Caring for Handmade Quilts

hand quilted quilt
Diane Labombarbe / Getty Images

Quilts are a beautiful addition to any home whether you use them as covers on beds or as art for the walls. New quilts made by artisans–both hand-quilted and machine-quilted—need proper care. If you have purchased a quilt from a commercial retailer, simply follow the washing instructions provided on the care tag. Antique or heirloom quilts require special care.

How to Wash New Handmade Quilts

Before washing any handmade quilt, check the fabric and any decorative stitching for colorfastness to prevent dyes from running. Testing is simple, wet a piece of white cloth with cold water and gently rub it over each different color or fabric in your quilt. If there is any color transfer to the white cloth, don’t wash your quilt at all; head to a professional dry cleaner. Washing will result in discoloration and fading.

Hand or Machine Wash a Handmade Quilt?

Hand-washing is the preferred method for cleaning quilts. Even with a new quilt, machine washing can cause stitching to ravel. If you decide to machine wash, use cold water, a gentle detergent, and the shortest delicate cycle.

If you have hard water or iron bacteria in your water source, you should use distilled water for washing your quilt. You don’t want to risk having minerals stain your fabric.

To hand-wash, fill a deep laundry sink or bathtub with cold water. Be certain that the sink or tub is very clean and has no residue from cleaning agents that could cause damage to the quilt. Use a liquid detergent that is gentle and free of dyes and perfumes that will disperse in the water and leave less residue on the fabric than a powdered detergent. 

Place the quilt in the water, being certain that the entire quilt gets wet. Gently move your quilt around in the water. Allow the quilt to remain in the water for about 10 minutes. Next, drain the wash water and fill the tub again with fresh water. Add 1/2 cup of distilled white vinegar to the water to help remove detergent residue and both brighten colors and soften the quilt. Repeat draining and refilling the tub until the water and quilt are soap free.

Drying a Handmade Quilt

Proper drying is key to keeping your quilt at its best. Wet quilts must be handled gently. Pulling can break seams and cause damage. The quilt will be heavy and should be dried flat. To lift the quilt from the tub, use a white sheet to create a sling. Allow the excess water to drain, then place the quilt on a bed of heavy towels. Cover with more towels and roll up to absorb water. Move the quilt to another bed of dry towels, spread out flat, and allow to dry. Placing a fan in the room will help to speed the process.

If you have space, place a sheet on the grass outside and spread out the quilt. Cover the quilt with another clean sheet and allow to dry. Never suspend a wet quilt from a clothesline. This causes too much stress on seams and cause tearing and can displace batting.

If you decide to use a clothes dryer, select the permanent press cycle, which is medium heat, and remove the quilt while still slightly damp. Hang over an indoor clothes drying rack to finish drying.

How Often Should a Handmade Quilt Be Cleaned?

For any quilt, less washing is best. For a new quilt that you use on your bed every day, washing once per year should be sufficient, unless you have animals that sleep on the bed or your quilt attracts stain makers. Antique or heirloom quilts should be cleaned less often. Between cleanings, the quilts should be aired outside away from direct sunlight or placed in the dryer on the air only, no heat cycle to remove dust and freshen.

How to Store a Handmade Quilt

If you plan to store your freshly laundered quilt, be certain it is completely dry. Allow an extra 24 to 48 hours for drying before storing. One of the best ways to store a quilt is to simply spread it out on an extra bed. Keeping the quilt flat will eliminate creases and wear on folds. Simply cover the quilt with a clean sheet or bedspread.

If storing it flat is not an option, store the quilt in a cotton or muslin bag that allows the fabric to breathe, or in an acid-free box. Do not store in the attic or basement where moisture and temperature levels will fluctuate. Before you fold the quilt, use acid-free tissue paper as padding to prevent sharp creases. You can also roll your quilt around an acid-free tube and slip it in a cotton bag.

If you are storing your quilt in a wooden chest or dresser, wrap it in the acid-free tissue to avoid contact with the wood. Oils and acids in the wood can cause spotting and damage. Once a year, bring your quilt out of storage to air it and to check it for damage. Refolding will also prevent permanent creases and damage.