How to care for quilts at home
by Sarah-Jane Rennie, Museums and Galleries Foundation of
Quilts can tell a great deal about our history and personal background.
The following are some general tips which will help you to preserve your quilts to pass on
to the next generation.
Documentation and examination
A quilt holds many memories about both the people who created it and those
who have used it over time. Gathering information about its history will greatly enhance
its value to you and enable you to communicate this to others. The sort of information to
Who made the quilt? Rather than just a name, what do you know about the
maker, why was the quilt being made, who was it being made for?
Do you have any photos or letters from the person who made the quilt or
the person it was being made for? Do you have any photos of the quilt being made or any of
the needles, fabric or machine used to make it?
What has happened to the quilt since it was made? Has it passed through
a lot of hands? Was it used by children, a mother, a whole family. Are there funny/tragic
stories associated with the quilt? Do you have photos of people who have been associated
with the quilt, furniture it was used on or other bed linen used with it?
If you made the quilt, write a note about it and keep it with the quilt,
talk about who you are, why you made the quilt and who you are making it for.
A close examination of the quilt will familiarise you with it and alert
you to any weak or damaged areas. Noting old stains, holes and repairs will reveal a great
deal about the quilt's story and the people associated with it. By documenting the quilt's
current condition, you will have a record to check the quilt against in the future.
Organise a space to look at the quilt before you bring it out. Ideally,
you want a large flat area on which the entire quilt will fit. This may be a table or it
could be a clean floor with paper or clean cloth layed onto it. Ensure you have good
light, you may want to have a desk lamp or a torch at hand. A magnifying glass can also be
useful. Use a pencil to take notes and a cloth tape to measure it. If the quilt is new to
you, try to look at in an area away from your other textiles, in case there are insects or
Take photos of the quilt as part of your record, include a ruler and the
date in the photo. Remember to photograph both sides.
What causes quilts to be vulnerable?
Quilts are vulnerable to deterioration through use (as they are designed
to be used) environmental conditions (such as light, humidity and dust), attack by pests,
human intervention (including poor handling, poor display techniques and accidents) and
some methods of manufacture. Some things which can cause or accelerate deterioration
Light- while all light will cause irreversible fading, this will be
accelerated when ultra violet light is present (such as sunlight or fluorescent lights).
Chemical breakdown- this is particularly noticeable with nineteenth
century silks which have been prepared with metal salts to give weight and drape. The
metal salts accelerate deterioration which is further accelerated by light exposure. In
extreme cases the silk will split in a number of places, known as shattering.
Staining, especially food spills, can attract insects which will attack
these areas first Insect attack- there are a variety of insects which are attracted to
quilts including clothes moths and carpet beetles (mostly wool and silk), silverfish
(cotton and linen, particularly if it is starched) and cockroaches (particularly areas
which are stained).
Corrosion- mostly pins, staples and other attachments which corrode,
causing staining and degradation of fibres. Folds and crease- fabrics wear faster along
fold lines which over time can lead to tearing.
Mould- As well as causing staining, mould can exude enzymes which
degrade textile fibres.
Always wash you hands before handling quilts. Where possible use cotton
Note where any fragile areas are and avoid handling these areas where
Remove jewellery prior to handling quilts as it is easy for things to
For larger quilts, it is best to roll them before moving
For fragile quilts, place on a board to move
Prepare the area you are taking the quilt to prior to moving it
Quilts can either be stored on a roll or flat with as few folds as
possible. The method you use will depend on the type of space you have available, the size
of the quilt and its fragility.
Rolled storage is a good way to store large quilts. Cardboard or plastic
tubes can be used, cover the roll with an inert material such as polyethylene plastic or
acid free paper/tissue prior to use, as the rolls are generally made of acidic materials.
Make sure the roll has a fairly wide diameter (at least 10 cm) so that the quilt is not
rolled too tightly. The roll should also be long enough to protrude out either side of the
rolled quilt. Because quilts tend to be padded, you may want to consider using a thin
layer of polyester wadding as padding in order to prevent crushing. If there are deep
creases or applied decoration these should be padded out prior to rolling. With quilts
which are more fragile or have dyes which transfer or are water soluble, interleave the
quilt with acid free tissue instead of wadding which will tend to catch.
The rolled quilt can then be covered in a layer of acid free tissue, a
worn cotton sheet, washed calico, japara or Tyvek (non woven polyethylene fabric) and
secured with ties made of cotton tape. Don't tie too tightly as this can distort the
quilt. A label attached to the outside, preferably with a photo can help people to know
what's inside without having to undo the roll. Rolled textiles should be stored
horizontally in a safe place.
Flat storage is an option either for small quilts or where rolling is not
practical. Keep folds to a minimum as quilts will wear along fold lines. Ensure all folds
are padded out either with rolls of acid free tissue or "sausages" formed of
polyester wadding covered with stretch fabric.
Long boxes of archival quality materials can be quite useful for storing
quilts in this manner and are available from a number of conservation suppliers. If you
don't have archival quality storage, wrap the quilt in acid free tissue to protect it.
Museums and galleries often talk about the "ideal" environment
in which to store and display items. Such environments are difficult to achieve in
controlled settings, let alone in our homes. Essentially high humidity will lead to mould
growth, extremely low humidity may lead to embrittlement. Light will cause fading of dyes
and may accelerate degradation processes. The greater the ultra violet component of the
light, the faster your quilt will fade. Daylight has a high ultra violet component.
Fluorescent lights also emit ultraviolet light.
Some tips on providing a good environment for your quilts:
Avoid storing/displaying on or near outside walls. The temperature
difference between outside and inside can cause condensation, particularly in winter.
Don't display above or near a fireplace, smoke will inevitably deposit
on the surface.
Avoid kitchens, bathrooms, cellars/basements as these can all be areas
of high humidity.
If you have more than one quilt, try to alternate which one is on
display so that the exposure of each quilt to light is limited.
Try not to display large quilts in narrow corridors where people are
likely to brush against them.
The size of quilts often makes displaying them a challenge. Traditionally
they have been displayed on beds either over the bed or folded at the end. If the bed is
rarely used this can be a good approach, however beware of sunlight falling on the bed
causing uneven fading and folds which can become permanent creases. Avoid placing quilts
on a bed that is used as human grease and grime will wear into the quilt. If folded at the
end of the bed use padding in the folds to prevent creasing.
Quilts have been displayed draped over other pieces of furniture such as
chairs, tables or couches. This is generally not appropriate as the shape of the furniture
will distort the quilt, uneven fading will occur and the quilt becomes vulnerable to wear
Quilt racks over which a quilt is folded and hung can be used to display
quilts in good condition. Take care to pad out the folds and refold every few months.
Another approach for quilts in good condition is to hang them on a wall
using a velcro hanging system. The downside of this is that it is no longer shown in the
way it was intended, as decoration for a bed. The method involves machine sewing a length
of the soft loop side of the velcro onto either a length of fabric folded to make a sleeve
or cotton webbing. This is then hand sewn onto the back of the quilt using back stitch.
Take care to sew between the weave. Attach the rougher hook side of the velcro to a wooden
batten with stainless steel staples. The batten should be painted with an acrylic paint to
prevent acidic vapours attacking the quilt. The batten can then be fixed to the wall and
the quilt attached to it.
Avoid using the following when displaying quilts:
Pins, tacks, nails, wire or staples. These can tear through fragile
fabrics, corrode and cause staining and cause distortion of heavier quilts.
Sticky tape or sticky labels. The adhesives used with these yellow and
become brittle causing staining to the quilt.
Nylon fishing line- if this is tied directly to the quilt it can cause
Cleaning and Housekeeping
Traditional spring cleaning is a great way to keep the pests which attack
quilts at bay. Cleaning your quilts once every six months ensures you examine them on a
regular basis. Pests love dark secluded corners so ensure you examine the backs of quilts
hung for display and look through boxed and rolled items.
It is best to limit cleaning to the removal of loose dust. If you feel
that a more indepth treatment is required contact a conservator first as many of the dyes
(and indeed some stains) used with quilts are water soluble and will run if you attempt
washing. Be aware that dry cleaning can be aggressive. Most dry cleaning is carried out in
a large washing machine filled with solvent. Clearly this is not a good idea for fragile
Dusty quilts can be cleaned using a small brush and a vacuum cleaner with
a mini attachment nozzle (designed for cleaning computers). With particularly fragile
surfaces attach netting over the nozzle to catch loose fragments. Open all air vents on
the vacuum cleaner to reduce suction. Hold the nozzle above the quilt surface and direct
dust to the nozzle using the brush.
Another approach with large quilts is to place a square of flyscreen edged
with tape over an area of the quilt and run the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner over it,
holding the nozzle at a 90 degree angle to the quilt. Reposition the screen so that it
overlaps the first position and vacuum again. Repeat this process until all surfaces have
been cleaned on both sides.
The most important thing to remember with your quilt is to enjoy it. Bring it out,
share the stories with family and friends and create new memories. Like many things we
cherish, they remind us of our past but should travel with us to our future.
The following is a guide to some of the resources available and should not be seen as a
recommendation. A more detailed list is available from the Museums and Galleries
Foundation of NSW: http://www.mgfnsw.org.au/.
Acid Free tissue
Archival quality boxes
Large department stores and chemists such as Big W, K Mart, Amcal and
Zetta Florence 1300 555 124 www.zettaflorence.com.au
Large department stores and haberdasheries such as K Mart, Big W,
Lincraft and Spotlight
Mini Vacuum attachments (as used for cleaning computers)
Dick Smith Electronics
Dupont non-wovens 02 9923 6284
reCollections, Heritage Collections Council, Canberra, 1999.
Available on line through AMOL www.amol.org.au/recollections.
Provides detailed information about the care of all manner of material including textiles.
The chapter on textiles includes instructions on attaching velcro, fabricating supports
and rolling works.
Conservation On Line http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/bytopic/genpub/
A website providing information about all.phpects of conservation of material. there are a
number of short articles regarding the care of quilts and other textile items.
Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) GPO Box 1638
Canberra ACT 2601 Phone 02 6270 6504 Fax 02 6273 4825 www.aiccm.org.au
ACT Australian War Memorial GPO Box 345 Canberra ACT 2601 Phone 02 6243 4211 Fax 02
6243 4325 www.awm.gov.au
National Gallery of Australia GPO Box 1150 Canberra ACT 2601 Phone 02 6240 6502 Fax 02
6240 6529 www.nga.gov.au
New South Wales Museums and Galleries Foundation 43-51 Cowper Wharf Rd Woolloomooloo
NSW 2011 Phone 02 93581760 Fax 02 9358 1852 email email@example.com www.mgfnsw.org.au
Powerhouse Museum, Conservation Laboratory PO box K346 Haymarket NSW 1238 phone 02 9217
0111 Fax 02 9217 0494 www.phm.gov.au
International Conservation Service 53 Victoria Ave Chatswood NSW 2067 phone 02 9417
3311 Fax 02 9417 3102 www.icssydney.com
Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory PO Box 4646 Darwin
NT 801 phone 08 8999 8201 fax 08 8999 8289 www.nt.gov.au/dam/magnt/
Queensland Queensland Art Gallery PO Box 3686 South Brisbane QLD 4101
Michael Marendy PO Box 444 Toowong QLD 4066 firstname.lastname@example.org
South Australia Artlab Australia 70 Kintore Ave Adelaide, SA 5000 phone 08 82077520 Fax
08 82077529 www.artlab.sa.gov.au
Victoria Abigail Hart phone 0418 544 065 email email@example.com
National Gallery of Victoria PO Box 7259 Melbourne VIC 8004 phone 03 9208 0222 Fax 03
9208 0245 www.ngv.vic.gov.au
Western Australia Patricia Moncrieff Textile Conservation and Restoration Workshop PO
Box 615 Fremantle WA 6160 phone 08 9339 4644
Western Australian Maritime Museum Cliff St Fremantle WA 6160 phone 08 9413 8427 Fax 08