How to Clean and Care for Vintage Quilts

A colorful quilt hanging on a clothesline

The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 2 hrs
  • Total Time: 2 days
  • Skill Level: Intermediate

Antique quilts are treasured additions to any home. But, these heirloom pieces require special care to preserve them for generations to come. Don't dry-clean or machine-wash a handmade quilt. Dry-cleaning chemicals can permanently harm old fabrics, and the agitation action of a washing machine can cause fibers to shred. Hand-washing is ideal for cleaning old quilts—learn the best way to do it.

How Often to Clean Vintage Quilts

Due to its delicate nature, washing your vintage quilt could damage or destroy its old fabrics. To be safe, 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. When washing, set aside at least two days for the hand-washing and drying process. Once it's cleaned, allow for additional drying time before storing your quilt.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Large tub or basin
  • Vacuum (optional)
  • Quilt drying rack (optional)
  • Fan (optional)

Materials

  • Mild liquid laundry detergent
  • 6 to 8 large towels
  • Large white sheet
  • Nylon stocking for vacuum (optional)
  • Cotton swab (optional)
  • Distilled white vinegar (optional)
  • Plastic tarp (optional)

Instructions

Vintage quilt in middle of folded towels and cup of detergent

The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

How to Wash Vintage Quilts
Detergent Gentle liquid 
Water Temperature Cold
Cycle Type Hand-wash only
Drying Cycle Type Air-dry only
Special Treatments Wash alone 
Iron Settings Do not iron
  1. Freshen the Vintage Quilt

    Begin by airing out your quilt outside on a sunny day to restore freshness. To remove dust, vacuum with a nylon stocking over the end of the vacuum hose, holding the tube slightly above the top of the quilt. If the quilt has beading, embroidery, or appliqués, don't vacuum or you could damage the work.

    Someone hanging a quilt on a clothesline

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  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's any color transfer to the swab, don’t wash the quilt as it will result in discoloration and fading.

    Someone testing a quilt for colorfastness

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  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.

    Water running from a faucet into a tub

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  4. Add Detergent

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

    Someone adding detergent to the water

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  5. Hand-Wash

    Place the quilt in the water, and ensure that the entire quilt gets wet. Gently swish the quilt around in the water. Allow it to remain in the water for about 10 minutes.

    Someone hand-washing a quilt

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  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 free of soap.

    Someone wringing out a quilt

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  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. Place the quilt on a bed of heavy towels on the floor with a plastic tarp underneath to prevent damage to floors. Remember to handle wet quilts gently—pulling can break seams and cause damage. 

    Someone placing a quilt between towels

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

  8. Drying the Quilt

    Cover the quilt with more dry 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 speed the process.

    Vintage quilt covered by white towels

    The Spruce / Nanor Zinzalian

    Storing a Vintage Quilt

    One of the best ways to store any quilt is to place it flat on an extra bed and cover it with a clean sheet or bedspread. Keeping the quilt flat will eliminate creases and wear on folds. If storing the quilt flat isn't an option, there are other ways to protect your treasure.

    Don't store your vintage quilt in an attic or basement, where moisture and temperature levels fluctuate. Also, don't store an antique quilt in a cedar chest. If the quilt touches raw wood, the acid in the wood can eat away at the quilt. Here's what you can do instead:

    • Archival box: Store the quilt inside a box made for archival storage. This type of box is usually made of safe acid-free paper.
    • Fabric bag: Roll the quilt around an acid-free tube, and slip it in a cotton or muslin bag.
    • Plastic bin: If you're concerned about the box getting crushed, choose a plastic bin as a last resort—because the quilt needs to be able to breathe. The plastic container must be made of cast polypropylene to be safe for your keepsakes. Look for the number five within the recycling triangle (usually located under the bottom of the bin) or the letters “PP” to ensure you have the correct type of box.
    • Acid-free tissue paper: Before you fold a quilt and store it, use acid-free tissue paper as padding to prevent sharp creases.

    Warning

    Never use mothballs when storing an antique quilt. The chemicals in the balls could break down the fragile fibers of your quilt.

    Quilts folded in a closet
    hillwoman2 / Getty Images

    Repairs

    Before you clean an old quilt, repair any rips or tears in the fabric, which will also preserve the life of the quilt. Spread out the quilt, and examine carefully for any worn patches, rips, or stains.

    If you sew well, repair the quilt yourself by using small stitches and thread 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 or restoration service. They can restore your quilt or tell you if the damage is beyond repair.

    Treating Stains on a Vintage Quilt

    If washing the quilt didn't remove all the stains, you can remove most spots by mixing a solution of oxygen bleach and cold water. Oxygen bleach is safe to use on cotton fabrics, but don't use it 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 clothesline
    Mary Hockenbery / Getty Images

    Tips for Washing a Vintage Quilt

    • 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 ground and then spreading the quilt on top. Cover the quilt with another clean sheet, and allow it to dry. Don't 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.