Caring for those patchwork heirlooms

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Almost every home has at least one -- a quilt made from colorful squares of fabric carefully stitched together to create an intricate design. Some are homemade family heirlooms, others were bought because of an eye-catching quality.

"Quilts interest people of all ages, from the very young to the very old." said Thelma Stone, a member of the River Heritage Quilting Society. "It's possible there are more quilts being made today than ever before."

Preserving these quilted works of art may take more than most owners realize. And with proper preservation, a quilt can be more valuable with age.

Stone, who became a certified quilt appraiser with the American Quilter's Society in 1990, said there are many factors to consider when appraising the value of a quilt. The condition of the quilt, its construction, color, design and workmanship are important factors.

"Sometimes the pattern is important because a lot are very intricate and some are very plain," she said.

Quilts were often a way that women chose to express their political and social views, she said. So many of the older patterns like "Drunkard's Path," "Democrat Rose" or "Whig Rose" are not common. "Quilts are very historical and people don't realize this," she said.

Knowing the value of a quilt can be useful for insurance purposes, and also is needed if a quilt is to be donated to a museum or raffle. Stone appraises about 50 quilts in a year, often going to shows or workshops.

She said there are many common mistakes people should avoid when storing quilts.

"One major mistake is putting quilts in wooden chests," Stone said. "The acid in the wood can cause brown spots."

To avoid damaging the blankets, or other linens, chests should be lined with cloth, like old sheets or unbleached muslin.

Owners should also try to avoid washing or dry cleaning quilts.

"The chemicals break down fibers," Stone said. "The best way to clean the quilts is to put nylon netting over a vacuum attachment and go over the blanket in a one-way motion."

If the quilt has to be washed, it should be done very carefully and only with a small amount of a gentle laundry soap such as Orbus or Biz. This can be done in a washer or by hand but the quilt will need to be rinsed thoroughly after washing.

Quilts can also be aired, but not on a clothesline. They should always be spread out flat on top of a clean surface, such as a sheet. If the quilt is outside it should also be covered with another sheet, so that it won't be damaged by the sun.

Owners should avoid exposing the quilt to direct sunlight to prevent the colors from fading.

When folding quilts for display or for storage, owners should remember to refold blankets in a different way each time. This will help prevent damage and permanent crease lines.

Proper care is important because quilts can become prized family heirlooms. Even quilts that have just been pieced might one day belong to someone's great-grandchildren, said Merle Deneke, historian for the River Heritage Quilt Guild.

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