Since the revival of interest in early American quilts, textile conservationists have been trying to discover newer and better ways of caring for them.
Quilts are quite perishable, and their maintenance and preservation presents complex problems. Some museums, such as Winterthur in Wilmington, Del., have their own professional washing tables, steam-drying equipment, and dry-cleaning machines. A growing number of textile conservation centers offer professional quilt-cleaning assistance to customers. But although these centers have the latest equipment and know the most skilled methods, they are still few in number.
I would say the safest method of removing soil from old quilts is to vacuum clean, using a low suction setting on a standard machine, or a hand vacuum cleaner. I cover the nozzle with a fiberglass type of screening to protect the quilt.
If it is necessary to clean the quilt more thoroughly by washing, try to determine if all three layers (back, filing, and top) are washable. You can try to determine this by blotting the different colors in the quilt with a wet cloth. I have not always had success with such testing, since early indigo and brown dyes can be difficult and the fabric can sometimes disintegrate completely.
If you decide to proceed with the washing, soak the quilt in the bathtub in warm water and a mild soap or detergent. Soak overnight, if possible. Then rinse many times, under the gentle spray of the shower, until all soap has been removed. To remove from tub in a way that does not tear or strain the fabric, place several rolled bath towels underneath the quilt, then life the towels with the quilt on top. Gently press water out of the quilt and dry it on towels, upside down. Quilts should be dried outside on a sunny day, and never in an electric dryer.
Even with these precautions, laundering old quilts can present problems. If there is a patch of disintegrating or damaged fabric, I meticulously cover it with a fine netting or transparent fabric. I feel this method is preferable to replacing the patch with a much later fabric.
After laundering, I never iron a quilt.
Always avoid excessive handling. Ideally, it would be good to put one quilt on one shelf when storing in the closet. This isn't always possible. So my next advice is never to stack more than four quilts on one shelf, and make sure never to yank or pull a quilt out from under those on top of it. Old quilts must be treated with great tenderness.
As another little precaution, each time I take a quilt out to look at and enjoy, I refold it a different way before I put it back.
I store my quilts in well-laundered pillow cases. Some people like to fold a quilt in acid-free tissue paper such as Permalife, but this is not easily obtainable.
If you want to use a quilt as a bold graphic in a room and display it as a work of art, never tack the quilt directly on the wall or on a strip attached to the wall. Always attach the quilt to a wooden frame, which is then hung just as any fine painting is hung. Many frame shops offer the service of professional quilt framing, and some make a specialty of it.
I have framed many of my own quilts for hanging. I carefully measure the quilt, streatching it cautiously and easing as necessary, to get the correct measurements for the wooden stretcher which will support it. Then I sew, on the back outer binding on all four sides, five-inch wide strips of well-washed muslin (the washing removes the acid). I stitch the muslin to the strongest part of the binding, not the outer edge, and allow additional length in the strips for the corners.
I then place the quilt face down, and lay the wood stretcher on top. Then, beginning in the corners, I wrap the muslin strips around the stretcher, stapling it firmly as I go. I then hang with screw eyes and invisible wire, or with strong pic ture hooks.