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Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 10: Quilts and Bedspreads

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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This post in the Family Treasures series looks at caring for quilts and bedspreads and was written as part of the First-Year Textile Conservation Block. This post was written by rising second-year Textile Fellow, Annabelle Camp and rising second-year LACE (Library and Archives Conservation Education) Fellow, Jess Ortegon.

Quilts and Bedspreads 

Quilts and bedspreads are not only family heirlooms and cozy fixtures in our home, but they also are found in museum collections. Whether they are made of T-shirts or silks, made by your grandma or Martha Washington, machine-stitched or hand-pieced, all quilts and bedspreads are unique. In museums, conservators follow specific protocols to preserve these treasures for future generations. Here we outline some of the ways you can adapt these methods to ensure that your personal quilts and bedspreads will last. 

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​From pillows to the bed, quilts found in our own homes come in a variety of sizes and material. (Image courtesy of Kristin Ortegon, mother of Jess Ortegon, WUDPAC Class of 2022; quilts made by Kristin Ortegon.)

​Storage

Museums typically store quilts either flat or in a box. Flat storage utilizes large flat file shelving, which can accommodate larger quilts, or those that are too fragile to fold. Boxed storage, which uses acid-free archival boxes, requires quilts to be folded. When a quilt is folded, each fold is padded out using rolls of acid-free unbuffered tissue paper or tubular pillows consisting of polyester batting and stockinette. This prevents the formation of set creases, which will weaken the textile in these areas and can lead to tearing. The folded quilt is then wrapped in clean muslin or undyed white cotton, similar to a sling. This can be used to both take the quilt out of and put it back into its box. Additionally, the environmental conditions in storage are closely monitored to ensure that there are no major fluctuations in temperature or humidity, and quilts are monitored regularly for any insect activity or signs of new damages.

Just as in a museum, you should not store your personal quilts directly on or in an acidic material, such as wood or cardboard. If possible, store the quilt in an archival box in an interior closet. If you do not have a box, cover the quilt in a white towel or cotton to prevent dust accumulation. You can also pad the folds in your quilts, just as they are stored in museums. Padding can be made using rolls of unbleached cotton or white towels. Though you may not have the same strict climate control and monitoring systems in place as exist in a museum, you should routinely check your quilts and look for signs of pests, particularly moths and carpet beetles, which may be attracted to wool components such as batting.

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​Museums use custom cushions to pad folds when storing quilts. You can use rolled white towels or cotton muslin. (Images courtesy of Winterthur Museum and Annabelle Camp; t-shirt quilt, on right, made by Annabelle Camp.)

​Display and Handling

Handling of quilts and bedspreads, as with many other objects in museums, is often kept to a minimum, and when handling is necessary, hands should be washed or nitrile gloves worn  to prevent staining the textile with hand oils. Large pieces can require multiple people to handle them safely. 

When quilts and bedspreads are displayed in museums, temperature and humidity in the display area must be controlled, just as they are in storage. In addition, light levels must also be controlled, because excessive light exposure can lead to dye fading and physical weakening of the textile fibers. Museums also employ numerous methods for mounting a piece, based on the individual needs of the quilt. Quilts may be displayed flat on boards, in cases or shadow boxes, on slats, or on stretcher frames. Attaching a quilt to its display is also a decision based on the quilt’s needs; some may be too fragile to be physically attached at all. When a quilt is attached, it may be pinned, stitched, or held with pressure from something like a mesh lining or hung with a Velcro attachment. Velcro hanging systems are commonly used by conservators. In this method, a piece of Velcro that is the same width of the quilt is attached to a piece of twill tape. This is then stitched to the quilt, and the entire piece is placed on a wall-mounted board that has the opposing Velcro strip. This means that the quilt can easily be taken off display and also allows for even distribution of its weight while it hangs. 

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​Left: Hanging your quilts on a dowel will evenly distribute weight (Image courtesy of Kristin Ortegon, mother of Jess Ortegon, WUDPAC Class of 2022; quilt made by Kristin Ortegon.) Right: You can also display quilts by draping them over the back of couches (Image courtesy of Anna Fichtner, mother of Annabelle Camp, WUDPAC Class of 2022; crazy quilt made by Annabelle’s grandmother, Delores Wenger.)

Similarly, at home you also want to minimize handling and risk of soiling of quilts. While we all love cuddling up with a cozy quilt, particularly during these unprecedented times, the best way to preserve your quilts is to minimize their handling and do so only with clean hands. Newer or more stable quilts can be draped safely along the back of a couch.

You should also follow museum guidelines and limit the direct light exposure your quilts receive. This may be difficult for textiles that are actively used, such as a bedspread displayed in a sunny room. However, if you can rotate a bedspread throughout the year, you  will extend the lifespan of your piece.  If you wish to display your quilt, a hanging alternative to the museum Velcro system would be to use a sleeve and rod. Stitch a cotton muslin sleeve to the back of your quilt along the top. This can then be used to hang the quilt on a dowel. This is less complicated than the Velcro system but still allows for even weight distribution.

Cleaning

In museums, regular maintenance of quilts and bedspreads includes cleaning, often done before storage or display. This may include surface cleaning with soft brushes to lift dirt or dust and remove insects and their waste, gentle vacuuming, and if absolutely necessary, wet cleaning. Wet cleaning methods such as bathing may cause damage, and because quilts in museum collections may be extremely fragile, this method is used less frequently than surface cleaning or vacuuming. 

Unlike in the museum environment, where cleaning is only done if absolutely necessary, along with careful and deliberate testing beforehand, we are used to cleaning textiles in our home. However, quilts are complex, layered objects, and it can be difficult to predict how the fabric, dyes, and interior batting will react when washed. If you have washed your quilt before and feel comfortable doing so again, there is no reason you shouldn’t. However, if you are washing a quilt for the first time, understand that there are risks associated. For example, dyes can bleed, causing irreversible damage. Never use bleaches on your quilts, as they will weaken the textiles, and if you have an heirloom quilt that you believe requires cleaning or mending, contact a conservator or high end dry cleaner for further guidance. 


We hope you are enjoying these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at art-conservation@udel.edu.

You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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