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Care and Cleaning of Quilts  ̶  Display and Wet Cleaning

by  Robin Brisson

Quilter Studio


Quilts are like cats. They love to stretch across beds in a room with not too much sunlight. They like people to admire them, but not too much.  They don’t like to be kept folded up in a closet or stored in a plastic bag (Heaven Forbid!). They don't like cold musty cellars, hot stuffy attics, locked in a trunk or left in a car. They like to be clean but hate baths. Worse of all, they don't like dogs to lie on them!  But they do love to keep their owners warm and bring great happiness and joy.


If you would like to hang a quilt on a wall for everyone to enjoy, it is best to use a hanging sleeve hand sewn on the back. The wooden "pinch" type hangers are okay for small new quilts but do leave a mark. NEVER put nails or tacks through a quilt. If you do display a quilt on the wall be sure to take it down every few months to let it rest. Some people have 4 quilts that they change with each season. When a quilt is resting remember to refold it every few months. Try folding in thirds, then half, then the end to the middle. Stagger the fold lines so there will not be a permanent crease. It is good to get in the habit of folding it with the back outside showing and the front folded in to give more protection. They can be kept in a closet in an acid free storage box or shelf lined with acid free paper. It is best to place crumpled sheets of acid free tissue paper between the folds in the quilt to relieve the pressure and to prevent the quilt from rubbing against itself.  It is best not to let the quilt come in contact with any wood, either treated or not treated. It will discolor the quilt over time. So don't keep them in a trunk lined with newspaper.  If you can't keep them in a closet or on a bed you may use a plastic storage bin lined with acid free tissue paper. The ones that are tinted slightly blue or green are better than the clear in keeping out the light. The new bins with a small vent or opening on the top work very well. You may slip these bins under your bed or stack in the bottom of a closet. A closet toward the center of the house is preferred. Closets that share an outside wall with the outside of the house vary in temperature and sometimes moisture.



Cleaning A Quilt

Wet cleaning is recommended only as a last resort- to remove heavy soil and odors and recent stains sometimes. It will not remove stains that have been part of the quilt for a long time or migration of dye.  Before attempting wet cleaning, try a gentle soil removal process first. Both methods will remove dust and particles before they become dirt.


Method 1: Lay the quilt flat on a table or bed. Place a sheet of plastic canvas (found in craft stores for needlepoint) or new, small removable window screen (nylon, not metal) on top of the quilt. Using the small round soft brush attachment on your vacuum set on low suction; gently "vacuum" the quilt. Place the brush against the screen, lift and move to next area working in rows across the quilt. When first row is completed, begin directly below the first row until the top is completed. Vacuum the back in the same manner. Redo any areas as needed.


Method 2: If quilt cannot be laid flat, you may clean it vertically. Place a new, clean piece of pantyhose or knee-hi (any color) over the small round brush attachment. Secure with a large rubber band or string around base of brush. Use a low suction setting gently place brush on quilt, lift and move to next spot beside first one. Do not "sweep" across quilt as it may strain the stitches to breaking or pull up lose pieces of fabric. Repeat on back. Redo any areas as needed.


You will be surprised how much either method will freshen and brighten your quilt. If there are small soil spots on your quilt you may use a moist soft clean cotton cloth (like an old white t-shirt) to try to remove the spot. Try using just tepid water first. If stain remains, try using a gentle soap like ivory bar soap. Do not use a colored soap as it has dyes in it that may transfer to the quilt. Do not use spot remover or laundry stain remover. Let air dry out of sunlight. Do not use blow dryer on quilt.




If you must wet clean a quilt the best way is at home in the bathtub. Never wash a quilt in a washing machine with agitation and NEVER DRY CLEAN A QUILT.


Before starting you may want to test for colorfastness if you are unsure about any fabrics in the quilt, especially if they are not cotton, or a deep color such as red. You may want to seek professional help for cleaning a quilt made with wool, velvet, satin, brocade, tapestry, a quilt that has any writing on it with ink or a quilt with lots of embellishment such as embroidery. Using a soft moist clean white cloth, gently rub across the piece of fabric. If any color transfers, you may want to seek a professional. Repeat with all other suspect fabric in the quilt. If you are unsure about any quilt always consult a professional.


Pick a clear, bright, breezy (not hot sun) day, as you will bring the quilt outside to air dry.


It is important to begin with a clean tub, no soap scum. Fill the tub with clean cool water. For soap, use either Ensure made by Mountain Mist  (found in quilt stores) or Orvis Soap (found in farm supply stores). Both are low suds and have no dyes. Add the soap to the water according to directions on package taking into consideration the size of the quilt. It is always best to use too little soap than too much.  Swish the soap around with your hand to dissolve in water. Gently "fold the quilt" into the water. Don't place a folded quilt in the tub then try to unfold when wet. If there is a particularly soiled area, you may want to place that on top where you can gently move it in the water and to watch it. Let the quilt soak for about twenty minutes or according to directions on package. Gently move/press on the quilt under water to allow the water to move through it without straining it. Drain the tub while quilt is still in it. Lift a small corner of the quilt to evaluate if you need to have another "wash" cycle or if you can proceed to rinse. Repeat with soap if necessary. Add cool clean rinse water. Let stand a few minutes. Drain while quilt is still in tub. Gently press on the quilt to remove excess water. Do not wring it out. You may need another rinse cycle if there appears to be soap residue in the rinse water. You want to be sure to remove all the soap as excess soap will just attract more soil and shorten the life of the quilt. To carry the quilt outside I used to use a large laundry basket lined with a large plastic bag. Now I use the largest Rubbermaid plastic tub. Either one works fine. Gently remove the quilt while supporting it from the bottom and place in the tub.


If you have a large clothesline remove all the clothespins. Lay a clean light colored sheet across all the lines. Lay the quilt on top of the sheet. If the quilt is larger than the lines, try to distribute the quilt evenly between the clotheslines instead of having the two ends hang over the sides. Cover with another clean light colored sheet. This will protect it from bright sun, birds and leaves. After about one hour try rotating the quilt one-quarter turn. The top and bottom will now be the sides. Repeat this step as necessary even turning the front over and the back on top. If you do not have a clothesline you may lay it on the grass. Be sure to use a sheet on the bottom larger than the quilt so the quilt will not come in contact with the grass as it may stain. It will dry quicker if the air is allowed to circulate under the quilt. Try to raise it off the ground a little bit by placing coffee cans or something like that along the sides. If you have many patio chairs you could try to lay the quilt across the backs of them. Try to distribute the weight of the quilt evenly to prevent stretching and straining. Be sure to always have a sheet on top to protect it.


I have heard, but never tried it myself, that if you have a quilt that has a slight odor to it, such as a musty smell from cellar or attic or even a slight pet odor you can try laying the quilt on top of fresh mowed grass. Mow your lawn as usual then rake the clippings into a bed about the size of the quilt about 3 to 4 inches high. Sandwich the quilt between two sheets as described above and lay on the bed of grass. Turn over after a few hours. Supposedly the chlorophyll in the grass wicks the odors from the quilt and replaces it with a fresh smell. You may want to try this before wet cleaning. Between the vacuuming and the grass you may not have to wet clean the quilt at all.


Remember, it is the washing that shortens the life of all cloth, whether in quilts, clothing or bedding. It is always better to "vacuum" or spot clean before "washing".


PLEASE: NEVER CUT UP A QUILT FOR ANY REASON, to cover a chair, make a pillow or stuffed animal. If you see anyone cutting up quilts (like antique dealers or craft people) you have my permission to scold them. Tell them Robin says not to do that. They clone sheep. Who knows, someday they may clone fabric and all those vintage quilts that were dearly loved, will one day be restored to their glory. Consult a professional restorer or appraiser. A quilt is usually more valuable whole than cut up.


Quilts are like people; they like the same environments and being loved. They don't like to be left in the hot sun, rolled up in a plastic bag (someone might mistake them for rubbish), left in a damp musty basement nor locked in an old wooden trunk in the attic.

They like it  best on a bed, over a sofa or hung gently and lovingly on a wall to be enjoyed and envied by all. If you display your quilt on a bed you can use it as a bedspread flat or folded along the foot of the bed to add color to the room or for extra warmth on a chilly night. Be sure to keep it out of direct sunlight. It is wise to put a sheet over the top if the room is not going to be used regularly. Try to keep dog and cats off. You can rotate the quilt on the bed if it is not a directional design. Be sure to refold the one at the foot every few months (in thirds, quarters, etc.) You should refold quilts on display in your home anywhere, on the back of sofas and chairs, banisters, shelves and cupboards, etc.

© Robin Brisson 2000



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