Q: I just scored a handmade vintage quilt at a yard sale. It’s pretty, but I doubt it’s valuable, so I’d rather not go to the expense of having it cleaned professionally. What’s the best way to do it myself?
— Kelly M., Irvington
A: How do you clean a handmade quilt? The short answer is ‘gently and by hand.’ In the olden days, quilts were usually aired rather than washed, so you could do as grandma did and hang it outdoors for a day to let the sun do its thing — ultraviolet radiation is a natural disinfectant that kills bacteria. Don’t use Febreze or other “fresheners”; it’s unclear what long-term effect such sprays have on fabrics. If the quilt seems dusty, you can first very carefully vacuum it, using the upholstery brush.
If that doesn’t do the trick, a cotton quilt can be washed. Those made of silk, wool or rayon should be cleaned by a pro unless you’re not worried about the possibly disastrous outcome. Hand-made quilts should not be dry-cleaned.
First, repair any unraveling stitching or tears. Test for color fastness by wetting a white cloth and dabbing it on each of the colored fabrics. Quilts made pre-Depression often contain fabrics whose dyes run, especially the yellows. If any color transfers to the white cloth, you’d better stick to spot cleaning.
Otherwise fill a bathtub with cool water and add a small quantity of mild, perfume-free, liquid detergent (experts recommend Orvus) along with half a cup of white vinegar, which will brighten the colors and help remove stains or odors. Lay the quilt on a sheet and lower it into the water, pushing it under to get it saturated. Let it soak for a few hours, giving it a gentle swish every once in a while. Drain the water, then refill the tub with clean water and leave the quilt for another hour or so. Drain and refill as many times as you need to remove all the soap. After the final rinse, gently squeeze out as much water as you can — don’t wring.
Here’s where you can expect to get a little damp yourself. A handmade quilt is heavy when wet, and wet fibers can easily be damaged, so take care. Spread several thicknesses of towels on the bathroom floor. Using the sheet to take the weight, lift the quilt out of the tub and put it on the towels. Unfurl it, and put more towels on top to absorb as much water as you can. Repeat with dry towels.
Dry the quilt flat, either on a bed with portable fans blowing on it, or better yet, outdoors on the grass, sandwiched between clean sheets. Hanging a wet quilt on a clothesline stresses the stitching and the fibers, but I’ve dried mine on top of a sheet in the hammock. True, it isn’t entirely flat, but the thing gets dry faster because air can circulate, and it looks quite picturesque into the bargain. The quilt probably won’t dry in a single day. Bring it in at dusk to prevent the dew from setting you back.
If your quilt is sturdy enough, you can risk putting it in the washing machine, providing you have one whose water level you control — some energy-saver models won’t work. Fill the washer with cool water. Add a mild, perfume-free detergent and agitate the machine to distribute it evenly in the water. Put the quilt in, and let the machine agitate on the delicate setting for a couple of seconds — no more. Turn off the machine and let the quilt soak. After an hour or so, run the “drain and spin” cycle. Without removing the quilt, fill the machine with water again, and let the quilt soak. Don’t agitate the quilt. Repeat a couple of times.
Once the quilt is clean, an annual airing is all it needs. If you want to store it in a wood chest or drawer, wrap it in a cotton sheet to keep prevent oils from the wood causing marks. Never store textiles in plastic.