Textiles and the Triplett Sisters

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Cleaning Your Quilt

As part of our continuing series on Caring for Your Collection, we are going to discuss cleaning your quilt. Xenia Cord, co-author of Chintz Quilts from the Poos Collection says, if considering washing your quilt, go lie down until the feeling passes. The first time Kay told me I was going to wash one of her antique quilts, I tried multiple ways to get out of it. By the way, kicking and screaming “no” wasn’t effective. Even after multiple successful attempts, I don’t like or want to wash a quilt. I don’t want to be responsible for ruining a treasure.

The first factor to consider, is the value of the quilt. Is this such a valuable quilt that it should be left to professionals? Professional restoration experts have tools and access to setups that some simply don’t have. It may be a special vacuum set-up or a soaker tank bath, freezer. Certainly the experts have practice and knowledge of clues to guide in handling the quilt or textile.

If you do decide to clean your quilt yourself, here are a couple of things to avoid. (I wish someone had shared the don’ts with me prior to my attempts.) Don’t think you can just scrub it off with a little elbow grease, you may rub the grime more deeply into the fibers or damage the fibers. Also, remember that tap water is not your friend, it may have calcium and other deposits you don’t want added to your quilt. Remember, bleach even with a Q-tip for a small spot is not really an option. The chemicals will cause the area of the textile to deteriorate more rapidly. Finally if the quilt has inked signatures or questionable dyes that might bleed, using one of the liquid cleaning methods isn’t an option.

Next choose the best cleaning method for your quilt from the choices below. Please remember it is important to breathe when attempting to clean a quilt. Something I remind myself as I’m anxiously waiting to see the results, hoping I haven’t damaged the textile.
Vacuum the quilt or textile. Lay the quilt out on a flat surface. Use the vacuum on a gentle setting and use the hose covered with nylon. (I use knee-highs, others use a nylon window screen taped onto the hose.) Try to avoid rubbing the quilt, but hold it very close, going in both directions.
Freeze the quilt or textile, which works well for a bug infestation. Place the item in a sealed plastic bag. Recommended time for bugs and their eggs to die is 72 hours. Be aware fibers are more fragile when frozen, so wait until the item comes to room temperature before opening the bag and touching the textile. I knew it was successful when the dead bugs were still in the bag after removing the textile.
Wash the quilt or textile using distilled or filtered water first on spots or areas with a Q-tip. It is best to test a small area to be sure of the color fastness. If the entire quilt needs to be washed, soak it preferably flat, for most of us the largest place is the bath tub. I was taught not to let it soak more than 15 minutes or the dirt you soaked out will start going back into the textile. Lift the textile out supporting all the quilt that you can (don’t pick up by one corner). Which means you will get very wet if you use your arms and body to support the quilt. Another choice is to use a sling to distribute the weight by placing an old sheet under the quilt. Drain the water and dirt out, then soak again if needed.

Wash the quilt or textile plus. If water alone won’t then use a mild detergent such as Dawn or Orvus with ½ ounce of detergent per 1 gallon of water. I use the old recipe of buttermilk and lemon (1 quart of buttermilk to 1 gallon of water to 1 tablespoon of lemon juice). Some experts think this is an old method (it is centuries old) and that the combination creates an acid that is harder on the textile than a mild detergent. However, I’ve seen spots work back out of a quilt or reappear when detergent is used, but I haven’t seen it happen with the buttermilk. It is absolutely crucial to be sure that all traces of detergent or buttermilk are rinsed out. Some place the quilt in the washer for the spin cycle, but for only the sturdy. Finally allow the quilt to air dry lying on a flat surface. A blowing fan speeds up the process, but NO IRONS OR DRYER allowed! I cover with another sheet to block any light exposure while drying.