What to do with Vintage Quilt Tops: Suggestions from a Preservation Perspective

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By Amy Friend, Seacoast MQG

Thanks for joining me these past couple of weeks for my quilt preservation series.  If you missed them, my earlier posts covered Quilt Storage and Quilt Display.  Today I would like to talk about vintage quilt tops…let me tell you why.  A few months ago, a neighbor approached me with a bag full of vintage quilt tops that were made by her grandmother.  She wanted to know if I had any suggestions as to how they should be finished.  I started mulling it over and had more questions than answers.

I started by thinking of finishing techniques–would it be best to hand tie, hand quilt, quilt on a domestic machine or a longarm.  Should the quilting pattern used be typical of the time period when the top was made?  How would the quilt be used and would it tolerate the handling, the stresses of quilting, etc.  Would it even be worth it in the long run to finish a top that might not stand up to the intended use?

These questions led to my discussion with Camille, the textile conservator referenced in my earlier posts, and we both had the same gut reaction. If these were our quilt tops, we wouldn’t want to finish them.  I think that reaction is unusual though and is the reaction of someone trained in preservation.  We feel like our role in preservation is to not make changes to the object that might be contrary to the maker’s intentions.

Hand tied vintage quilt. Photo courtesy of Kerry Goulder, www.kidgiddy.blogspot.com.

I told Camille that I knew there were people who would want to finish the vintage tops though and what might be the best way.  I was concerned that domestic machine quilting might cause too much stress on the quilt top. You know how the quilts tend to need to be pulled and pushed and otherwise wrangled while quilting?  She agreed that very often vintage tops can’t stand up to all that manipulation but beyond that, they simply can’t hold up to all the stitching and punctures caused by stitching.  I was missing that obvious point in my thought process. I thought that maybe the quilting would help secure piecing seams in the quilt top but Camille said that while stitching through vintage fabrics feels really great, it weakens them greatly.

So how can we finish a top then with the least damage possible?  Camille suggests finishing in a way that uses a minimum number of stitches.  Lengthen your stitch length and stitch along existing seam lines if you want to machine quilt.  Stitching along structural lines (seam lines) does not impose your design elements on the vintage quilt top.  Better yet, she suggests hand tying the quilt.  She asks that people “respect the original quilter’s vision” and recommends that you “think twice before you greatly alter their quilt top.”

Vintage quilt found in my great-grandmother's house. Maker unknown.

If a vintage top is finished, it needs to be treated as vintage. In other words, it cannot be used as a bed quilt without knowing that it will be ruined in short order. The fibers are simply not strong enough.  You might consider some of the display suggestions I made in my last article instead.  As Camille said, vintage quilts and quilt tops are one of a kind survivors.  If you choose to use the quilt, know you are using it up.

Please know that the views expressed in this post are mine, informed by my conversation with a textile conservator.  They are not intended to condemn others who make different choices but rather to express another point of view and share some recommendations made by someone with specialized training in the field.  I hope you find them helpful or at very least, food for thought!

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