Old Quilt, New Problem
November 19, 2008 2:02 PM   Subscribe

I have a very old patchwork quilt (est 1910) that my mom bought as an antique. It's been stored for many years now, and is looking really stained and sad. How can I bring it back to life?

The quilt is very simple - red and white squares around larger patches of white squares, and an all-white backing. Some of the smaller squares are frayed through to the batting, and the edges are frayed. There is lots of discoloration on the white parts, which are now yellowish from age and/or being stored in a cardboard box.

I took it to a "specialist drycleaner" here in DC and they said it was probably too far gone - I was willing to put up with some additional fraying in the process, but they claim that even immersing it in water would damage the fibers and the thing would just fall apart.

I thought of laying it out on a hot sunny day (next time we get one of those) and letting the sun do its work... but it may not make a bit of difference.

Any ideas?
posted by nkknkk to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The International Quilt Study Center and Museum has some suggestions. They have the largest quilt collection in the world with many historical pieces, so I would trust their advice.

They also say that you should not get your quilt wet before talking to a textile conservator. They say that you can lightly vacuum it, however, that would not help you with the stains.

The American Institute of Conservators can refer you to someone whoworks with textiles in your area. It doesn't sound like a do-it-yourself job, unfortunately.
posted by Ostara at 2:23 PM on November 19, 2008

Best answer: Dealing with antique textiles is seriously complex work. Old fibers are brittle and don't play well with modern chemical detergents and other cleaning agents. Structural weaknesses - in the fabric or in the fibers themselves - can make a solid-looking fabric literally disintegrate with only moderate roughness (the dry cleaner was probably right!). Without being mounted and transported properly, more stitches and threads can split under the quilt's own weight. There might be mold issues, and on and on.

You should contact a textile conservator if you are serious about preserving it. Even if you just ask some questions, it will help you understand the scope of what needs to be done, and figure out if you can do any of it yourself. I've found that most people who work in the field are really passionate about their work, and will be happy to look at some pictures and answer questions before money even comes up.

Definitely, definitely do NOT lay it out in the sun - you'll only fade the colors further and possibly weaken the fabric. Do you want to display the quilt? You can probably find someone to clean it for you. If you want to actually use it, though, I think the best you can do is take it apart and incorporate pieces into a new quilt - it sounds like it would be pretty fragile even with a new backing.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:32 PM on November 19, 2008

I successfully turned my great-grandmother's white cotton wedding dress (c. 1914) which had turned yellow back to white by soaking it for about 8 hours in a fairly weak solution of OxiClean. (and then I got married in it.)
posted by leahwrenn at 3:33 PM on November 19, 2008

Response by poster: I would like to use it, if possible. I would also consider donating it, perhaps to one of the conservator organizations for practice/training (since I don't think it has any real value, other than its age). Great answers so far... willing to hear additional ideas if anyone has them!
posted by nkknkk at 4:57 PM on November 19, 2008

I am not a textile conservator, but I do work in museums. I'll third asking a textile conservator to look at it. In the meantime you can unroll the quilt and cover it with acid free tissue paper and then gently roll it up (preferably around something like a long poster tube) like you would a rug. This will let any creases or wrinkles relax a little and maybe slow down fiber breakage as well. Ideally you would then store the quilt in a light-free area. If you don't have the space to keep it in a roll, fold it with acid-free tissue paper and then put it in an acid-free box. The cardboard box it is in now is probably bad news for the quilt.

If a textile conservator is out of your budget (they can be pricey sometimes), you might consider saving the red squares which are less stained. Also, I think it's super cool you're willing to donate it for practice for a student somewhere :)

(Also, if the quilt is very thick or heavily stuff, it's actually better to store it folded. You'll just need to refold it every month or so to keep the fold lines at bay.)
posted by Mouse Army at 6:40 PM on November 19, 2008

but they claim that even immersing it in water would damage the fibers and the thing would just fall apart.

This is absolutely true... which is why you were consulting a Dry Cleaner. They don't even use water, so that seems like a really strange thing for them to say.

Okay, they frayed fabric - why is it frayed? Has some stitching come free, a little tear or maybe like a moth had a nibble? Or is it like worn thin and then has torn? If so is it worn thin like that all over or just in that particular spot? And (importantly) is it brittle or crumbly feeling?

They may just be not willing to take any risk on it. People and resources that deal with vintage clothing will likely also have lots of worthwhile advice too.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 5:57 AM on November 20, 2008

Response by poster: mu ha ha ha, the solvents and machines used in the dry cleaning process would be way too harsh, they said, so they were talking me through other available options, which I appreciated.

There are no tears or moth-holes. The red fabric is just worn very thin (so thin that you could tease apart individual threads with your fingertips) on lots of the squares, and all the way around the edge of the quilt.
posted by nkknkk at 10:26 AM on November 20, 2008

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