Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Caring for your Heirloom Quilts

We get inquiries in the conservation lab fairly often about how to hang heirloom quilts. Director of Preservation and Conservation Rick Kerschner wrote up these suggestions a few years ago and we've been distributing them on request.

I have a few cautions about mounting quilts on the wall. Once a quilt is mounted on the wall, it tends to stay up for a long time. Most textile conservators recommend limiting exhibition to 6 months to a year. At Shelburne, we take our quilts down every few years (we are only open 6 months a year) and rotate new ones onto display. I would encourage homeowners to also implement some reasonable schedule to rotate a quilt back to storage for at least an equal amount of time that it is being displayed. In general, we prefer to cover our quilts with Lexan (polycarbonate), Mylar, or Melinex whenever possible to protect them from dust and handling. I am sure that you probably have good filters on your furnace to filter out dust, but dust that is kicked up from the floor that never makes it into the HVAC system can still be a problem. For that reason, I would recommend that the bottom of the quilt be at least 2 feet above the floor.

Cleaning a quilt that has been hanging
1.Obtain a piece of plastic window screen and bind the edges so that they will not snag the textile.
2. Lay quilt flat.
3. Place the window screen on top of the quilt and, using a brush attachment on a HEPA vacuum with suction control set to low suction, vacuum both sides of the quilt. Avoid rubbing the brush attachment against the screening.

Vacuuming a quilt through a screen
Light and your quilt
Be sure to mount the quilt away from daylight, not just out of direct sunlight from a window, but away from any significant window light. Actually, the highest light levels are recorded in a home during the winter when the sun is low in the sky and can shoot in windows, and when there is snow on the ground to reflect the light into the house. Daylight will fade certain dyes on antique quilts very quickly, and can cause deterioration to fibers on fabrics that contain metal based mordants (iron-based mordants are found in brown-dyed cotton fabrics of the late nineteenth century). It is fine to light the quilt with track lights, but they should be mounted well back from the quilt (about 5 feet) and low wattage wide floods should be used to illuminate it (35 to 50 watt tungsten floods are best - the old fragile looking frosted kind, not the newer halogen lights, as they have too much UV radiation). If you can feel any heat on the back of your hand when it is held in front of the quilt, the lights are too close. It is better to try to get a low, even light on the entire quilt using several floods than to use one or two bright halogen bulbs and have too much light in some areas and a spotty appearance. It would be best if the light track could be on a separate switch so that it can be turned off without making the entire room dark.

Check with a conservator in your area for additional advice and ask to have light levels measured for the final installation. A conservator can be located through the American Institute for Conservation Referral Service.

Displaying quilts
Finally, there are other ways to display heirloom quilts:
1. Lightly folded at the bottom of a bed
2. Draped over a wide tube (6" diameter or more) mounted parallel to the wall (this displays half the quilt at a time and the quilt can be easily turned so that the other side is exposed to the "elements." No Velcro or other mounting mechanisms are required for this display method).
3. Very fragile and precious quilts are usually lightly folded in long and narrow acid-free storage boxes that can be stored under a bed or on a high closet shelf and brought out only occasionally for special guests. 

There are a number of other good resources on caring for heirloom textiles available on the internet. In particular, there are good general guides to caring for textiles on the American Institute for Conservation's website and the Textile Museum's website. The Philadelphia Museum of Art shares some of their techniques for storing historic garments and accessories on their site and the Minnesota  Historical Society shares their tips for storing flat textiles in boxes.

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