How to Clean and Care for Handmade Quilts

hand quilted quilt
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Quilts are a beautiful addition to any home as covers on beds or as art for the walls. New and old quilts made by artisans—both hand-quilted and machine-quilted—require proper care. If you've purchased a quilt from a commercial retailer, follow the washing instructions provided on the care tag.

For any quilt, less washing is best to prevent fading. For a new quilt that you use on your bed every day, washing once per season should suffice unless you have pets or accidental stains. Antique or heirloom quilts require special care and should be cleaned less often. To freshen your quilts between washings, air them outside away from direct sunlight.

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

How to Wash Handmade Quilts
Detergent Gentle liquid detergent
Water Temperature Cold
Cycle Type Hand-wash (preferred) or machine-wash delicate
Drying Cycle Type Air-dry (preferred) or permanent press
Special Treatments Wash alone 
Iron Settings  Do not iron

Project Metrics

Working time: 2 hours

Total time: 2 days

Skill level: Intermediate

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • Liquid detergent
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • 2 white bed sheets
  • 6 to 8 bath towels

Tools

  • Laundry sink or bathtub
  • Drying rack (optional)

Instructions

  1. Check for Colorfastness

    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 and take it to a professional dry cleaner instead. Washing at home will likely result in discoloration and fading.

  2. Treat Stains

    Before you wash your quilt, pre-treat any stains with a commercial stain remover or an oxygen-based bleach and water soak. Follow the package's recommended directions (do not use oxygen bleach on silk or wool quilts) allowing plenty of time for the stain remover to work before moving on to washing the quilt.

  3. Prepare the Wash Basin

    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. 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.

    Add a liquid detergent that's gentle and free of dyes and perfumes. Avoid powdered detergent as it can leave residue on the fabric.

  4. Hand-Wash the Quilt

    Place the quilt in the water, making sure it's entirely submerged. Gently move your quilt around in the water to help loosen any dirt. Allow the quilt to rest in the water for about 10 minutes.

  5. Rinse

    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, brighten colors, and soften the fabric. Repeat the rinsing process until the water and quilt are soap-free.

  6. Remove From Basin

    Create a sling with a white sheet by placing the corners together to make a loop. Wrap the loop around the quilt and remove it from the water and let it drip above the tub. Gently squeeze the quilt to release more water (do not twist or wring). Allow the excess water to drain, then place the quilt on a bed of heavy towels on the floor. Cover with more towels and roll up to absorb water.

  7. Dry

    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 drying process. Wet quilts must be handled gently. Pulling can break seams and cause damage. If you have enough space, place a sheet on the grass outside and spread out the quilt. Cover the quilt with another clean sheet and allow it to dry.

    While it's not advised, 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. Lay it flat or drape it over an indoor clothes drying rack to finish drying.

    Never suspend a wet quilt from a clothesline. This causes too much stress on seams and can cause tearing and displace batting. The quilt will be heavy and should be dried flat.

Storing Handmade Quilts

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

If storing it flat is not an option, place the quilt in a cotton or muslin bag or inside an acid-free box. Do not keep the quilt in the attic or basement where moisture and temperature levels may fluctuate. Before you fold the quilt, pad the inside with acid-free tissue paper to help prevent sharp creases. You can also roll your quilt around an acid-free tube and slip it in a cotton bag to help keep it wrinkle-free.

If you are storing your quilt in a wooden chest or dresser, wrap it in acid-free tissue to avoid direct contact with the wood. Oils and acids in the wood can cause spotting and damage. Once a year, bring your quilt out of storage for air and to check it for damage. Refolding differently will also prevent permanent creases and damage. Do not use mothballs when storing quilts; only use natural moth repellants, such as lavender or cedar balls.

Repairs

Before washing the quilt, check for rips and tears, and fix before cleaning to avoid more damage. If there's a small rip in your quilt, usually hand-sewing with the same color thread can fix the problem. If you aren't confident in your sewing abilities or the tear is significant, the quilt can be repaired by a professional seamstress. A quilt restoration service can also help salvage a vintage damaged quilt.

Treating Stains on Homemade Quilts

As an alternative to a stain remover, gently treat stains on homemade quilts using baby shampoo. Mix equal parts shampoo and water—just a couple of drops each are all that's needed—and gently rub the mixture onto the stain with a soft, clean cloth or very soft toothbrush. Rinse it by blotting up the soap with a clean, damp cloth, then air-dry or continue cleaning.

Tips for Washing Handmade Quilts

  • Consider using a quilt wash or quilt soap for delicate items. These products are free of dyes, other non-natural ingredients, and they are biodegradable, which keeps your fabrics safer in the wash.
  • If your quilt has many color variations, toss in a color catcher sheet to catch any wayward dyes. You can use a color catcher while hand- or machine-washing.
  • A wet quilt is very heavy so you may need assistance when removing it from the basin or tub.
  • Drying a handmade quilt in a machine is not advised because it may shrink the fabric and cause your quilt to pucker and crinkle.