Quilt Display: Tips from a Preservation Perspective

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Above: Antique Star Quilt, photo courtesy of Amy Smart, www.diaryofaquilter.com.

By Amy Friend, Seacoast MQG

This is the second installment of my quilt preservation and care series. In my last article, I spoke about quilt storage.

Today’s topic is quilt use/display.Before continuing on, I want to make clear that I am speaking from a preservation perspective (right up there in the title!). I know that many people make their quilts to be used and loved. It’s wonderful to see handmade quilts wrapped around people and I have made countless quilts that are used just that way too. I simply want to address the fact that quilts are ephemeral. This means that they will not last forever. If you make a quilt to be used and loved, just go into it knowing that it will not last forever. From the second it starts to experience use, it begins to wear out. If you have a quilt that you would like to see passed through your family as an heirloom, or a collection of vintage quilts, or a quilt that won a ribbon in a show that you want to keep because it represents a special achievement to you, you need to think like a conservator.

Photo courtesy of Kerry Goulder, kidgiddy.blogspot.com.

As I mentioned last week, I consulted with textile conservator Camille Breeze when preparing this article. She made the statement that “display is slow damage.” It’s very true. One of her top tips is to minimize the amount of time a single quilt is on display by changing them out often. Think of your quilts as seasonal. Allow them to spend part of each year in proper storage and then on display. Permanent display leads to irreversible damage.

Photo courtesy of Jaime Costiglio, thatsmyletter.blogspot.com

Camille recommends “passive use” for quilts that you are attempting to preserve. You might display them at the bottom of a guest bed, in a room free of pets. If there is an area of damage on your vintage quilt, you could arrange it so that the damaged area is hidden within the folds.

Photo courtesy of Lee Heinrich, freshlypieced.com

Quilt racks or ladders are another option. However, wood can cause discoloration. One simple solution is to wrap the ladder or rack poles with a clear archival polyester (Melinex or equivalent). It is a thin, transparent polyester film that can be cut to size and wrapped around the poles and secured to itself with double sided tape. Melinex is inert and will not cause any damage to your quilt and will protect it from direct contact with the wood.

Hanging quilts is another option. You can use a sleeve for hanging but Camille’s favorite hanging method involves Velcro. She has a pdf sheet describing the process of attaching the Velcro to your quilt here. Basically, you need to measure the width of your quilt and cut a piece of twill tape to length. Then machine sew the soft side of a long strip of Velcro onto the twill tape. Hand sew the twill tape to the true horizontal of the quilt (as you would a sleeve). Often times, unless a quilt is perfectly square, attaching a sleeve or Velcro in a straight line measured from the upper binding, will not result in a quilt that hangs flat. In order to get your quilt to hang flat, which will put less stress on the quilt, you need to find the true horizontal with a T square. The rough side of the Velcro is attached to the wall using a slat system described here. Due to the nature of Velcro, you can adjust your quilt a bit to make sure it is hanging well. Other hanging methods include magnetic slats so there are many options to explore.

Photo courtesy of Missie Carpenter, traditionalprimitives.com

In all cases, whether your quilt is displayed on the end of a bed, a rack or the wall, you should find a location where it will not be exposed to lots of light and therefore prone to fading. You also want a fairly stable atmosphere, as discussed in the storage article. Keep your quilts on interior walls, away from heating elements, and in the main living areas of your home (not the basement or attic). Keep a careful eye out for pests like insects or rodents.

As you are rotating your quilts between storage and display, it’s a good idea to gently clean them. A light vacuuming is the safest way to clean vintage quilts. You can use a regular household vacuum with suction control. Just adjust the suction to the lowest setting. When I worked in museums, it was recommended that we vacuum through a screen. Updated conservation practices ask that you not use a screen because contact with the screen can cause damage to the textile. Using a soft paint brush, brush the dust off the quilt toward the vacuum. Museum Textile Services provides a free pdf describing textile vacuuming procedures.

I hope that these ideas will help you to make careful decisions about how you display your quilts to preserve them for future generations. Next week, I will be back with some thoughts about vintage quilt tops.

A version of this article previously appeared on Amy's blog, duringquiettime.com. The article and all images are used with permission.