How To Wash Antique Quilts

Let me preface this post by saying that I do indeed know what I am talking about – I have worked with antique quilts for almost 10 years. There are plenty of other experts out there, and each person will have their favorite method or technique to share. So if you read something different somewhere else, please feel free to get back to me (or them) with questions. We certainly don’t want to damage any of these priceless treasures.

Number one, I will always say, if it’s an old quilt and it doesn’t have to be washed, then don’t wash it. If it smells funny, try a vacuum attachment with pantyhose over the nozzle.

I do tell people with ANY quilts, that they should not be stored in plastic airtight containers because any moisture within will cause damage.

If you store them in a cedar chest, ensure it has been sealed (the wood). Otherwise the stain can leach out and become part of your quilt. If not sealed, you can use a white cotton sheet as a protector on the inside of the chest as lining.

Regardless of where they are stored, the quilts should be aired out about every six months. When they are put away, they should be folded differently than they were before. That will help ensure the quilt doesn’t have creases from being folded the same time after time.

And they should be stored somewhere with climate control. My family heirlooms were in an unfinished cedar chest in a garage in Phoenix. That was not good for my quilts. The unintentional positive consequence is that I have solid, first-hand experience about trying to restore these quilts.

My favorite method of storage that I’ve heard from a client was to stack the quilts, laid out, over a spare bed in a room with minimal light. This will protect the quilts, they can be rotated and they can air out while also not being folded.

OK, down to brass tacks. The most important thing I can tell you is that if you know anyone that knows about antique fabrics, HAVE THEM CONSULT YOU ON THE FABRIC AGE FIRST! I just restored a quilt that was made in 1965 but had much older fabrics contained within, some that looked as old as 1920’s.

The reason that bold statement is so important is that some fabrics are fugitive. Yes, think Harrison Ford on the run. Because of the mordants (the stuff that makes the dye stick to the fabric) or the nature of the dye (walnuts), some fabrics will disintegrate upon contact with water, others might stain any other piece they touch (usually reds). This is especially true of anything older than 1930’s.

How to know? Well, if you feel confident that you can handle this process, you can do a spot test. Get the head of a q-tip wet and rub it on an inconspicuous part of the fabric. If the color comes off on the q-tip or bleeds at all, STOP and try to dry the spot. If the fabric starts to shred AT ALL, STOP. If nothing happens and it dries just fine, continue. So if you are sure you have a quilt with fabric 1930’s and younger, here’s what you do:

  1. Take off any jewelry that could catch on fibers.
  2. Fill your bath tub partway with warm water.
  3. Let the water sit for 15-20 minutes for the chlorine to dissipate. This will make the water be less harsh, so to speak, on your possibly fragile fibers.
  4. Place the quilt in the water. Gently squeeze the quilt with your hands so the water soaks in through the layers.
  5. Swirl the quilt around a bit in the water. You will likely see some discoloration in the water. If the water turns dark yellow or brown, you will want to repeat the process until the water stays relatively clear.
  6. If you would like to use soap, you can either use the first or second bathing of the quilt to wash it. I can only recommend what I have used: Orvus, Antique Quilt Wash/Soap or Retro Clean. It you use these to spot clean, just know that you may end up with water stain circles around that spot. So it’s better to wash the entire thing than just a few spots (in my opinion).
  7. When you are ready to drain the water, pull the tub plug and push the quilt to the side of the tub. Don’t wring it or squeeze, just push it gently. Get the quilt up to the edge of the tub.
  8. If you need to rinse out the soap, or rinse out the quilt again (due to how dirty the water was), repeat steps 2-5 and then 7. Once you are satisfied with the cleanliness of the wash water, move forward to step 9.
  9. After draining the tub, push the quilt against the tub walls to remove as much water as possible.
  10. Lay towels on a floor (whatever room you can find space, preferably without a lot of direct sunlight). Gently take the quilt to this area and spread it out manually, over the towels. Turn a fan or ceiling fan on over the quilt to let it dry.
  11. IF YOU HAVE A QUILT TOP and not a full quilt that you are needing to wash, you must be EVEN more careful with the quilt top. Those fibers and seams are much more prone to tear than after the quilt has been finished.

Oftentimes, a washing like this will not remove hard set stains. It will remove general discoloration from aging, and can lighten dark spots, if it doesn’t remove them. It will give your quilt a fresh smell and brightness.

Again, if you are unsure, please ask me or someone who knows about antique quilts or textiles. I promise you’d rather do that than end up with a damaged quilt.

What’s my quilt worth?

That is a loaded question, to be sure. As an appraiser, I hear this question quite often, even outside of doing appraisals. If you are a quilter, you may already know this. Maybe you are not, but someone just gave you a quilt; then PLEASE read below to get perspective on why not to let your dog chew a hole in it, or why it’s so important to NOT let your husband wipe his greasy hands on it after changing the oil in the car (I cringe every time I see an old quilt in the garage).

While there are many groups of very charitable and helpful people out there, I believe that quilters are truly one of the most generous groups of people I know. Most quilters are constantly making quilts, because that’s what they LOVE to do. Yes, some of us sell what we make or make them on commission, but I can tell you I have made and given away at least 5x as many quilts as I have kept for my family (honestly I don’t know what the number is – it could be higher, I never kept track. Because THAT’s not what mattered, I just enjoyed the process). To friends, family, for Christmas, new baby or just because. And everybody I know that quilts does THE SAME THING!

I will say this: most people I see, especially with quilts handed down from generations past, are emotionally attached to their quilts. I like some quilts more than others I have made, that’s just how it is. In the appraisal world, we call this “sentimental value”. And that type of value has zero effect on the price tag.

So, with that out of the way, to help answer the question of value, I’ll break our quilts up into two groups: old/antique and new.


Technically an antique is 100 years old or more. So I say ‘old’ here because in the quilting world, quilts from the 1930’s or even up to the 1950’s are often appraised for their insurance value. That is how old quilts are appraised: insurance, or fair market value = how much would they get from the insurance company if they had the quilt appraised and then lost it to fire or whatever.

While I can’t tell you the value of any specific quilt at this time, I can tell you this:

  1. Condition is (almost) EVERYTHING. Just like location in real estate, if the condition of a quilt is poor, it is probably worthless (dollarwise).
  2. The more rare the pattern, the higher the value. In the early 1900’s, these quilt patterns were more popular, which is why you see more of them around, hence the lower value than other, less common patterns: grandmothers flower garden, Dresden plate, trip around the world, four patch and double wedding ring.
  3. The more intricate the fabric/workmanship, the higher the value. In the 1800’s red/green applique was popular. As an example, there are tulip bunch patterns, and as time progresses, the curves in the stems decrease, the stems thicken, the flowers look blockier and the greens change (that’s another topic). Earlier = better workmanship = higher value. Another example is the crazy quilt phase from c1890-1920. Earlier quilts were made from velvet, silks and fine fabrics with LOTS of embroidery and many token pieces. Later, particularly after 1900, this type of quilt was made more utilitarian, with canvas, denim, corduroy and less embellishments. Earlier = better (as long as the silks aren’t so shattered that the condition is bad).

Yes, historic information is great and unusual things like signatures from a church group on quilts CAN lend to value. But these bullets above are most important.


Basically this includes anything current day. And while the values could vary greatly depending on where the fabric was bought, quality of work, tied or quilted, etc., I can give you some hints.

Most new quilts appraise at a much higher value than old quilts. Seems backwards, but for new quilts, the appraisal is done for replacement value. Yes, you would need to replace an antique quilt, but to do so, you would buy one in like and kind, which is why those quilts are appraised for fair market value. New quilts would have to be remade, from scratch.

I don’t think non-quilters have the slightest idea what goes into making a quilt. I say that not with a mean heart, but there are lots of things out there I know diddly-squat about, so when a non-quilter wants me to make them a king size quilt for $100, I have to assume they’re ignorant about my world. It’s not bad, it just is what it is.

Potential costs that contribute to a quilt coming to life (we’re going to assume it’s a large lap size, 60″ x 60″, for illustrative purposes here):

  1. Pattern: depending on how difficult, there may be no pattern required, or pattern and paper pieces for very intricate work, leading up into the $100’s. We’ll say relatively simple: $10.
  2. Fabric: the quilt maker could choose from a variety of quality and types (traditional cotton or batik), and I’ve discovered that where you live makes a significant difference on cost by the yard as well. Looking at your quilt, if the fabric is tightly woven and soft, it’s likely a bit costlier. Let’s assume $10 per yard. For this size quilt with a simple pattern, I estimate 6 yards for the quilt top, 1 yard for border, 4 yards for the backing/binding = $110 (see my point on the king size quilt for $100?).
  3. Thread: don’t need a lot, but at least one spool = $10. I’d actually say $12 but some folks will use a cheaper variety (lintier, maybe not as strong) for $6 or $8.
  4. Batting: this is the stuffing/center/whatever you want to call it. You can buy 100% poly high loft for maybe $5-6/yard, or silk or wool or bamboo for more like $16-18/yard. Cotton and blends are somewhere inbetween. We’ll take poly/cotton blend here, 2 yards at $9 per yard = $18.
  5. Quilting: (this is what I LOVE to do! Although, I do really love to create quilt tops as well…) For an all over design, I charge $0.02 per square inch, so in this case it would be 3600*0.02 = $72. For a fancier or custom design, the price goes up.
  6. Labor: this one gets everyone, and I’ll tell you why. Despite the fact that many people do not know how to sew, they seem to think that people who do know how to sew should be paid a menial wage for it. It’s quite frustrating, really. Anyway, most quilt makers will charge $25/hour and up for their time. Some who specifically dedicate their skills to making quilts for low income families charge less. Some who do fine, intricate hand work charge more. So if you try to conceive how long it took the quilt maker to: choose the fabric, wash the fabric, iron the fabric, cut the fabric to pattern specifications, sew pieces together, iron, sew, iron, trim, sew, iron, trim (seriously, this goes on), piece the backing together, then after quilting, trim the quilt and square it up, cut and prepare the binding, attach the binding to both sides (some do the final side of the binding by hand), THAT’S A WHOLE LOTTA LABOR! For this size quilt, I never charge less than 6 hours JUST for the top assembly (and that’s for the simplest of t shirt quilts). So let’s just round up to 8 hours = $200.

That brings the cost for this hypothetical quilt to $420, not including any other fees or taxes from the quilter or anyone else involved, with some very simplistic assumptions made.

Let that sink in for a moment.

So now imagine you have a queen or a king sized quilt!

Wait, tho… you may be saying. Why can I get a big quilt at Walmart for $100 then? Number of factors: cheaper fabric, cheaper labor, smaller seam allowances (the part tucked inside that you don’t see – most quilters use 1/4″ so that the seams don’t rip open after just a few washes), and finally, mass production.

And for how much time it takes to repair quilts (much of it is hand work), you’re better off investing in a good one in the first place.

So if you have recently (or even not recently) received a quilt as a gift from someone, for a special occasion or just because, PLEASE  P L E A S E thank them for it, because it took them a lot of time and money and they made it because they just loved to make it. And then they thought you were special enough to give it to.

Washing Antique Quilts

Ordinarily I would not recommend doing this, but of course it is up to the individual and the circumstances. I would like to showcase an example and let the reader make their own decisions as to whether or not they should perform something similar to their quilt.

I happened to have a quilt made by my great grandmother that I had appraised last year. It turned out to be valued low due to condition issues, mostly water and age stains, as well as a funny smell and a dingy fade to the overall quilt. So I figured if I washed it and it didn’t turn out so well, I wouldn’t have lost much. I mean, it is an invaluable heirloom to me, but I do have 6 or 7 other quilts of hers to cherish.

So I decided to test this product I’d recently heard of called Retro Clean.

The operation went in this order, specifically:

1. Filled the bathtub with lukewarm water and let it sit for 20 minutes (to let the chlorine evaporate).

2. Place the quilt gently into the tub, pushing it down into the water to ensure the water penetrates the fibers. At this point my bathwater turned very yellow, which indicated to me that I was already making progress.

 So I removed the tub drain to let the water out. I lightly folded up the quilt so I could push a bit more water out of it, once it had drained from the tub and removed the quilt to the edge of the tub.

3. Refill the bathtub with lukewarm water and let it sit for another 20 minutes. Resubmerge the quilt and gently move it around in the water. Again my water turned yellow, so again I drained it, and repeated the process again.

4. Moving along… Fill the tub, add the sample size pouch of Retro Clean and let it sit for 20 minutes. Submerge quilt. The directions state that the quilt needs to be completely submerged in the water for 2 days, preferrably in the sunlight. Well, I couldn’t get every bit of the quilt to stay under water without a towel laid over it, so that’s what I did. I let it sit for 2 days.

5. Drain the water. Now comes the toughest part. Removing the quilt from the water without damaging any of the fragile fibers is the most concerning step of the process. So I used the towel to encase the quilt and brought it outside. I used a white sheet to cover the trampoline out back and put the quilt over it. It was dry the next morning.

As you can see from the pictures, I had fantastic results in this case. My quilt was in very good condition (only one small tear), being assembled in the 1920’s.

Quilts from earlier periods may have material or thread that have migrating dyes or cuastic mordants, causing color bleed and material disintegration. To prevent these issues from occurring, you MUST ensure your quilt will react positively to a water bath PRIOR to placing it in one. The best test you can perform is to test a very small section of the fabric in each color with the water in advance. Or consult a conservation specialist.

So consider this a product review. If you DO make the decision to bathe your quilt, I would recommend using ORVUS soap or RETRO CLEAN. But before you take action, be absolutely sure you want to take this step.

Best of luck my friends!

An Interesting Project

I had the opportunity to listen to a very interesting speaker at a guild meeting, her name was Helen Ogden Widener. She discussed the book she had recently written and the research she was able to conduct, as well as the quilt she constructed from reproduction materials to recreate the subject of her book.


Helen wrote about the quilt created by Elizabeth Patton Crockett. Yes, Crockett like David Crockett. She was his wife, and she made a beautiful postage stamp quilt sometime between 1850 and 1860. The book is titled Scraps of Life and is full of pictures of the original quilt kept at the Alamo, as well as interesting facts of the time and a pattern to recreate the original quilt at the back of the book. (For more information on this book, click here.)

When I recently went to my retreat, I brought with me a grocery store bag full of small pieces of material, each measuring about 12×5″. The pieces are comprised of cotton, wool, linen, madras, and a variety of combinations thereof. They were given to me by a friend who’s occupation is buyer for menswear, particularly dress shirts and slacks. They no longer needed their samples, so rather than throwing the material out, they gave them to me. I hadn’t figured out what to do with the pieces yet. Until tonight.

I finally made the connection – I am going to use these rectangles as the basis for my recreation of the Elizabeth Patton Crockett quilt. I will need to use some materials of greater quantity for the outer portions of each block, but I believe I can make a very pretty and functional quilt, with the look and feel of an older quilt by using these pieces from my friends.

So my message to you is that sometimes inspiration takes time to evolve. I have had many an experience that I wanted the light bulb to come on but it didn’t. Once I stopped watching the proverbial pot, my idea was revealed.

My friends, I hope you have the patience to let your inspiration find you. Sometimes it means taking a break from what you love to let your brain cool off and refresh. Happy quilting!!

Storing your Quilt

You have probably visited homes of friends, relatives, or peeked in the door when your kid was trying to sell cookies to the neighborhood. I would be on at least one occasion you can remember seeing a quilt somewhere in someone’s home. It may have been hung on the wall as artwork, folded next to the couch or covering a bed.

How a quilt is best stored is entirely dependent on how long you want it to last. On that note, I will say that most of my quilts are half-folded in a heap by the couch. They get constant use in my house, and I love to show them off to anyone who enters. I am happy to report that the first quilt I made (about 12 years ago) is still in great condition, happily residing within that heap.

my quilt heap

VALUABLE? If you own quilts of value (especially those family heirlooms), you may want to take more care with them. I would highly recommend you have any quilts appraised that you believe to be of value. If you feel the value of the quilt warrants, you may want to contact a textile preservation or conservation specialist at the nearest museum. They can help with specific instructions that may pertain to your quilt, if there are special needs. Some material and threads used prior to 1930 are not colorfast, and you don’t want the color bleeding, or acid from previous incorrect storage to continue to eat away at your material.

SPECIAL, BUT ONLY TO YOU. If you feel they are precious to you, but not in need of special attention, cover the quilt in a cotton sheet so when you fold it, there is an additional layer of protection within. The quilts then may be stored in a quilt cabinet (many for sale on the internet and quilting catalogs) or a sealed chest or drawer. Unfinished wood can leach acid and damage your quilts color and fabric integrity, and plastic bags or tubs can keep moisture trapped and result in mildew. Once monthly (no less frequent than every three months) open the quilts and give them a rustle to air out. If you have a place, lay them out away from pets and sunlight to air for the day. When you refold the quilt to store it away, fold it in different places than before to prevent creating permanent creases in the quilt.

SMELLY QUILT! Some older quilts smell funny – you know the smell I’m talking about. Lay your quilt out flat on a clean surface. Find a screen (you can use a clean one that is usually over the window, or go buy a piece at the local hardware store). Using the hose attachment on the vacuum at it’s lowest setting (if it has settings), suck through the screen, moving the screen around the quilt until you have treated the entire quilt. If there is applique or embellishment, you may want to vacuum from the backside. The point of the screen is to protect you from sucking anything into the vacuum and damaging the quilt. I highly recommend NOT washing your quilt without consulting a professional first. Not even spot washing – it’s just a really bad idea (I’d be happy to explain if you ask me to).

I JUST WANT TO LOVE IT AND USE IT! Ok so use it. But when you aren’t using it, put it somewhere out of the sun. Light deteriorates fabric, so you may not want to use one as a curtain unless you don’t mind some fade. Again, fold it differently every so often and wash it per maker’s instructions as needed. For those in cold climates, storing one in your car may work for you, trunk is best for the same reason stated above.

Love and enjoy your quilts as you see fit. They will love you back as long as you take good care of them!

Handling your Quilt

Hi there! Glad you’ve joined me to learn a little bit about quilting, as well as my other interests as I feel like posting them. I thought I would provide some basic information about handling quilts in this introductory post.

1. Whether you are in the process of finishing a quilt, or you have an antique in your possession, be sure to wash your hands frequently. When handling antique or aging quilts, you may want to wear cotton gloves – even nail polish can transfer onto quilt material from the slightest brush, and terribly hard to remove (if it can be removed at all). Remove any sharp jewelry and pull back long hair before handling textiles.

2. Do not smoke, eat or drink around textiles. Seriously, it’s just too easy to get something on the quilt or material that you may regret.

3. For sketching or marking quilts, there are a variety of methods. NEVER use pen. If you choose to use a water or air-soluble marker, test the material first in an obscure spot to ensure the color dissipates. You can use pencil if you mark the backside of the material or an area that will be covered by applique or something else. Chalk is another great tool to mark where you will be quilting or stitching.

4. Much like a painting, a quilt can be disfigured if it is not properly stored. If it is hung improperly it can retain hook marks (like a sweatshirt gets on the hood if you hang it over a hook that way). Do not place any objects such as tools, light fixtures, books and other personal items on quilts or quilt storage units. A spill or smudge or tear means costly repair.

5. Keep quilts on clean, dry surfaces. Do not place textiles directly on, in or next to cardboard, unsealed wood or non-rag (acidic) paper.

6. Check with the quiltmaker and quilter on laundering requirements. Any quilt that can be machine washed needs to be washed in cold water only. Any antique quilt or quilt with wool batting should not be machine dried.

If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear them!

To learn more about storing or laundering please visit