I collect antique quilts, mostly from EBay, and some of them arrive showing plenty of evidence of a hard life. If they are in good condition structurally, but very dirty, I usually wash them. People often ask me how I do this, so I though that I would share the process with you.

Basically, I wash it in the bath, and spread out flat to dry outside. You need a warm day at the end of a week of sunshine, so that your lawn is completely dry. If there is a gentle breeze blowing, that is even better. Its a long process, so start first thing in the morning.

I need to start with a warning though – if you decide to do this with a quilt that you own, it is at your own risk! If you are at all worried, ask the advice of a textile conservator – I am not a professional, and cannot take responsibility for ruining your family heirloom…… I have listed some particular pitfalls at the end. If in doubt, don’t wash it.

Preparation

Have a good look at the quilt first.

  • Are there any stained areas? Do you know what the stains are?
  • Are there any torn patches or is any stitching coming undone? Repair before washing.

Now fold the quilt so that it will fit easily into your bath. Its probably best to fold it into two or three down the longer direction, and then concertina fold the doubled layers. This makes it easier to manipulate in the wash, and is better than folding in half and then half again repeatedly, as that puts more strain on the outside layers. Can you see how these layers are zig-zagged?

Fill the bath 6-8″ deep with tepid water. It is really important not to have water which is too hot, so feel it with your bare hand to check the temperature.

Add  some gentle detergent. Nothing with optical brighteners or harsh chemicals in.

Now place the folded quilt gently on the surface of the water, and let it gently sink in by itself – this may take a few minutes. Don’t push it under – if the wadding is thick, there can be quite a lot of air in it, which needs time to find its own way out.

Let it soak for a few minutes. Watch it carefully – it is very common to see a brown/orange colour seeping out, which I am pretty sure is due to years of absorbing smoke from coal fires.

Sometimes a horrifying amount of this brown/orange coal tar comes out – this is the worst I have ever seen:

If you see any other colours come out of a patchwork quilt, add more cold water – and if the colour run looks serious, get the quilt out.

It can be quite hard on your knees to kneel by the bath for a while – I use these knee pads, which I bought from a hardware store. Glamorous they are not, but they do make it far more comfortable!

Move the quilt backwards and forwards gently under the water. Never lift it out of the water, as this will put strain on the fabric and stitching – while submerged, the water supports the weight. Gently push the layers to swap them over as shown in this short video:

If there are still stains on the quilt, you may decide to try to reduce these by either scrubbing at them and/or by using a stain removing product such as Vanish. Both of these carry extra risk, which you need to weigh up against the degree of dirt. This quilt had some really bad stains – probably blood, and although it was quite old, I decided to risk tackling them gently.

Apply a little Vanish to each stained area. Put one hand underneath a fold, and lift gently just above the surface of the water. Rather than using the rough textured head on the container, use an old, clean toothbrush to gently work it in. Don’t scrub at it hard – push the bristles down gently, and move the handle a little so that the bristles just wobble a bit. This is particularly important if you are washing a cotton sateen wholecloth – the long, fine fibres which float across the surface of the fabric can easily be broken.

Leave the quilt to soak for quite a while – maybe up to an hour if it is very dirty, gently agitating it every now and then. This gives the enzymes time to work gently at the stains.

Then allow the dirty water to drain out. Pull the quilt to the side of the bath nearest you, and very gently squeeze some of the water out by pushing against the side of the bath.

Then fill up with clean water to rinse. Again, gently agitate the quilt backwards and forwards, keeping it roughly in its folds so that you are not stretching it anywhere. Rinse in at least two lots of clean water until no colour or suds are coming out any more.

Now squeeze gently against the side of the bath to get some of the water out. Don’t be tempted to twist or wring it – you will probably break some of the quilting stitches.

I have made a contraption to allow some more of the water to drain off the quilt before carrying it downstairs. This is made from some coarse garden mesh, and some strong poles which go across the top of the bath. By pushing them through different holes, I can arrange it so that the quilt is hanging at a slight angle down towards the plughole, which encourages more water to drain off. It also means that I can gently squeeze the mesh on both sides.

If you have a particularly large or bulky quilt, you might like to make one of these – wet quilts are surprisingly heavy and awkward to carry around. An alternative is to put a towel in the bottom of the bath after squeezing the worst of the water out, and roll the quilt onto it. The towel will absorb quite a bit more water, making the wet quilt a bit lighter to transport..

I use an old baby bath to take it downstairs:

Out in the garden, spread out some old towels or cotton throws on your dry lawn so that they cover an area a little larger than the quilt. This particular quilt is huge, so I needed a lot! I have gradually collected these from charity shops, and now have a good supply.

Supporting the quilt carefully, and trying to avoid stretching or pulling it, unfold your wet quilt and spread it out on top of the towels. Try to get it so that the edges are approximately straight, and so that the whole quilt is flat and square (or rectangular) with no wrinkles or folds.

Leave for an hour. It is surprising how much water the towels will absorb.

Now, I have enough towels to spread out a second set. If you don’t have as many towels, turn the quilt over onto the first set – but inevitably it will take longer to dry. A blanket will do, but they are usually not as absorbent as cotton.

I then  (with help from my husband), carefully lift the quilt, and turn it over onto the dry set of towels. Again, make sure that you straighten the edges, and avoid folds or wrinkles. As it dries, you will get to the stage where you can gently lift the edge and shake it occasionally to make sure that the wadding is spread out evenly and that there are no creases. Turn over occasionally to allow the wadding to sink down into the fabric to fill out the quilting.

Peg out the first set of towels to dry on the line – you might need to reuse them. Please don’t hang your wet quilt on the line by the way, it will distort and damage it.

Ideally you need to leave the quilt spread out flat until it is completely dry. Even at the height of summer, this can take until well into the evening, particularly for a thick quilt.

I often spread it out inside overnight as well to be absolutely sure – the quilt in the photos above was too large to do this – as you can see from this photo of another quilt, it’s rather awkward….

Now you should have a clean, fresh quilt, with beautifully textured quilting.

Don’t forget to take some photos: this is my beautiful wholecloth quilt after washing:

Unfortunately I don’t know much about its origins other than that it came from Normandy. It doesn’t look much like other French quilts I have seen, but does have similarities with Welsh & West Country quilts from about 1840, so I am still trying to find out more – maybe there is a Celtic connection?

Here are some close-ups of the lovely hand-quilted designs:

And here are the borders – I just love this swirly design with the spirals:

I hope that this will help you to wash your quilts, whether they are antique or more modern. Remember though – don’t wash them unless it’s really necessary.

Be particularly wary if:

  • the quilt is coloured. Dyes can run, so perhaps dab a damp white cloth on to test out whether any colour transfers. The more fabrics the quilt contains, and the darker the colours, the greater the danger. If you have made the quilt yourself, stitch some leftover scraps onto a white piece of fabric, and test wash first.
  • the fabric or the threads are torn, weak or fragile. Wet quilts are much heavier than dry ones, and can put a lot of strain on weak areas.
  • the quilt or the wadding is wool – you risk shrinking it, or making the wadding matted and felted. I wouldn’t risk this.
  • the quilt is particularly old, or has a high value in terms of either money or sentimental attachment.

If in doubt, don’t wash it. Better grubby than ruined!

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