by Kris Driessen

See also:  Quilt Care - Practical Tips for the Use and Enjoyment of Antique Quilts

It's finally happened!  It seems like forever you have been searching for that perfect antique quilt.  Now you have found it.  It spoke to you in sweet, melodious tones at a garage sale or auction.  It smells a little, and has some odd spots, but what the heck?  The colors are wonderful the quilting sublime, the price exactly right.  Now how do you clean it? 

First, decide how you are going to use it.  Are you going to display it folded, hung on wall, or on a bed?  If you are going to display the quilt folded over a rack, it may not be necessary to clean it at all. It's always best not to subject an antique textile to any stress, but it is not a good idea to leave a quilt dirty, either.  Dust and dirt can actually cut fibers as they expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. Provided that there is no active damage (holes, rips or frayed seams), delicate fabrics or embellishments (as in a crazy quilt), simply airing the quilt outside on a nice summer day will remove dust and freshen the quilt.  Lay it on the lawn with a clean sheet under it and over it.  Or, hang it over a wide railing with a sheet protector.  You could also try vacuuming it with the brush attachment of a low powered vacuum cleaner.  If you are cleaning a quilt with elaborate embellishments, or one with damage, put a clean, fine mesh screen over your quilt first. 

If you plan to display your quilt on a bed or on a wall, you may wish to consider wet washing it.   Avoid your neighborhood dry cleaner. The dry cleaning process is anything but dry. Clothing is actually put into a big washing machine and washed with chemicals instead of water. A simple vacuuming is often the best choice for quilts which cannot be wet washed. If you decide to wash your quilt, be aware that you may permanently damage your quilt no matter how careful you are!  You may wish to seek the advice of a professional textile conservationist first. The American Institute for Conservation, 1717 K St. NW, Suite 200, Washington DC 20006 can give you a list of professional conservators in your area.

Consider the age and condition of the quilt before you wash it. Quilts with damage should be repaired first.  Many 19th century quilts used unstable dyes.  Wet washing a quilt may cause those dyes to run, change color or disappear altogether.  Some quilt fabrics were produced using iron as a mordant to set the dye.  This dye damaged the fabric so badly that when the quilt is washed the dye disappears, taking the fabric with it.  This is called dye rot and makes your quilt look like it has the measles.  

Before wet washing your quilt, test for bleeding.  Rub a damp white cloth on all the different prints.  Don't assume that because one red print didn't bleed, another one on the same quilt won't either - test them all.  Even after testing, you may find that your quilt will bleed when saturated with water.  

The easiest way to wash a quilt is in the washing machine. Use your machine as a giant wash tub.  Fill it with water, hand agitate the quilt, let it sit for a while, and let the machine spin out the excess water.  What soap should you use? Any kind of mild soap such as Ivory Soap Flakes, Fells Naptha, or Orvus.  Equal parts of Dove liquid dish soap and Clorox II POWDER in hot/warm water also works well.  If you prefer natural products, try the buttermilk recipe below.

For every gallon of water, add 1 Quart of Buttermilk (butterfat content of 1% or less) and 1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice.  Make sure you rinse it out well! If you quilt is really dirty, you may wish to use a detergent or enzyme cleaner like Axion or Biz.  There is no need to soak for more than 20 minutes.  To remove pencil marks, try this recipe: 1/4 c water, 3/4 c. rubbing alcohol, 7-8 drops of Palmolive detergent, Apply with toothbrush.

The actual cleaning agents (surfactants) come in two forms: anionic
and ionic (detergent and soap). Each type attracts different types of
soil molecules.  Ivory Snow liquid and Dreft are a simple combination of anionic and ionic surfactants with a few enzymes thrown in.  Whatever method you use, be sure the quilt is thoroughly rinsed.  Residual soap will attract dirt.  

There is some controversy over the stress a spinning machine puts on the wet fibers of a quilt, but I feel that the controlled action of the machine is less stressful than picking a wet heavy quilt up out of the water, and expressing water by hand.  Plus, the quilt dries quicker, reducing the chance of mildew and drying streaks.  To dry your quilt, lay it out on a flat surface over clean towels or over a towel padded railing.  Cover with a clean sheet and run a fan on low to help circulate air.  Rotate the quilt so it dries evenly.

If your quilt is very stained, it may help to spot treat areas before washing the whole quilt.  Be careful:  you may end up with a portion of your quilt noticeably cleaner. Trying to decide what kind of stain you have so you can properly pre-treat it is difficult.  Old quilts are made of natural fibers which absorb easily.  That's why there are white glove ladies at quilt shows - they are there to protect those cotton fibers from body oils, liquids, soils, and other organic substances.  Over time, these invisible stains oxidize to colored stains. 

Antique quilts face other problems, too,  like molds and bugs.  The scattered spots known as foxing is damage resulting from these growth of molds.  Often what we think of as blood stains or rust stains are actually what is left of a dead bug.  These stains are nearly impossible to remove.  Many quilts folded and stored for years will have brown stains that often look like furniture polish, blood or rust but are actually caused by dye migration.  Changes in temperatures can cause this to happen and most stains caused by dye migration cannot be removed because the dye has permanently stained adjoining fabrics.  You can do more damage trying to remove dye migration.

What should you use to spot clean your quilt?  Sodium perborate has been used for many years in textile conservation. It does not bleach past the original color, meaning that if the fabric was originally an off-white, the perborate will not bleach it to a lighter color than original. Sodium Perborate is the active ingredient in Clorox 2 .  You may also spot clean using a paste of Biz, Ivory Snow flakes or Shaklees Nature Bright.   Brush this paste on the spot and after it dries, vacuum well with the brush attachment.   The old home remedies of laying linens on the lawn or using lemon juice to bleach stains may result in temporary brightening of the fabric, but this usually reverts to yellow.  Click here for more stain removal tips.  

Here is a story one of our readers shared with us:

I was not sure if it was safe to hand wash an old comforter made from a seed bag with wool batting. The cover has a square of shiny floral fabric that looks like 1920's. The fabric of the cover is frail, but both of only two small tears I mended.  Well, I went to a rug shampoo rental shop in town, and after hearing my story, they suggested that I use their "Bissell Carpet Cleaner Self- Cleaning Formula". I sprayed the cleaner very lightly onto the comforter cover {after testing it for colorfastness} and let it dry, and then vacuumed the cover briskly, according to directions. The colors on the fabric are brighter, and the entire piece is "deodorized" The water spots faded considerably! Anyways, all went well with the cleaning, and I'm glad I did it.

So don't be discouraged!  You own an original piece of American history.  With proper care, your quilt will last a lifetime.  Keep it clean, out of direct sunlight and high humidity areas and most importantly, enjoy it. 

More information is available on our Articles page.  You may also be interested in this article from the Bishop museum, or the Collections Care Manual from Mt St Marys Museum. If you are laundering Linens, try this article or this article.

Quilt Heritage Books For more information, visit Quilt Heritage Books