Published on January 3rd, 2009 | by Julie Finn4
Was Mama Good to You, Too? Be Good to Her Quilts: Caring for Vintage Quilts
I’ve been posting lately about the treasure of beautiful, hand-sewn vintage quilts that I found in my Mama’s house, and the shocking conditions in which they’d been stored: stuffed in a closet, stuffed in a garbage bag, with MOTHBALLS! Another that my mother had put aside for me was folded up, hung on a HANGER, and then stuffed inside a garbage bag.
The quilts were all visibly worn-looking, weak, and discolored along their fold lines. On my Nana’s friendship quilt, some of the color of the embroidery that served as the signature of the women who pieced the quilt had bled onto other parts of the quilt that they’d been shoved against for thirty years. The quilt on the hanger is in the worst shape–the plastic had stuck to it in a few spots (it’s a nine-patch my Nana made in the 1970s, out of polyester), and it didn’t really want to completely unfold anymore. I have a master’s in library science that focuses on archival management, and I sew, and y’all? I FREAKED. OUT.
The thing is, my family doesn’t hate these quilts and want them to die. The recognize that these quilts are works of art, loving legacies from women long gone from us, and records of our ancestry, and they very much want to treasure them and preserve them for future generations–they were just doing an ass job of it.
Here’s how to not be such an ass.
Most importantly, instead of stuffing your quilt away, don’t you want to look at it, enjoy it, USE it? You’re not going to get your quilt to last forever, and all your stuff is just one natural disaster away from being lost forever, anyway, so I’m always for loving your treasures right now, even if that loving wears them out a little faster. A quilt that was made in your lifetime you can likely use as normal. An antique quilt in good shape can be displayed in a well-done wall mount (see my list of resources) or nicely folded (and re-folded every four months) in a display cabinet or dresser. Even a very fragile quilt will do best by being stored in its natural home, on a little-used bed away from direct sunlight and sleepy cats, where you can still look at it.
Also, quilts need to BREATHE, y’all. We’ll give my lovingly-made polyester monsters the benefit of the doubt, but quilts are traditionally crafted from natural fabrics, and natural fabrics do well with some air flow. Therefore, DON’T stuff them in a garbage bag. Plastics over time will react with the fabric. So will cardboard. So will wood. It’s just the fate of nature, you know? Besides, you just can’t store a quilt somewhere stuffed out of the way where you need the airtight plastic and the mothballs…
…because you have to lovingly air it out a little and refold it about every four months. Hold it and love on it and tell your kids stories about it. Let it get some fresh air, maybe (no bugs or sunshine!). Sandwich it between clean cotton sheets or a nice piece of muslin, and re-fold it a different way or roll it around a nice big tube.
Although none of these, in my opinion, are complete, here are some resources that discuss the various issues behind storing and restoring vintage quilts:
- Quilt History–Articles on cleaning, conservation, restoration, dating, and appraisal
- Great Lakes Quilt Center, Michigan State University Museum–quilt care and a quilt index, with a lot of broken links
- International Quilt Study Center and Museum–downloads of guides for caring for heirloom textiles, a collections database, education tools for teachers and students
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