The Archive Lady: Preserving the Family Quilt

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Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, Offers Advice on the best ways to preserve old family quilts!

Sara in Washington D.C. asks: “I have several family quilts that have been handed down to me. For years I have used them on my beds, but now I am thinking they need to be put away and preserved properly. What is the best way to store quilts so that they will not get damaged? The quilts already have some small rips and tears.”

Sara asks a great question about quilts she has inherited from her family members. Many of us have family quilts that we own and treasure. While I don’t have any old quilts, I have several that my Mother made during her lifetime that I will forever treasure.  I find that many people are intimidated and unsure of what to do with their heirloom textiles, such as quilts. Most of the time, preserving textiles is quite easy and something that anyone can do. The one thing to remember with any preservation project that is undertaken is: Don’t Do Anything You Can’t Undo.

Melissa Barker, Archivist, inspecting a WWI quilt.
Melissa Barker, Archivist, inspecting a WWI quilt.

The process to preserve a family quilt only requires the purchase of these two items, which can be bought at any online archival materials store: (see list below)

  • Archival Tissue Paper
  • An Archival Box to fit the quilt

Now, I am always asked if the quilt should be thrown into the washing machine and then the dryer to be cleaned. The answer is NO!  I understand that Grandma probably did this over and over, but now that you want to preserve the quilt, it does not need to be in a washer or dryer. If you feel that you must get it cleaned, I would suggest that you take it to a local dry cleaner that can be trusted to do the job properly. Otherwise, my professional opinion is to not get it cleaned and to not clean it yourself.

If the quilt has rips or tears in it, I suggest that they be left alone. Trying to mend these rips and tears could cause more damage. A textile conservator could be consulted to see if they have the knowledge and ability to restore the quilt. To locate a textile conservator, contact the state archives where you live. They should have one on staff or contact information for the one they use for their textile restoration.

Church quilt top, ca. 1928, being quilted ca. 2016, Houston County, Tennessee.
Church quilt top, ca. 1928, being quilted ca. 2016, Houston County, Tennessee.

Fold the quilt, interweaving archival tissue paper between each layer so that the quilt does not touch itself. Once the quilt is folded to fit into the archival box, there should be no place where the quilt is touching itself. The archival tissue paper acts as a buffer and a layer of protection from any damage. It also protects the quilt: if for some reason mold gets on it; the tissue paper will hopefully keep the mold from spreading.

Place the folded quilt into the archival box. If the quilt is smaller than the box, crumple up archival tissue paper and place round the quilt so that it does not move in the box. Do not stuff the quilt in a box that is too small, this could cause damage. Using the correct size box is important. If you can’t find a perfectly sized box, one that is a little bit larger is better.

Boxing the quilt.
Boxing the quilt.

Type up information or a narrative of who the quilt belonged to, who made the quilt and how you came to own the quilt. Place this information in the box with the quilt. If you have old photos of the quilt or the person who made it or owned it, make good quality copies on archival paper and put in the box with the quilt. Put the copies and narrative in archival sheet protectors or in archival file folders. This is to insure that the next generation who owns this quilt will know the history.

Store the boxed quilt in a cool, dark and dry place. Never store textiles or genealogical records in attics, basements or in humid places. The best place to store these items are in places where it is cool or even cold. Also, keep away from sunlight and store in a dark place. It is important to check the humidity levels of the storage area. Humidity can cause mold to grow on your quilt and you don’t want that to happen.

Family quilts are family heirlooms that will endure for many years. Properly preserving them will insure that they will endure for generations to come.

Online Archival Material Websites

Here is a listing of online archival materials stores. Archival sleeves for letters can be purchased at any of the following online archival stores. They all have online catalogs and paper catalogs that can be sent to your home. Also, be sure to sign up for email notifications because they periodically have sales and will send out email notifications.

Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides

To properly preserve old family letters and envelopes, please watch my Legacy Family Tree Webinar Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist or read my Legacy Family Tree QuickGuide on this subject:

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Webinar

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Legacy QuickGuide

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist
Legacy Quick Guide

PDF version:

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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