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How to care for quilts at home

How to care for quilts at home

by Sarah-Jane Rennie, Museums and Galleries Foundation of NSW

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 collect includes: ·

  • 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 mould present.

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 include:

  • 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 gloves

  • Note where any fragile areas are and avoid handling these areas where possible

  • Remove jewellery prior to handling quilts as it is easy for things to catch

  • 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 and tear.

  • 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 distortion.

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 quilts.

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

Cotton Gloves

  • Large department stores and chemists such as Big W, K Mart, Amcal and Soul Pattison

  • Zetta Florence 1300 555 124 www.zettaflorence.com.au

Cotton tape

Polyester wadding

  • 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

  • Godfreys

  • Tyvek

  • 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 aspects 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 protected] 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 www.qag.qld.gov.au

Michael Marendy PO Box 444 Toowong QLD 4066 [email protected]

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 protected]

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 9335 7224

One thought on “How to care for quilts at home

  1. Great post I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this interesting and knowledgeable article.

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