How to Clean and Care for Vintage Quilts

Star flower patterned quilt
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Antique quilts are treasured additions to any home. These heirlooms require special care to preserve them for generations to come. Hand washing is ideal for cleaning old quilts—do not dry clean or machine wash an heirloom piece. Dry cleaning chemicals can permanently harm old fabrics, and the agitation action of a washing machine can cause fibers to shred.

Due to their delicate nature, any washing done to antique fabrics could damage or destroy your quilt, so only clean your quilt when truly necessary. If you don't feel comfortable washing your quilt yourself, search for a qualified quilt conservation or restoration service. Based on the monetary and personal value of the quilt, you may decide to leave it as is rather than risk destroying a priceless piece of work.

How to Wash Vintage Quilts
Detergent Gentle liquid 
Water Temperature Cold
Cycle Type Hand wash only (do not machine wash)
Drying Cycle Type Air dry (do not machine dry)
Special Treatments Wash alone 
Iron Settings Do not iron
A close-up shot of a senior woman sewing a quilt
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Project Metrics

Set aside at least two days for the hand washing and drying process. If you want to pack your quilt away once it's cleaned, you may need additional time to be sure it's completely dry.

Working time: 2 hours

Total time: 2 days

Skill level: Intermediate

What You'll Need

Supplies

Tools

Instructions

  1. Air Out Your Vintage Quilt

    Begin by airing your quilt outside on a sunny day to restore freshness. To remove dust, vacuum with a nylon stocking over the end of vacuum hose and hold the tube slightly above the top of the quilt. If the quilt has beading, embroidery, or appliqué, do not vacuum as you could damage the work.

  2. Test Colorfastness

    Check the fabric and any stitching for colorfastness. Testing is simple: Wet a cotton swab with cold water and gently rub it over each different color or material in the quilt. If there is any color transfer to the swab, don’t wash the quilt at all. Washing will result in discoloration and fading.

  3. Fill Washing Basin

    To begin the washing process, fill a deep, laundry sink or bathtub with cold water. Be sure that the sink or tub is spotless and has no residue from cleaning agents that could cause damage to the quilt.

  4. Add Detergent

    Use a liquid detergent that is gentle and free of dyes and perfumes. A liquid detergent will disperse in the water and leave less residue on the fabric than powdered detergent. Add 1/2 cup of distilled white vinegar to the water to both brighten colors and soften the quilt.

  5. Hand Wash

    Place the quilt in the water and double-check that the entire quilt gets wet. Gently swish the quilt around in the water. Allow the quilt to remain in the water for about 10 minutes.

  6. Rinse

    Drain the wash water and fill the tub again with fresh water. Repeat draining and refilling the basin until the water and quilt are soap-free.

  7. Remove from Water

    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 placed on a plastic tarp to prevent damage to floors. Remember to handle wet quilts gently—pulling can break seams and cause damage. 

  8. Drying your Vintage Quilt

Cover the quilt with more towels and roll up to absorb water. Move the quilt to a drying rack or another bed of dry towels, spread out flat, and allow to dry. Placing a fan in the room will help to speed the process.

Storing a Vintage Quilt

One of the best ways to store any quilt is lying flat on an extra bed, and covering the quilt with a clean sheet or bedspread. Keeping the quilt flat will eliminate creases and wear on folds.

If drying flat is not an option, store inside boxes sold for archival storage. These are usually made of acid-free paper and are perfectly safe to use. However, if you are concerned about the box getting crushed, purchase a plastic storage box. The plastic container must be made of cast polypropylene to be safe for your keepsakes. Look for the number five within the recycling triangle or the letters “PP” to be sure that you have the correct type of box.

Do not store your vintage quilt 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 the quilt around an acid-free tube and slip it in a cotton or muslin bag.

Quilts folded in a closet
hillwoman2 / Getty Images

Vintage Quilt Repairs

Before you clean an old quilt, you'll need to repair any rips or tears in the fabric. Spread out the quilt and examine carefully for any worn patches, rips, or stains.

If you are a good seamstress, repair the quilt yourself by using small stitches and thread the fabric that matches the design and colors of your quilt. There are various sources of vintage or period-specific fabrics to patch your quilt or reproduction vintage fabrics can be used to replace damaged areas.

If you don’t feel confident in your ability to do the repairs, find a reputable quilt repair service or restoration service. They can restore your quilt or tell you if the damage to your quilt is beyond repair.

Treating Stains on a Vintage Quilt

If washing the quilt did not remove all of the stains, you can remove most spots by mixing a solution of oxygen-based bleach and cold water. Oxygen bleach is safe to use on cotton fabrics but do not use for silk or wool quilts. Follow the package directions as to how much product you should add per gallon of water. Completely submerge the quilt in the solution and allow it to soak for at least four hours. If the stain is gone, rinse thoroughly, and dry. If it remains, mix a new solution and repeat. It may take several soakings to remove the stain, but it should eventually come out. 

A colorful quilt on a country clothesline
Mary Hockenbery / Getty Images

Tips for Washing and Drying Quilts

  • If you have hard water or iron bacteria in your water source, use distilled water for washing a quilt. You don’t want to risk having minerals stain the fabric.
  • You can dry a quilt outside by placing a sheet on the grass and then spreading out the quilt on top. Cover the quilt with another clean sheet and allow it to dry. Do not dry in direct sunlight without the top sheet in place or fading can occur. Never suspend a wet quilt from a clothesline as it creates too much stress on seams and may cause tearing or displaced batting.