

A. Interview older family members: Does anyone know who made or bought it, when and why? Where did the fabric come from (such as old clothing)? Copy the information onto an archival cardstock tag and attach it to the quilt with a loop of white thread—not a safety pin, which may rust. Take pictures of the quilt, both overall and detail shots, so you have another record of it.

A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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