How to Care for Quilted Items
All light can cause fading, therefore, low levels of light or no light are recommended for storage and display of quilts. Ultraviolet (UV) light from sunlight and fluorescent lights can also damage the fibers, making them dry and brittle. Avoid direct sunlight and protect quilts from UV damage by utilizing window shades/blinds/curtains and UV filters on windows and fluorescent lights. Windows can be covered with a polyester UV-blocking film and fluorescent lights fitted with special filtering sleeves or shields.
Keep the quilt in an environment with a relative temperature between 60 - 70 degrees. Make sure that the environment has no extreme fluctuations of temperature. Fluctuations of heat and humidity can lead to "tendering", the process that reduces cotton fiber's tensile strength, making it into a powdery, paper-like substance that crumbles at a touch.
Keep the quilt in an environment with that has a relative humidity of between 45 - 60% and good air circulation. Constant moisture, warmth, and poor air circulation will lead to the growth of mildew and mold which can cause permanent staining of the fibers. Make sure that the environment has no extreme fluctuations of humidity.
Insects and Other Pests
Insects consume protein fibers like wool and silk and can leave droppings on cotton fibers. Moths generally feed on food stains, so make sure that stored quilts are clean. But they will also feed on clean fabric if dirty is unavailable. Moth crystals and other insecticides can aid in controlling insects, but should only be used for temporary measures and should not directly touch the textiles because they can damage fibers, paint, and dyes. Cedar chests can deter moths, but don't kill them at all stages of their development. Some sources recommend freezing as a insect control treatment, especially new acquisitions, but there is not conclusive evidence that this works. Vacuuming quilts regularly and airing them are probably the best aids to fighting infestation. Make sure that new acquisitions are isolated from the rest of your collection for a while to check for signs of infestation. Rodents don't usually eat fibers but they do seek them out for nesting material.
Dirt and Other Pollutants
Dust and dirt abrade fibers and can attract pests. If a quilt is not too dirty, an airing, or gentle shaking (don't shake fragile quilts) will remove the worst dirt. If that is not enough or if the quilt is too fragile, you can vacuum the quilt on a flat, padded surface, using an upholstery brush and low suction. For extra protection you should place a fiberglass screen over the quilt and vacuum through the screen. Air pollution in city environments can also damage fibers. An air filtration system or central heat/air can help allay the damage, but make sure that you change the filters regularly.
The Process of Making the Quilt
Nowadays we have all kinds of neat techniques and gadgets to aid the quiltmaking process. However, there is some concern that some of these gadgets can damage quilts. It has been reported that disappearing ink can reappear if you do not wash the quilt in plain, cold water before any hot water or other heat is applied. There is also some concern that large safety pins and plastic quilt tacks can create large holes in the fabric which could lead to later problems. Another concern that has been reported is that some of the quilts made with batts that contain cotton seed chaff are becoming stained by the oil from the seed. And then there is the ever present argument about whether or not tearing the fabric along the grain line can damage the rest of the piece. Whatever the case, take a little time to consider the possible problems before you use a new product.
Whether using, displaying, or storing a quilt, you should regularly shift its position so that damage, wear, and fading are not concentrated in one spot. This is especially important for quilts that are stored folded. Permanent creases are caused by folding and pressure. Fibers along the folded edge can weaken and break. Refold the quilt 2-3 times a year and rotate displayed quilts to another place once every six months.
It goes without saying that you should take care when handling quilted items. Rough handling can damage and break fibers, especially in older, fragile quilts. Wet quilts are the most susceptible to damage during handling because a wet quilt is very heavy -- support the wet quilt with a sheet, towel, your arms, etc. When washing a quilt, make sure that it is not agitated in machine or hand washing -- instead, let the quilt soak for 10 minutes and then gently move the quilt in the water with your hands to release the soil from the fabric. Some sources say that a quilt can be spun in a machine, but do not tumble a quilt in the dryer -- this can be hard on the fibers and can cause "crocking" (the surface loss of color by friction) and streaking of fabric colors. Instead you should dry a quilt flat on the ground, floor, or on top of a large bush.
Avoid cleaning family heirlooms if possible. Air your quilts 2-3 times a year on a moderately windy, dry day. Lay the quilt outside in the shade on top of some blankets or towels, and covered with a sheet to protect from debris. Leave the quilt for several hours. If the quilt is very fragile, air it indoors on a dry day. If airing isn't enough, vacuum the quilt as described above under Handling. Make sure that you vacuum both sides of the quilt. Be careful not to suck the fabric into the vacuum.
If the quilt is very dirty, you will need to consider other cleaning methods. Generally, dry cleaning is not recommended as it damage fragile items and can remove natural oils and waxes from the fibers. However wool and silk quilts may have to be dry cleaned. If so, request fresh solvents, and make sure that the item is not marked, steamed, or pressed. A quilt can be wet cleaned if the process will not affect the color, shape, or strength of the fabric. A general rule is to clean wet-clean quilts around every five years. First check for colorfastness of each color and fabric. Use a gentle soap -- something that you'd be willing to take a bath in -- like Orvus Paste. Fill the washer or bathtub with lukewarm water and thoroughly dissolve the soap. Lower the quilt into the water in fan folds and allow to soak. One source says 10 minutes, but another source recommends up to 12 hours with several changes of water if the quilt is very dirty. After you have soaked, gently move or fan the quilt to disperse dirt. Next, make sure that you thoroughly rinse out all soap as it can coat fibers and attract dirt. Leave the quilt in the bathtub to drain for several hours. Never squeeze or wring the quilt. Carefully remove the quilt by supporting it in some fashion and place it on the ground or floor on top of thick towels and mattress pads. Align it gently to make the corners square. Cover with more towels and press down to remove excess water. Remove these top towels and place a sheet on top to protect from debris. Allow the quilt to dry completely (up to a full day or more).
The best way to store a quilt is flat (on a bed or wherever). If you can't store a quilt flat all of the time, you should try to do so for a short period of time, every year. Quilts that are stored or displayed should be refolded 2-3 times a year and moved from one place to another. Quilts can also be stored rolled around an acid-free tube (you can cover the tube with well-washed fabric or acid-free tissue paper) of no less than 3" in diameter. Roll the quilt loosely, without wrinkles, and cover the rolled quilt with well-washed muslin. Finally, you can store a quilt folded in an acid-free box, but make sure that you pad each fold with rolls of acid-free tissue paper (except for silk -- use unbuffered tissue). Quilts should be protected from touching acid paper and cardboard, plastic, metal, and wood (even cedar) that has not been coated with polyurethane since these materials can leach acids onto the quilt and they can also out-gas damaging vapors.
Quilts are best displayed on a bed, but you can also display them folded, if you pad the folds with acid-free paper, or on a padded quilt rack. Another popular method of display is hanging. Hanging a quilt always places some stress on the fibers. To lessen this stress, support the quilt by using a fabric sleeve, or sew on hanging tabs, or attach it to a mounting board with Velcro. If the fibers are very fragile, it is recommended that a liner be sewn onto the back of the quilt and then any attachments can be made to this lining. Maximum support can be obtained by stretching this liner over a wooden frame. If you are framing a quilt under glass, make sure that you use a matte or a spacer between the glass and the fabric so that mold and mildew can't grow. Make sure that there is air circulation from the back by using a cotton dust cover rather than a paper one. Remove wall hangings occasionally to give the fibers a rest. Whatever method you use, make sure that the quilt is not touching wood that does not have a polyurethane varnish.
Cognac, Camille Dalphond. Quilt Restoration: A Practical Guide. McClean, VA: EPM Publications, Inc., 1994.
Davis, Nancy. Handle with Care: Preserving Your Heirlooms. Rochester, NY: Rochester Museum & Science Center, 1991.
Hargrave, Harriet. Heirloom Machine Quilting. Lafayette, CA: C & T Publishing, 1990.
Puentes, Nancy O'Bryant. First Aid for Family Quilts. Wheatridge, CO: Leman Publications, Inc., 1992.