How to care for and repair antique quilts

This after photo shows work done by the author on an antique quilt.

This after photo shows work done by the author on an antique quilt.

Quilts (and clothing) are an important part of this country’s history, and of family histories, too. When you are working on an antique quilt, you are taking stitches in a three-dimensional, historical document. All quilts, not just “museum-quality” quilts, hold valuable information. In a hundred years, there may be only a few quilts from the 1940s left intact. They will be as rare and collectable as quilts from the 1840s, even the plainest ones, are now. A future quilt historian may someday find a great deal of information in your quilt if it is treated kindly now.

Over the years, I have developed three basic “rules” of quilt care:

– Do as little as possible.

– Don’t do anything that can’t be undone.

– Preventative maintenance is the best medicine.

These rules could just as easily apply to any antique or vintage textile items. And really, they are also pretty good to keep in mind with any new heirlooms that you are making or acquiring.

Here are some ways these rules can be put into use:

Do as little as possible

• Remember that doing nothing is always an option, especially if you are feeling unsure of techniques.

• Each quilt and its problems are unique and must be carefully considered before you start.

• I avoid inserting my own color and design tastes into the original look. Duplicating the original as closely as possible maintains the vintage ambiance of the quilt.

• There are two very different routes to choose between:

“Restoration” is often referred to as “repair.” A quilt is restored as closely as possible to its original state by replacing or fixing missing or worn fabrics.

“Conservation,” on the other hand, stabilizes and maintains the current condition of the quilt. The only fabrics added to a quilt are those that give necessary structural support. A pleasing visual presentation takes second place to maintaining the historic information embodied in the quilt.

Don’t do anything that can’t be undone

• When patching, don’t remove the old, worn fabrics. If anyone ever wants to see the original quilt, they would be able to find the original underneath your patching. Also, removing fabrics and cutting threads can cause new problems, such as weakening and skewing the structure, or causing more stitching to unravel.

• Stay away from mending with fusibles. Besides being permanent, some can stiffen the fabric, and longterm effects of the glues are unknown.

• Keep all your knots in the new fabrics you are applying to avoid making knot-size holes in the older fabrics.

Preventative maintenance is the best medicine

• This includes careful storage, gentle cleaning, and so on. These things are sooooo much easier than sad and difficult repairs down the road.

• Storage: Never in plastic – Never in unheated or damp attics or basements – Use moth and rodent protection.

• Cleaning: Wet wash only when the soil is actually damaging the fabrics or the quilt is too dirty to be bearable – Be very, very careful if you do decide to wash, eg. never agitate in the washer, don’t use stain removers – Vacuuming to remove dust is the safest.

• Old fabrics should never be handled as if they were new. Natural fibers are made from plants and animals, from parts of living things. When the fibers are harvested from the plant (vegetable fibers) or animal (protein fibers), they, in essence, have died. They immediately begin to degrade, or decompose. Synthetic fibers seem stronger, but are also susceptible to aging and wear.

Other guidelines

• A good knowledge of the history of fabric colors and styles helps in finding fabrics for repairs. Some books that I use often are Clues in the Calico, by Barbara Brackman; Dating Fabrics, books 1 and 2, by Eileen Jahnke Trestain; and Fabric Dating Kit, by Cindy Brick. Also, just browsing through quilt history books and books with vintage photos of all sorts can really hone your eye.

• My favorite source for reproduction fabrics is a shop entitled, most appropriately, Reproduction Fabrics. (This is an unsolicited endorsement. I’m nothing more than a very happy customer.) The owner, Margo, and her staff are super friendly and super helpful and super knowledgeable. They’ll send out huge swatches in no time at all, and fill orders just as quickly. The website is sectioned by era, but searches can be done by color as well.

• The sewing needed is relatively simple, i.e. no fancy stitches required. But this is pretty much all handwork, so be prepared for a long-term project. What’s nice is that you can relax and take larger stitches (at least, large compared to what quilters usually do). Larger stitches are less likely to pull on and break the weak, old fibers.

• Professional conservators have tons of skills, tools, labs, and information that home sewers do not, myself included. If you have a very valuable, fragile, or historically significant quilt, consult with a conservator.

-By Ann Wasserman