Are you fortunate enough to possess a wonderful old family quilt, but aren’t sure how to best care for it? With some basic knowledge and a few simple steps, your quilt can be preserved for generations to come.
CLEAN HANDS! Before you handle the quilt, wash you hands with something like plain unscented dish detergent. This will temporarily strip the natural oils and acids from your skin, and also remove dirt, lotion and perfume. Professionals often wear gloves (cotton, latex, nitrile), but this can be a step too far for the average person.* Whatever the glove type, if they aren’t kept clean, it’s a useless exercise. It’s surprising how often we unconsciously touch our faces or hair.
Ideally, your quilt should be stored in an acid-free quilt box. (Check the source: any manufacturer can claim that their product is “acid-free” or “archival”, but there are no regulations.) Standard size quilt boxes measure 30″ or 40″ x 18″ x 6″. As an alternative to buying a box, you can use a clean, sturdy cardboard box of appropriate dimensions and create an acid barrier by lining it with standard kitchen aluminum foil.
Lightly pad the folds and then wrap the entire quilt in either acid free tissue or undyed cotton fabric. Wash wrapping fabrics in unscented laundry detergent, WITHOUT bleach or fabric softener. Wrapping is good for both the quilt and the box. It will help keep your new box clean (contaminants can migrate from the quilt to the box). Also, the more layers of protection your quilt has, the more slowly it will react to changes in room temperature and humidity. White cotton sheets work very well, and most people already have them at hand. If you don’t have old sheets, Jo-Ann Fabrics sells inexpensive plain cotton muslin by the yard. (Don’t forget to take your sale coupons!) It can easily be torn to the needed length and width.** Acid free tissue doesn’t stay acid-free forever; it needs to be changed sometimes. Fabric can be washed and reused.
FOLDING, STORAGE, MAINTENANCE
Anything other than completely flat (horizontal) storage will create some sort of stress on a quilt, but flat storage is not usually possible. The next best thing is to minimize the sharpness of folds and to vary from the usual pattern of folding-in-half, then folding-the-half-in half, etc. Over time the fabric weakens at the fold lines, much the same way a piece of paper tears cleanly along a crease. (This is one of many advantages of box storage. That unboxed quilt in your closet probably has things stacked on top of it, crushing the folds and accelerating deterioration.) I recently had a quilt appraised by Nancy Bavor, American Quilter’s Society Certified Quilt Appraiser, Quiltworth.com. She showed me the following method:
Lay the quilt out flat. If you don’t have a large table, use a bed, or use the floor (spreading out a clean sheet first). Start at any edge and fold the quilt over about 12″ – 15″ depending on the size of your box and quilt, padding the fold with tissue or fabric. Fold again, adding padding to this second fold. Continue to fold the quilt this way. You should end up with a long flat ‘roll’. Then fold the ends in, padding the folds. The next time you refold the quilt, begin at a different edge (keep a record with the box, including the date, so that you can rotate through all 4 sides before starting to repeat). Wrap the quilt in fabric or acid-free tissue, box, and reward yourself for a job well done!
Don’t store quilts in plastic boxes or bags. Plastic off-gasses, and can trap moisture. Don’t use mothballs and don’t store in cedar chests/closets. Mothballs are a serious health hazard. The chemical compounds in mothballs and in fragrant woods are bad for your quilt. Quilts should not be stored in direct contact with any wood, unless the wood is sealed with polyurethane.*** Like your skin, wood contains acids and oils that can migrate to the fabric and cause deterioration over time.
Store away from light. This is another advantage of box storage. Light damage is such a critical issue that I’ve addressed it in a separate blog – http://sarah415.com/how-light-destroys-textiles/
Temperature and humidity can be difficult to control in a home environment. Look for the Goldilocks Zone: not too hot, not too cold, and most importantly, not too damp. Basements, attics and garages should be avoided for quilt storage because they tend to have extreme temperature and humidity variations. Basements and garages can flood. On balance, low humidity (40% is a good target) is more important than maintaining a precise room temperature because dry conditions discourage mold growth. Common sense goes a long way; if a storage space smells musty, there’s mold present. In a chilly closet, the temperature might be warmer closer to the ceiling, and vice versa.
Try to store your quilt where you can get to it easily, as it should be taken out every so often and refolded. Some experts say to refold every 3-6 months. Let’s face it – this sort of task is going to fall off most people’s to-do list. If you manage to refold once a year, you’re doing well. Perhaps you can make it a New Year’s Resolution, or tie it to a birthday, or turn it into an annual quilt folding party. The good news is that a properly stored quilt can last a very long time if simply left undisturbed.
*Latex and nitrile gloves will cause your hands to perspire. If you wear this type of glove, you’ll have to be careful to wash your hands immediately after you take them off. Some people are natural “rusters”. Yes, that’s a real term. The oils/acids in their skin react strongly with both organic and inorganic materials that they touch. This is appears to be a genetic trait, although diet may play a part.
**If you’ve never ripped fabric before, its fast and fun. Make about a 1 inch cut in the edge of the fabric, grasp on both sides of the cut, then tear apart firmly and quickly. Pull off the loose threads from the exposed edges and launder. The first wash will loosen a few more threads, but once these are removed (it might need trimming with scissors) there isn’t usually any more shedding. This technique is ideally suited to cotton sheeting. Not all woven fabrics tear so well and some won’t tear at all.
***Wood that is properly sealed with 100% polyurethane is safe. Polyurethane is inert at normal temperatures and is an excellent barrier. But, this only applies to polyurethane; not to varnish, shellac, furniture wax, or any other type of finish/sealant. If in doubt, assume that the wood in question is not sealed with polyurethane.
Contact Sarah by phone: 415-221-6126 by email: sarah415info(at)gmail.com