Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quilt month, the most FAQ

It's quilt month over at Mr Monkeysuit , and I agreed to participate. I figured my most useful quilt talk right now is about vintage quilts. So here we go!
You've finally managed to find an old quilt at the thrift or at the flea, and you were so excited you drug it home without even giving it the sniff test. You get it home and discover it's dirty or it just plain stinks and panic starts to set in right? I mean how on earth do you clean it?

At least that seems to be the burning question on most of your minds based on my inbox. :-) Keep in mind that I am no expert, but I will tell you how I do it, having had a go around (or 50*) with old quilts.

The MOST important issue in my mind is: what is the quilt worth to you? Have you invested a lot of money? Was it made by hand with love by Grandma Betty? Do you think it might be historically important? Are you going to cry hysterically if it falls to pieces? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, I wouldn't touch the thing with a ten foot pole.
On the other hand, if it was cheap, or you cannot live with it if you don't do something to it, well then, have a go at it.

My personal standards tend to be to just live with most imperfections in old quilts. If they smell "old", but not like cat pee or something disgusting, I just air them out on the line until the smell goes away. It takes awhile. If it smells like mothballs it might take days. In that case you should be sure to air it with the backside up, so you don't fade the printed fabrics on the front.

If there are small spots that are NOT mildew, I also just live with those.
Ok, fine. But you have a real problem, a serious stink, a huge amount of dirt or worse, mildew**. What now?

We are very accustomed to our washing machines, so you might not like this answer, but I recommend washing it by hand. Most folks recommend the bathtub. That kills my back, so I use one of those plastic kiddie pools on top of a patio table so it is at waist height.

Do not be fooled into thinking you shouldn't use detergent. Detergent is made to keep dirt from redepositing on fabric, so you need something. Our everyday detergent is one of those free & clear deals, so I use that. I wouldn't use anything heavily scented or anything that is dyed blue or purple (you wouldn't want more stains). Don't put too much in there though, or you will be rinsing for days.

You are going to need to very gently agitate the quilt by hand. Be careful! When old fabric is wet it is very fragile and likely to tear. It can soak awhile if it needs it.
Time to rinse. I usually squish the quilt to one side and dump the soapy water into the yard while holding the quilt. This very well might require a second person. One to hold the quilt gently and one to tip the pool to drain it.

Add fresh water and agitate again to remove the soap. Drain the water out again. Repeat as many times as necessary to get it rinsed very well.

Time to pick it up to let it dry.

I squeeze it again against the side of the pool to get as much water as I can out without ripping it to pieces. Then slide a sheet underneath it and lift it out to lay it on the grass.

It is going to be VERY heavy, try and distribute the weight evenly to avoid tearing. Let it dry on the grass face down on the sheet, backside up to the sun.

I know, you are worried about birds. I have never had a bird poop on a quilt yet, and we have a lot of birds in the trees. Just try to find an open area of the yard if you can.

But what about big stains like the one in the picture here? Washing didn't do it. Because this is a baby quilt, I put it in my HUGE pot on the stove to keep the water warm and I gently warmed it in a pretty heavy solution of borax. (1 cup borax to one big pot of water.) After a few hours the stain was significantly lightened.

If I had been more aggressive I could have made it all the way white again, but then I risk causing more damage than it is worth it to me just to have a perfectly white back.

Borax is a good place to start for stains. I know I have raved about oxiclean before, and it does have it's place, but borax is a lot gentler and a lot less likely to cause fade, dye bleed or eat holes. If you need to, you can use borax in the kiddie swimming pool too. Try to get some warm water off the stove instead of just cold water from the hose. (Warm, not hot.)

Ok, Sarah. That is all fine and dandy, but I am WAY, WAY too lazy for all that. Then what?

You can put it in the washing machine. I have done it. But there is going to be some damage from that. It could be a small amount that you could live with, it could be a lot. It's really hard to tell until you just do it. Whatever it is, it is VERY unlikely that it will come out exactly as it went in.

I would never put one in the dryer. If it's winter it will have to wait until it gets warm outside to get clean.

Then enjoy! Keep in mind if you are using them for daily use that the more times you have to wash it, the shorter it's life will be.

* The collection is likely over 50 at this point. I picked up this baby quilt at the flea last weekend, and it certainly put me over the 50 mark. I really want to get photographs of them all, and I hope to do that this fall. Close ups of each block are on Flickr.

** Mildew is a whole 'nother beast. If you have that problem, I might be able to help, but you are better off emailing me with pictures.


  1. that baby quilt is amazing - so sweet!

    you're so nice to write out all your wisdom for us...thank you!

  2. Thanks so much for the information ... I'm sure I'll be able to put it to use soon.

  3. Yeah, thank you. I will bookmark this.

  4. I have been making my own laundry soap and love it. It contains Borax. I bet it would work good on your quilts. Check out my recipe here:


  5. Oooh, I love that quilt! So sweet!
    Thank you so much for giving us tips on the care of vintage quilts.

  6. O.K. so that was totally, uberly, cool! I just received in the mail a beautiful old quilt top, that I won on eBay. So unfortunately I wasn't able to do a sniff test. ;o} The poor thing WREAKED. And that is an understatement. Mostly smoke but old must thrown in. I went to your blog 1st thing to get your email to see if you would give me any recommendations for cleaning it. And, My heck! Wah Lah! You'd just posted a post! Now how cool is that!? Thanks Much! ooxx~jod

  7. Vicki7:22 AM

    That baby quilt may be my favorite of your collection. Nice find!!! Vicki at

  8. Thanks for your post. My Mum used to recommend Borax for everything and as I'd forgotten about it you jolted my memory.
    I've washed a few things in the bath now and you are right it really hurts your back, much easier to use a tub in the garden.

  9. Such a great post!!! Love the baby quilt! I would love to have 50+, you have gotten so many great ones this year!! Luck girl!

  10. Good to know. My daughter has hand washed one of my old ones. I think this is important for people to know how to do. Thanks for sharing with everyone. This is the exact advice a quilt curator give to our group a couple years ago.

  11. I love that baby quilt. Thanks for sharing how that info...I have a quilt I just found that sat in the rafters of my attic for a while and is a bit funky. I'll be following this post word for word when I head out to take care of it!

  12. Thanks for the info about washing quilts, I never knew. I just know to treat with TLC.

  13. tammyCA4:56 PM

    I just had to share this 'cuz I'm so excited about I stopped at the Goodwill to drop off some stuff & look around. Nothing. I was heading over to the kid's clothes section when I saw a quilt bunched up on a couch. I looked around to see who might have just set it down for a minute but no one was nearby so I snatched it up. Now I could see it was a fabulous quilt, and looked for the price that would say as such, like $100. or so...I was shocked to see the tag said $4.99! I honestly can't tell if it is a reproduction or authentic vintage - either way it is wonderful. It's feedsack fabrics, postage stamp style and I can see it is handstitched. I am a big fabric buyer & the feedsacks appear to be different than what I see at the quilt stores. It's not very worn at all. I swear I was so afraid someone was gonna jump out and say, 'oh that's mine or the real price is $$$$'. I'm still shocked...I often go to the thrift stores and have never seen anything remotely like a quilt - only a very few times have I even found faded, stained tableclothes - it is just very rare. I just thanked God I happened into the store at this time (hadn't been for several weeks)and, it was right there waiting for me...I love it - my first quilt!

  14. I can't wait to see close ups of these quilts!

  15. Wow - thanks for all of that great information. I haven't tried Borax yet. I usually use Biz, and it works pretty well. And the one time that I used OxyClean, it put holes in a vintage tablecloth. Steer clear!

    I love that quilt, too. I would have jumped all over that one if I saw it for sale somewhere!


Hi there. What say you?