Proper handling and storage can keep your antique quilt looking beautiful for years to come. Fiber breakdown or embrittlement is caused by pollution, sunlight, fluctuating temperatures, humidity and dust. Always handle quilts with clean hands. Keep sharp objects away and do not drink eat or smoke around them.
Avoid dry cleaning and use of fabric refreshers such as Febreze. The fabric refreshers leave a residue and it is unknown as to the long term effect the chemicals will have on the material fibers. It is best not to wash your quilt. But if you must, first test a small inconspicuous area. Always use cold water, and a gentle detergent such as Ivory. Many quilting shops have soaps especially designed for this, such as Orvis Quilt Soap. Rinse with distilled water and lay flat to dry. If you have never washed your quilt before, it is a good idea to add 1/2 a cup of white vinegar to the wash water to stop the colors from running. Quilt experts recommend not washing quilts made before 1900.
When storing your quilts, avoid extremes of temperature or humidity. Attics, basement and garages are best avoided, as well as closets on outside walls due to greater fluctuations in temperatures. Don’t store quilts with mothballs, deodorizers, or plastics. These items produce gases that can be harmful to natural fibers. Also, oils from cedar chests and other unfinished woods can stain and be damaging to your heirloom. Quilts can be loosely folded and placed in cloth bags or a new pillow case, taking them out to refold them once or twice a year.
A great way to store your handmade work of art is to display it. The safest way to display your heirloom is on a bed in a guest room, away from direct sunlight and pets. Finished shelves lined with and acid-free tissue works well. Refold once a season to reduce stress on fibers and stitching. Quilts can also be displayed on a quilt rack or railing. The key to this is rotating the quilt often and making sure the fabric does not come into contact with any sharp edges. Padding the quilt rack or rod the quilt is hanging on can help avoid undue stress. Just be sure to display them out of any direct sunlight as that will cause fading.
Displayed quilts will need to be clean more often that quilts stored away. Gently vacuum your quilt by lifting the nozzle up and down instead of pulling the vacuum across the fibers.
With a little forethought, antique quilts can be protected for future generation to enjoy as well.