Washing an Antique Quilt

Antique quilts are extremely delicate. The majority of damage to old quilts is the result of washing them in using harsh detergents and soaps. Older dyes often combine with heavily alkaline detergents to form compounds that destroy the fabric.

Antique fabrics are often so detriorated that, when washed, cannot hold their own weight. The heavy, wet fabric will rip if you atempt to pick it up.

But, since quilts are often found filthy or smelling of mildew, they must be cleaned. Professional cleaning is extremely expensive and often out of the question. Dry cleaning can ruin an antique just as easily as a washing machine if done by inexperienced staff.

The solution is to wash the quilt yourself.

What you need.

1) Quilt soap (containing no detergents, phosphates, perfumes, softeners, or optical brighteners) such as the quilt soap available on our resources page. Quilt soap consists of sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and/or sodium laurel sulfate. These are often found in hair care products and is the chief constituant of baby shampoo. You can substitue a spoonful of expensive quilt soap with a couple of capfuls of baby shampoo. Sodium laurel sulfate can be purchased cheaply at feed stores as "Horse Shampoo" (NOT Mane and Tail shampoos). Woolite is also an alternative.

2) A quilt washer consisting of:
   a) 4 eight foot 2X6's
   b) a 10x12 tarp or heavy gauge poly dropcloth
   c) a dozen 3 inch nails.

3) Quilt drying rack consisting of:
   a) two saw horses.
   b) two eigth foot 2x4s to extend saw horses.
   c) 6 10ft 1-1/2 inch PVC pipes.

4) a flat, nearly level driveway.

5) a nice day.

Start out by laying out the frame:

Next nail it together. Use 3 inch or 2-1/2 inch nail. Put nails in straight so they can be reused. You will have to tap a corner apart to drain the washer for the rinse cycle.

Here is is nailed together

Now put the tarp or poly dropclothe in place. I bought a 9x12 tarp at a flea market because they seem to last longer.

Next fill it with water and add the quilt soap.

Gently spread the quilt out in the washer. This quilt is one of Erica's that we use on the bed for part of the winter. It is 8 feet by 8 feet and the cats do a real number on it.

Let the quilt soak for a few hours and then gently tap the boards at one end of the frame apart to let the water drain. Be careful! If you have too much of a slope, the quilt will wash down with the water, so hold onto the quilt. You notice that we turned the quilt once to help agitate it. A more fragile quilt should be handled with extreme care when it is heavy and wet.

Refill the frame with fresh water for the rinse. Gracie the Wonder Cat likes to help with this.

Prepare the saw horses. I nailed a 2x4 across the top so I would have more to work with when I put the quilt on it.

The PVC pipes will go eventually across the two saw horses, but holding up the quilt.

Slide the PVC pipes under the quilt. Float the quilt and slip the pipes underneath. Do not let the ends of the pipes snag the quilt. Beware the cat.

Start with 4 pipes, equally placed and then draw them together, leaving the folds of the quilt in between. The smooth, round pipes will prevent the weight of the quilt from ripping the fabric. Be careful, the pipes are filled with water. It takes two to lift the pipes and one might get drenched.

Lift the quilt and place it on the saw horses for drying.

Spread out he pipes and put some more under the quilt to hold the weight. Distribute the quilt to keep any one part from having to hold up too much wet quilt.

After several hours, if it is a dry day, the quilt will dry. On very humid days, the quilt must be left out over night. Older quilts should not be placed in direct sunlight or it will fade the colors. One day in the sun will not do too much damage, though, and older quilts are usually dark with oxidation and could stand a little lightening.

We have a dozen or more bargain quilts to wash and we'll show you the results as we get to them. Since this is a two person job, we only get to wash quilts on weekends when it is not raining.