Nebraska Cooperative Extension NF02-525
Care of Quilts-Cleaning
By Shirley Niemeyer, Professor, Extension Specialist, Environment/Housing/Textiles
Patricia Crews, Professor of Textiles, Clothing and Design and Director, International Quilt Study Center
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To Clean or Not to Clean?
Quilts need special care in cleaning, but even professionals don't
always agree on the best methods for cleaning quilts or even whether it
should be done. No two quilts are alike. Methods suited for cleaning
one quilt may not be best for another. The fiber content, dyes, and
construction make each one unique. Sometimes it may be advisable to
clean a quilt. Usually it is best to leave it as is.
Deciding whether to clean a quilt involves careful thought. What is the
fiber content? How is the quilt constructed? Can it withstand movement
or agitation? Will the colors bleed or fade? How valuable is it to you?
How will you feel if it is damaged by your choice of cleaning method?
Do you have the equipment and space to clean the quilt? Improper
cleaning can permanently damage your quilt.
Make your decision carefully.
Very old, fragile, or valuable quilts should be cleaned by a
professional textile conservator - not at home. Contact a local or area
museum, university, or the American Institute for Conservation, 1717 K
Street, NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006, 202/452-9545 for names of
professional conservators in your area. If you decide to attempt
cleaning a sturdy quilt yourself, the following recommendations will
serve as a useful guide.
A musty smell can often be diminished by airing quilts in a
shaded area outdoors or in a well-ventilated area indoors. Place a
large plastic sheet on the ground or floor, cover it with a clean white
sheet, and then lay the quilt on top of the sheet for airing. Air
quilts away from direct sunlight as direct sunlight or bright indoor
light fades colors and weakens fibers.
Do not drape quilts over clotheslines. The yarns and fibers are
strained, and the weight can break stitches or tear the fabric. Never
beat or shake a quilt to remove dust.
Small particles of airborne dust and dirt can abrade fibers and
damage the quilt. They may be removed by vacuuming. Use a vacuum
cleaner set on low suction, so that the quilt is not pulled into the
nozzle. Vacuuming may be the only safe method of removing soil -
especially when dyes and inked signatures are not colorfast, when there
are glazed finished or when fabrics are fragile. Even vacuuming may be
too harsh for extremely fragile fabrics.
Lay the quilt on a smooth, flat surface. To prevent the quilt from being drawn
into the vacuum head, choose a low suction setting and place a section of sheer
polyester fabric or cotton cheesecloth over the vacuum nozzle. Using low suction,
pass a hand vacuum cleaner nozzle above the quilt. Continue cleaning sections
until the entire quilt is vacuumed. Repeat the procedure for the other side.
2. Small particles of dust and dirt abrade fibers and damage the quilt.
One cleaning method is to lay out the quilt and carefully vaccum it.
Place a section of sheer polyester or cotton cheesecloth over the
vaccum nozzle to prevent the quilt from being pulled into the nozzle.|
Identifying Fiber Content
Before attempting any type of cleaning, identify the fiber content of
the top and backing; and, if possible, the batting, trim and thread.
Generally old quilts were made from cotton, linen, wool or silk, or a
combination of these prior to 1910 when the first manufactured fiber,
rayon, was introduced. Interior batting usually is cotton, wool, or
To Wet Clean or Not?
Cleaning quilts has advantages and disadvantages. Cleaning can
protect the quilt by removing materials (food, grease, etc.) that
attract insect pests, helping to rid fabrics of insects, improving the
appearance, and neutralizing the quilt.
Wet cleaning refers to cleaning in water without agitation and differs
from washing. Wet cleaning removes the acid byproducts that build up in
cotton and linen fabrics over time. It leaves the quilts cleaner and
more flexible. Wool and silk are more difficult to wet clean as they
become weaker when wet. Many wool or silk fabrics contain dyes that are
not washfast. Therefore, airing and vacuuming are frequently the only
safe methods for cleaning a wool or silk quilt. We recommend that silk
and wool quilts be cleaned only by professional conservators.
Avoid wet cleaning a quilt unless it is really necessary. If you decide
to attempt wet cleaning a cotton or linen quilt, and are willing to
take the risks of loss involved, the following guidelines will be
Wet Cleaning - Colorfastness Check
Before a cotton or linen quilt is wet cleaned, the dyes must be
tested for colorfastness. Test with plain water and then with the
water/detergent solution, if one is to be used. Test each color and
fabric with several drops of water on an inconspicuous part of the
quilt. Let it soak in and then blot with white blotter paper or cloth.
Test several times. Repeat the procedure with the detergent solution,
if one is to be used. No hint of color should appear on the blotter. If
any part of the quilt (fabric or thread) is not colorfast, do not wet
Check the quilt to see if it has any glazed fabrics such as chintz. Wet
cleaning may remove glazed finishes. Decide whether it is more
important to retain the original finish or to remove the soil.
Wet Cleaning - Soaking Procedures
Valuable quilts should never be machine washed - even on the delicate
cycle. In addition, spot cleaning at home is not recommended because it
is almost impossible to completely remove the cleaning solution after
spot cleaning. Wet cleaning (a modified form of hand washing) is
recommended if you decide to wash a cotton or linen quilt.
A wet quilt will become very heavy; therefore, it is best to have
another person help with the process. Use a fiberglass screen under the
quilt to support its weight and prevent strain on the fabric. Use the
screen for lifting the quilt in and out of the bath tub or cleaning
container. Ideally, a quilt should be spread out in a single layer
during cleaning as folds in the quilt make rinsing out the detergent
very difficult. However, that is not always possible and requires a
very large piece of fiberglass screen. Bath tubs work well, or one can
build a frame of boards (e.g. 2x4 lumber) outdoors and line it with
plastic. Be sure the tub or container is clean.
Submerge the quilt in plain water at room temperature or no more than
90°F to 100°F. Use soft water, preferably deionized water or distilled
water. Do not use hard water as it may deposit mineral salts on the
Use just enough water to cover the quilt. Water alone will remove a
considerable amount of soil. Check the quilt frequently. It may take an
hour for the water to saturate the quilt. If the water becomes soiled
or discolored, change it. Drain and refill the container with fresh
soft, distilled, or deionized water.
If you are pleased with the results, dry the quilt. If not, you may
want to try a mild detergent/water solution. Remember to pretest
colored fabrics and threads for wash fastness using the blotter method.
Wet Cleaning - Detergent Soaks
Use a mild liquid detergent formulated for dishwashing, preferably one
with a minimum of coloring agents and perfumes. Do not use laundry
detergents. All liquid and powdered laundry detergents contain harsh
Use about 1 tablespoon of liquid detergent to 4 gallons of water. Soak
in the detergent and water for at least 30 minutes. Repeat the process
if the water still shows discoloration due to soil. DO NOT scrub,
squeeze, or beat the quilt. Gently tamp it up and down with your
fingers if necessary. If
a heavily soiled area needs special attention and the fabric is not too
fragile, a sponge can be pressed against the area as it is submerged in
the solution. A sponge forces water through the quilt better than the
Follow the soak in a detergent solution with a series of rinses. Each
of the five to seven rinses should take at least 15 minutes and result
in the final rinse water being clear of detergent residue. Remember to
use distilled water for the rinse water.
Drying Procedures for Wet Cleaning
After the final rinse, gently lift the quilt out of the tub.
Select a dry place with good air circulation. Cover the area with a
plastic sheet followed by a clean white sheet. Lay clean towels or a
mattress pad over the sheet, and then lay the quilt on top. Support it
as evenly as possible using the screen. Don't pick it up by one end as
its weight can tear stitches or fabric. Lay the quilt on clean towels
or a clean mattress pad on a flat surface that has been protected with
plastic. Use other towels or pads to press more moisture from the quilt.
A fan can be placed three to four feet from the quilt to aid air
circulation. Don't hang the quilt on a clothesline as it won't be
supported and may sag and tear. Avoid putting the quilt in direct
sunlight or in a dryer.
No two quilts are exactly alike; therefore, it is difficult to give
specific directions for care. The information in this publication
should be used as a guide. You will have to make the final decision as
to what is best for your quilt and what risks you are willing to take.
This information is provided without reference to or examination of a
particular object. Application of recommendations to specific articles
can result in appearance changes and damage. The University of
Nebraska-Lincoln is not responsible for possible ill effects.
For More Information
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Department of Textiles, Clothing
and Design, 234 Home Economics Building, P.O. Box 830802, Lincoln, NE
68583-0802, 402/472-2911, http://textiles.unl.edu
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, International Quilt
Study Center, 234 Home Economics Building, P.O. Box 830838, Lincoln NE 68583-0838, 402/472-6549, http://quiltstudy.unl.edu
Division of Textiles, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of
American History, Washington, DC 20560
For additional information on care of textile items, check the
following University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension publications:
|RP-272|| Family Keepsakes|
|NF93-137 ||Conservation of Textile Items|
|NF02-524|| Care of Quilts-Storage and Display|
The Care and Cleaning of Antique Cotton and Linen Quilts. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. The National Museum of American History, Division of Textiles.
Clark, K. Preservation and Care of Quilts. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University, Cooperative Extension Service (WLG 98).
Heidingsfelder, S. and Keller, P. Care, Cleaning and Storage of Heirloom Quilts. University of Arkansas, Cooperative Extension Service.
Kline, T. S. Care and Storage of Textile Heirlooms. Clemson: Clemson University, Cooperative Extension Service (TC 414).
Ordonez, M. and Slinkman, Z. Quilt Conservation. Manhattan, Kansas: Kansas State University, Cooperative Extension Service.
Carolyn Ducey, International Quilt Study Center, Curator
Diane Vigna, UNL Extension Clothing and Textiles Specialist
File NF02-525 under TEXTILES, CLOTHING AND DESIGN
Issued June 2002
Electronic version issued August 2002
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8
and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of
Agriculture. Elbert C. Dickey, Dean and Director of Cooperative
Extension, University of Nebraska, Institute of Agriculture and Natural
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension
educational programs abide with the non-discrimination policies of the
University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the United States Department of