Sunday, June 28, 2015

PSA: Please don't wash antique quilt tops!

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on antique quilts. The best I know is Barbara Brackman and there are many others that know more than me. Now here's my story:

Years ago (10?), my great-aunt gave me an antique quilt top made by someone in the family. She didn't remember anything about it. Most of the fabrics are from the 1930's, though some seem possibly older. It's a true scrap bag treasure. My great-grandmother was a quilter, so I'm hoping she was the quiltmaker, but there's really no way to know.

The pattern is Nosegay, and like most of the fabrics in it, is typical of the 1930's:

You can see that the edges are really wavy. All the patches on the edge of the quilt top are cut on the bias. There were no setting triangles or borders to contain the bias and they got really stretched out.

Here's a close-up of the bottom edge to show a little better how wavy it is, plus how the corners look like tear drops. 

Now here's a close up shot of the back. You can see that someone along the way washed it. The seams have raveled...a lot.

I repaired the open seams but you can see that the top is hand pieced and there is not a lot of seam allowance left in places because when the top was washed, so much of the seam allowance raveled up and went away.

Here's what I trimmed off the back. The pen is just to show you how big the wad of thread is. All of this should have been seam allowance helping hold the beautiful patchwork together.

It's understandable that old quilt tops are sometimes smelly and dirty, but if you're willing to go to the trouble to work on them and want to use them, then don't you want them to hold up as best as possible? Here's my advice: put them in a plastic bag with several dryer sheets and let them sit for a few days. This should take care of any smells. If it doesn't, put new dryer sheets in and give them a few more days. Please, please wait until after you have quilted and bound your treasure, then wash it.

I quilted this top in a simple but dense swirl pattern that gave me the flexibility to wander around as I needed to and reinforce trouble spots, and help hold everything together as well as possible. I don't personally feel that old quilts have to be either hand quilted, or quilted in motifs as they would have been in the era they were made. There are those who do feel that way, and that's fine, too.

After it was quilted, I trimmed off some of the wavy edges to try to make it a (little!) flatter but also try to preserve the half-block look of the design on the sides. I had some vintage 30's fabric a friend gave me that I used for the binding, and now instead of a top sitting in the closet, it's a full-grown quilt! And labeled with what little I know about it.

When it needs washing, I'll wash it by hand in the bath tub. It's too fragile to do anything else.

If you have an old family heirloom sitting around, why not pull it out and finish it up? There are some tops that may have been set aside because they had problems (like not laying flat! lol) or for any other number of reasons, but done is better than perfect, right? I'd like to think my great grandmother, or whoever set this aside way back when, is smiling right now.

Do you have an old top that's been passed down to you? Have you thought about finishing it?

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Great job Nan.. very impressive and look what a loving memory you have of your family history. Well done.

  2. Thanks! It feels good to have it done. :)