Care of Antique Quilts

Beautiful Antique Quilts, also known as heirloom quilts and coverlets are a treasured addition to any home and require special care to be preserved for generations to come. Heirloom quilts give us a sense of our family heritage and can evoke cherished memories. You may have inherited a family quilt that has seen generations of use and love, or picked up worn antique quilts at a rummage sale or auction. Antique Quilts that have strong sentimental value or are of historical significance should be taken to a quilting professional for restoration or conservation. Ask how they will clean the quilt and their level of experience. Any cleaning done to antique fabrics could damage or destroy your quilt. Based on the monetary and personal value of the quilt, you may decide to leave it as is rather than risk destroying a priceless piece of work.

Even the oldest most badly stained and damaged quilt can have great sentimental value … Those tears and stains may bring back memories of curling up in front of the TV with the family quilt to keep you cozy or jumping on Grandma’s quilt-covered bed as a child. Professional conservation can help you keep that beloved, though perhaps unsightly, heirloom quilt for future family generations to enjoy.

So you will be pleased to know that it is possible to restore well-worn antique quilts so they can still be used and admired for years to come.  If your quilt is over 50 years old, it should be cleaned by a professional. Many conservators recommend not cleaning an antique quilt because the fibers can become brittle over time. You also can air your quilt outside on an overcast day to remove dirt and odors.

Since the fabric of different types makes up most quilts, it’s best not to wash a quilt. When handling an old quilt wear a pair of white cotton gloves when you handle an antique quilt. The oils on your fingers can do damage to the fabric over time. Keep quilts on clean, dry surfaces. Lay a clean bedsheet down first, and then lay the quilt on top of it.

Antique quilts are also susceptible to molds and insects. The growth of molds can lead to scattered spots known as foxing, similar to those found on old prints. What may look like a blood or rust stain is what’s 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. It’s best to leave this alone, as you can do more damage trying to remove dye migration. For newer quilts, both hand-quilted and machine-quilted, always follow care instructions carefully.


A damaged antique quilt can be a rewarding, but painstaking, process.
When the binding is replaced, keep it authentic. Straight edge binding was normally used in quilts before 1900; bias binding was used afterward.


Don’t wash your quilt before beginning the repairs, unless it is absolutely filthy.

You can hand wash the quilt but if you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself search for a qualified quilt conservation or restoration service. If you feel that you quilt must be washed, begin by checking the fabric for colorfastness. Testing is simple; wet a piece of white cloth with cold water and gently rub it over each different color or fabric in the quilt. If there is any color transfer to the white cloth, don’t wash the quilt at all. Washing will result in discoloration and fading. Remember to always handle antique quilts very carefully when they are wet. Use your forearms to lift a wet quilt, supporting as much of its weight as possible.

Vintage quilts require special care during cleaning. Do not dry clean or machine wash an heirloom piece. Dry cleaning chemicals can permanently harm old fabrics and the agitation action of a washing machine can cause fibers to shred. One of the best ways to clean a newer quilt is a handheld vacuum cleaner with a small brush attachment. To remove dust, spread the quilt out on a bed or on top of a sheet on the floor and examine carefully for any worn patches, tears or stains. Vacuum with a nylon stocking over the end of vacuum hose and hold the hose slightly above the top of the quilt. If the quilt has beading, embroidery or appliqué, do not vacuum. You could damage the work. Airing your quilt outside on a sunny day can restore freshness.

If you are a good seamstress, repair the quilt yourself by using small stitches and thread and fabric that match the design and colors of your quilt. If you don’t possess basic sewing skills now is not the time to learn. Perfect your basic skills on inexpensive muslin or cast-off clothing scraps before attempting to repair antique quilts yourself. There are sources of vintage or period-specific fabrics to patch your quilt or reproduction vintage fabrics can be used replace damaged areas.

When removing the quilt from the bottom of the tub, don’t grab it by the corners or edge!

If you have hard water or iron bacteria in your water source, you should use distilled water for washing the quilt. You don’t want to risk having minerals stain the fabric.

To hand-wash, fill a deep, laundry sink or bathtub with cold water. If you don’t have a screen handy, you can put the quilt directly in the tub. The purpose of the screen is to hold the quilt out of the water so any dyes that run don’t settle back in the fabric, and to give you a way to lift the quilt. Be certain that the sink or tub is very clean and has no residue from cleaning agents that could cause damage to the quilt. Use a liquid detergent that is gentle and free of dyes and perfumes. A liquid detergent will disperse in the water and leave fewer residues on the fabric. Add 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar to the water to both brighten colors and soften the quilt.

Place the quilt in the water, being certain that the entire quilt gets wet. Gently swish the quilt around in the water. Allow the quilt to remain in the water for about 10 minutes. Next, drain the wash water and fill the tub again with fresh water. Repeat draining and refilling the tub until the water and quilt are soap free – clear water and no suds.

A quilt that has been well-loved may have seams that are coming apart, rips or tears where the batting may show through, dirt and stains, or missing pieces of fabric. Seams that are coming loose can be easily repaired by turning the raw edges under and using a whip stitch to tack the edges down. Check for areas of stress on other parts of the quilt before beginning, since repairing one seam may cause another to come loose.

Removing Stains

If washing the quilt did not remove all of the stains, you can remove most stains by mixing a solution of oxygen-based bleach (OxiClean, Clorox 2, Country Save Bleach, Purex 2 Color Safe Bleach) and cool water. Follow the package directions as to how much product per gallon of water. Completely submerge the quilt in the solution and allow it to soak for at least eight hours. Check the stained areas. If the stain is gone, rinse well and dry.

If it remains, mix a fresh solution and repeat. It may take several soakings to remove the stain but it should come out.


Proper drying is the key to keeping a quilt at its best. Wet quilts must be handled gently. Pulling can break seams and cause damage. The quilt will be heavy and should be dried flat. To lift the quilt from the tub, use a white sheet to create a sling. Allow the excess water to drain then place the quilt on a bed of heavy towels. Cover with more towels and roll up to absorb water. Move the quilt to another bed of dry towels, spread out flat and allow drying. Placing a fan in the room will help to speed the process.

If you have space, drying the quilt indoors on the floor is best if you have room. Direct a fan toward the quilt to help it dry more quickly.

Outdoors will work if you can keep the quilt out of the sun. Lay a clean light sheet over it to keep nasty things from falling on it out of the sky. Once the top feels dry, flip the quilt over and let the back dry.

Never suspend a wet quilt from a clothesline. This causes too much stress on seams and causes tearing and can displace batting.


To prevent any further deterioration only clean your heirloom quilt, if it truly needs cleaning, before storing it. If you plan to store a freshly laundered quilt, be certain it is completely dry. Allow an extra 24 to 48 hours for drying before storing. One of the best ways to store any quilt is lying flat on an extra bed. Keeping the quilt flat will eliminate creases and wear on folds. Simply cover the quilt with a clean sheet or bedspread.

If flat is not an option, store the quilt in a cotton or muslin bag or in boxes sold for archival storage. These are usually made of acid-free paper and are perfectly safe to use. However, if you are concerned about the box getting crushed, purchase a plastic storage box. The box must be made of cast polypropylene to be safe for your keepsakes. Look for the #5 within the recycling triangle or the letters “PP” to be sure that you have the correct type of box. Don’t store antique quilts in a regular plastic tub.

If you want to store it in a wooden drawer, first paint the inside with polyurethane varnish and after it’s dried, line the drawer with acid-free paper, cotton sheets or muslin. Untreated wood and cardboard can emit chemicals that cause antique fabric to break down.

If you have several quilts, don’t stack them to store them, but buy special acid-free boxes online in which you can store each quilt. While you’re at it, also purchase some acid-free tissue paper to lay in the folds as padding to prevent sharp creases. Excessive light, either natural or artificial, can fade the fibers.

Roll your quilt on acid-free paper and store it in an acid-free box or tube to prevent undue deterioration. Keep the box in a cool, dry spot, and be sure the quilt itself is absolutely dry so mold and mildew don’t cause permanent stains. You can also store your antique quilt in a clean white pillowcase. Do not store in the attic or basement where moisture and temperature levels will fluctuate.

Every few months, take the quilt out of storage and refold it along different lines, or you may end up with permanent creases.

Once your antique quilts have been cleaned, it’s a good idea to document what you have done.

Iron a piece of muslin to a piece of freezer paper (both cut to 8-1/2″ x 11″), and use your typewriter or laser printer to print the information, or use indelible ink to write the information on the muslin by hand.

Include information about the origin of the quilt, even if it’s only to state that you found it at a rummage sale.

Document any repairs you have made, and any other pertinent information.|

Peel the fabric label from the paper and hand stitch it carefully onto the back of the quilt.

You could even make a pocket for the label to hold other important papers relating to the genealogy of the quilt, the family relationships, and any other history.

Proper care of your beautiful quilt will ensure it will last for generations to come.