Over the next few weeks, we'll be exploring quilt conservation with articles by Amy Friend, a member of the Seacoast MQG. Enjoy!
Photo courtesy of Jeni Baker
Years ago, before I decided to stay home with my children and start designing quilts, I was a collections curator. I worked with a huge range of objects including antique automobiles, paintings, and ceramics. The proper care of objects has always been important to me. I like the idea of preserving objects for future generations.
I have been out of the field for a while now so I met with a former colleague, Camille Myers Breeze, founder and director of Museum Textile Services in Andover, MA last year to check my facts and seek her recommendations on the topics of quilt care and preservation. I intend to share this information with you in a series of blog posts: Quilt Storage, Quilt Display, and What to do with Vintage Quilt Tops.
I thought I would start with the proper storage of quilts. Many of us have toppling stacks of quilts, stuffed cabinets and closets. Sometimes these collections include vintage quilts and sometimes they are our own contemporary quilt work. The best storage practices are the same and can be quite simple.
In years past, it was advised that quilts be rolled. Then acid free boxes were used. The current recommendation from Camille, a textile conservator, is to use plastic storage tubs that yes, you can even buy at Target! The type of plastic is important. You want to look for polypropylene tubs.
If you scour the tubs, you will find this recycling symbol, normally on the bottom of the container. It means that the box is made from polypropylene, a type of plastic that is chemically stable and will not release degradation products that can damage the contents of the box (in this case, quilts). The Sterilite brand offers a wide variety of polypropylene boxes. It’s also best to not have too many quilts stacked in one box because the weight of the quilts at the top put pressure on the quilts below. Shallow boxes are ideal. You can also put your more delicate quilts on the top if you need to use a deeper box.
To fold your quilts, measure the width of the box. If the box is 14″ wide, make the first fold up from the bottom of the quilt just under 14″ wide. Pad that fold with a “snake” of acid free tissue. Simply take a piece of tissue that is the same width as the quilt and twist it. Place it in the fold. A great place to buy Acid Free Tissue is Talas. Place another tissue snake along the binding edge and then fold again. There is now a piece of tissue cushioning both folds. Continue folding the quilt up to the top. Next, fold the quilt to fit the width of the box, placing tissue snakes in the folds. Camille said that interleaving the tissue between every layer is unnecessary. If tissue is placed in the manner described, all folds have a pad and it is sufficient. This is good news for our budgets too.
Once the quilts are folded and placed in the polypropylene tub, it’s a good idea to mark the contents on the outside of the box. This is common curatorial practice because it means that the contents of the box do not need to be handled as frequently. The clear characteristic of polypropylene helps with this as well (a benefit over acid free boxes). You could tape a plastic sleeve to the outside of the box and put a picture of the quilts in the sleeve as illustrated here. It’s tempting to put the paper inside the box and skip the plastic sleeve step, but, as Camille warns, if water ever got into the box, the ink would run onto your quilts.
It’s best to store textiles out of the light and in a relatively stable environment where there aren’t huge swings of temperature and humidity. Closets, under the bed, interior halls, etc. in the main living areas of your home are the best choices. The attic and basement should be avoided.
While you don’t want to handle fragile quilts too often, it’s a good idea to check on quilts in long term storage at least once every 3-5 years to make sure that there is no sign of pests or other damage.
Now, we all do our best. If there is one thing I learned in my early years at a very low budget non-profit museum, it is compromise. You can’t always do things perfectly due to budget, space, or environment. However, anything you do toward the goal of preservation is helpful and worth doing! I do not have any vintage quilts of my own. If I did, I would certainly store them as outlined above. I do, however, have lots of quilts made by myself in the last 5 years or so. Many of these quilts I need to keep accessible for trunk shows, etc. I had them stored in plastic but didn’t have sufficient space in our house to do so and they were really an eyesore in the corner of my bedroom! So, I chose to move my quilts to a hutch. I did find a hutch that had closely spaced shelves so that the quilts are no more than 4 high, generally only 3. The hutch is away from the radiators in my house and in the main living level so the environment is good. It is out of direct light. There are some improvements I could make and plan to make over time, including padding all the folds (that’s first up!).
Let’s talk about other, less perfect options. Lots of people have cedar chests and traditionally, they have been used to store special heirloom textiles. However, cedar is very acidic and can result in discoloration of your quilts (the exception is wool or silk quilts because they are naturally acidic). If you need to use it, slip your quilts into cotton pillow cases first. If you have a wooden piece of furniture that you want to use for quilt storage, a couple of coats of Latex paint or waterborne polyurethane, provide a good barrier. You could also create an archival liner for your chest or hutch. Probably the most accessible product for the non-professional is Tyvek because you can buy it at Home Depot or Lowes. Just make sure that you have the text side of the Tyvek facing away from your quilts. Tyvek can be sewn so you can stitch liners on your sewing machine.
I hope that these ideas help you as you mull over solutions for long term quilt storage in your home.
Next up, we will talk about Quilt Display!