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How to Clean and Care for Handmade Quilts 
by Christie Halmick May 19, 2005

With proper cleaning and care, handmade quilts can last a lifetime and beyond. If you've recently purchased a newly-made quilt or have possession of a family heirloom following, a few cleaning-and-care tips can extend the life of your quilt.

Whether you have possession of your grandmother's heirloom, handmade quilt, or have recently purchased a newly crafted model, you'll want to treat these treasures with care in order to preserve their quality and extend their life.

Basic Quilt Repair

Before you clean or display your handmade quilt, you'll need to repair any rips or tears in the fabric.

To do that, begin by spreading the quilt out on your bed or on top of a sheet on the floor. Then, examine it carefully for any worn patches, tears, or stains.

If you are handy with a needle and thread, you can repair the quilt yourself by using small stitches and thread and fabric that match the design and colors of your quilt.

If you want to preserve the authenticity of your heirloom or vintage quilt, you can search for sources of vintage or period-specific fabrics to patch your quilt. In addition, reproduction vintage fabrics can be used replace damaged areas.

If you are uncomfortable repairing the quilt yourself, find a reputable quilt repair service or someone who specializes in sewing and cleaning quilts. For a fee, they can restore your quilt. They will also be able to tell you if your quilt is damaged beyond repair.

How Often Should You Wash a Quilt?

Less washing is better for all handmade quilts. In general, a newly crafted quilt that you use on your bed everyday should only be washed once a year. An antique or heirloom piece should only be washed at most every five years. If your newly crafted quilt is dirty, it should be cleaned more often. In between washing you should air out your quilts, to freshen them.

Cleaning Your Antique Quilt

Antique quilts need special care. Many quilters advise against dry cleaning or machine washing an heirloom piece. If your quilt is very old or worn it simply may not withstand the motion of the machine or the dry cleaning chemicals. Instead, consider airing your quilt outside on a sunny day. Or you might lightly vacuum with a nylon stocking over the end of vacuum hose in order to remove any dust on its surface. If your quilt has beading, embroidery, or appliqué, you shouldn't vacuum.

You can also hand wash the quilt following these steps. Start by checking for colorfastness. If you are determined to clean the quilt, but don't feel comfortable doing so yourself, or if your quilt is stained, you can search for a qualified quilt conservation or restoration service. Make sure this service has experience working with antique fabrics. Find out exactly how they will clean the quilt. Any cleaning done to antique fabrics could damage or destroy your quilt. Depending on the monetary and personal value of the quilt, you may decide to leave it in the state that it is in rather than risk destroying a priceless piece of work.

Cleaning Your Newly Crafted Quilt

Your newly handmade quilt can be cleaned differently than older quilts. Many newly created quilts can be gently hand- or machine-washed or even dry cleaned. If you purchased your handmade quilt from a quilt store or department store, it should come with care instructions. Read these instructions before cleaning. If you purchased your quilt at a craft fair or yard sale it may not come with care instructions. In that case, use your best judgment and consider the colorfastness test and washing instructions below.

Check Fabric for Colorfastness

Before you wash any handmade quilt, you need to check the fabric for colorfastness. That involves testing the quilt fabric to insure the fabric dyes will not run when washed. If the fabric is not colorfast, it can fade and discolor. To test for colorfastness, rub a white piece of cloth dampened with cold water over each color in your quilt. If any piece bleeds onto the white cloth, don't wash your quilt, at all. If none of the different-colored patches run when tested with cold water, try again with lukewarm water. The same rule applies. If any patch bleeds, you'll know to wash the quilt only in cold water. In general, it is best to wash your handmade quilt either in cold or lukewarm water.

Hand Washing Your Quilt

If your handmade quilt is colorfast, you can wash it gently by hand in a mild detergent. Be sure to pick a detergent that is free of dyes and fragrances. Use cold or lukewarm water, whatever your colorfast test indicated. Fill a large tub, your bathtub, or your washing machine with water with the right temperature. Adding one-half of a cup of vinegar to the water can brighten the colors. Gently move your quilt around in the water making sure the entire quilt gets wet. Drain the water from the tub and fill it again with fresh water. Gently swish your quilt around and continue draining and filling with fresh water until the quilt and water are soap free. You'll know the quilt is adequately rinsed when the water is clear (rather than cloudy) and free of soap bubbles.

Machine Washing Your Quilt

Use caution if you decide to run your quilt through a washing machine cycle. The agitation of the machine can cause older, more fragile quilts to fall apart. Even new quilts with light stitching can unravel. Use a mild soap that is dye and fragrance free. Fill the washing machine with cold or lukewarm water, as determined by a colorfast test. Add vinegar if desired. Pick the shortest, gentlest cycle your machine has.

Drying Quilts

After you've washed your quilt, whether by hand or machine, it needs to dry properly. Handmade quilts should be dried laying flat. Pulling directly on a wet quilt can break seams and cause damage. If you've hand washed the quilt, use your washing machine to spin the quilt dry. If you've hand washed the quilt in a separate tub, use a sheet as a sling to gently lift the wet quilt from the tub of water. Allow excess water to drain. Place the quilt on towels, spread it out, cover it with more towels, and gently press water out of the quilt. Using the sheet sling, move the quilt to a new bed of towels, cover it with a clean dry sheet, and allow it to dry. Or if possible, place it on a large drying rack in an area with good ventilation. You can place a fan in the room with it, as well. You can also dry your quilt outside on the ground, but first, put down some towels or a sheet to keep the quilt from touching the grass. Cover the quilt with a light sheet that will prevent sun damage, but allow the quilt to breathe.

Quilt Storage

After your quilt is clean, you need to consider storage options. If your quilt is not used daily, it should be stored in a cotton or muslin bag or an acid-free box made specifically for quilt storage. The best storage locations are dry, dark areas of your home. Attics and basements are not a good idea because heat and humidity can ruin your quilt. It is best to lay your quilt flat for storage. If you must fold your quilt, use acid-free tissue paper as padding. This can help prevent creases in the fabric. Tubes are available for quilt storage as well. You simply wrap the tube in acid-free tissue paper, then wrap your quilt around the tube, and store it in a cotton or muslin bag. If you are storing your quilt in a wooden dresser or other furniture, use caution and separate the quilt from the wood. Oils in wood can interact with the fabric, leaving permanent spots. Occasionally you should bring your quilts out of storage and air them out. This will be a good time to check for mildew and bug invasions, and give you a chance to refold the quilt so that creases don't form in the fabric. If you have an extra bed available in your home, you can also place your quilts on the bed for storage. Simply lay them flat and cover with a sheet.

Handmade quilts are items to treasure. Some are used as everyday blankets on beds and washed often. Others are only for show and are displayed as artwork on racks or bed tops. Whatever function your handmade quilt serves, caring for and cleaning it properly will allow you to enjoy it for years to come.


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