How Should We Look After Our Quilts?

If we want them to be admired 100 years from now?


January has been a busy month, but it did include a lovely visit to the ‘Beamish Open Air Museum‘ with the local quilt club. We had a special visit arranged to go along and see a collection of quilts that are not always on view to the public, so we couldn’t miss it.


Beamish Open Air Museum in Co. Durham

Beamish Open Air Museum in Co. Durham


Beamish is a social history museum based in County Durham, they hold a vast collection of objects, large and small, dating from around the turn of the 20th century. It includes a range of antique and vintage quilts that they’ve managed to source as exhibits, either because they were made in the area or used locally. Some were saved for posterity without knowing any information about them, because they would otherwise have been discarded. Their quilt collection now stands at around 350 quilts.


Beamish Quilts 2015

Part of the Beamish Collection


Kept laid on a bed one on top of the other, the quilts were in a darkened room with extra protection on the window to prevent the top quilts fading. The quilts were peeled back one after the other showing examples of work from crafters gone by. Quilts made either by local families, in which generations would pass down skills, knowledge and patterns to younger members, or work produced solely by the likes of miners wives or widows who would supplement the family income by producing quilts as a business.


Made by the Thompson family from the Hexham area 1890

Made by the Thompson family from the Hexham area 1890


During the viewing I came to realise that the way I was storing my quilts at home meant I could be inadvertently damaging them. Some of the exhibits had fold marks where the edges had been in the light and it was discussed how storing them should never be in plastic bags, as quilts need to breathe and moisture could be trapped inside with the quilt causing mildew. Alarm bells rang when I thought mine were at home, all folded and in plastic covers!


So what should we be doing if we want our quilts to stand the test of time?

Not all quilts are made to be heirlooms, as a lot of what we make are to be enjoyed by family and friends until they are worn out so we can make them another. However there are some that we spend years making, maybe for a special occasions such as a wedding present or maybe as a piece of art to hang on a wall. For quilts such as these, how should we clean and store them properly?


A Wedding Quilt Made Pre-1906

A Wedding Quilt Made Pre-1906


Buy Quality Fabric

Firstly if you are going to put endless hours into a project don’t buy cheap fabric to try and save pennies if you possibly can. It really is a false economy as I found out for myself, with some fabric I bought only six months ago. When I came to use it, it had already faded where it had been folded, so that’s never going to last. Also the dye in some cheaper material can run into others if it gets wet.


Damaged Fabric Made by Folding

Damaged Fabric Made by Folding


Storing Your Quilt

Instead of folding, rolling quilts is a better way of storing them, especially around a cardboard tube. Add a layer of acid free tissue paper around the tube first and don’t roll the quilt tightly, as you need to avoid any creases. The tube should be longer than the quilt. If you have to fold your quilt for storage purposes, stuff acid free paper into the folds to help to prevent any fold lines and turn them periodically, every year. It’s a good idea to air them on a bed for a few days before storing them away again. Take the opportunity to change the paper at the same time.

Hanging a quilt, or lying it flat is always the best storage option, but never in direct sunlight. Unfortunately not everyone has the space. Wall hangings can be kept clean using a small handheld hoover for removing any dust.

If a quilt is small enough store it in a cotton cover such as a pillow case to protect it from dust and insects. For larger quilts, wrap them in a large cotton sheet. If storing in cardboard boxes, make sure these are lined with the acid free tissue paper too. It’s important that the quilt is not damp in any way before covering or folding away as mildew will set in. As I am sure you will know, once that musty smell gets onto fabric, it’s near impossible to get rid of without washing at high temperatures and this could damage a quilt. You can add a small silica gel sachet,  (which you often find in shoe boxes), as another way of keeping moisture off your quilts, as long as it does not touch the quilt directly.


Washing and Drying Quilts

For modern quilts, wash them only when absolutely necessary. Wash them one at a time, on a low temperature and on a delicate cycle. Never wring it out with your hands and don’t line dry. Mainly because you are hanging it in direct sunlight which will fade the quilt and because the weight of a wet quilt can be heavy, causing stress to the stitching and seams. Dry flat on top of a bed, laying it on top of towels that can be changed. Air dry this way for a couple of days until completely dry, if it is to be stored away.

For older heirloom quilts that have been passed down or for antique quilts, I don’t advise you try washing them yourself and don’t take them to the dry cleaners, as the chemicals used can cause harm to older fabrics. It is best to approach a professional quilt restoration service.


Beamish Quilts 2015

Beamish Vintage Quilt



Other Environmental Factors to Consider

It goes without saying that quilts should be in a smoke-free environment, but the room temperature has to be consistent too (at 50- 60 degrees F). Don’t store them in damp cellars or cold attics, where the temperature can fluctuate.

Not everyone realises that the oil on people’s fingers can damage a quilt, which is why we should wash our hands before touching them and try to handle them as little as possible once made if we want them to last. Museum curators and stewards at quilting exhibitions always wear white gloves so they can show people the the quilts for this very reason.


Crazy Patchwork Quilt from Consett Co. Durham 1926



I hope you have found this helpful and remember when putting a quilt away, if it doesn’t have a label, always add a note with the quilt, or write details on the box about who made it, or wear it came from so that after 100 years when your quilt is an admired antique, they will know more about it.


This Quilter was Kind Enough To Give us a Date

This Quilter was Kind Enough To Give us a Date


I will be looking more into quilt labels at a later date, so don’t miss a post and add your name to the subscribers list at the side.



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