I spend a lot of time quilting, but I spend even more time working at my day job as a museum curator. I've worked in museums for 11 years, currently as the Curator of the Pick Museum of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University, and for most of my career I've specialized in caring for, exhibiting, and preserving textiles. I've been lucky to work at museums throughout the Midwest and care for textiles, including quilts, from around the world. I recently completed a certificate in textile collections care from the International Preservation Studies Center, and I am lucky to work with a beautiful collection of textiles every day at the Pick Museum.
One of the things I love about our quilting community is our desire to learn more about quilting history and to preserve quilts. Saving quilts long term is an admirable task, but sometimes our storage, materials, and handling can do more harm than good.
As a quilter and a curator, here are my top tips for preserving heirloom or historic quilts in your home, plus a behind the scenes look at the kind of work museums professionals do to preserve textiles. For more information, listen to my interview about home quilt storage on Sit & Sew Radio.
Storage Materials and Techniques
There are three main ways that museums store textiles in our collections storage spaces.
Boxed storage works well for most flat textiles and tailored garments. Rolled storage works best for single layer flat textiles, and is suitable for some multi-layer flat textiles. However, rolled storage would be very difficult to execute in your home. Hanging storage using padded hangers is best for very stable tailored garments. For in-home quilt storage, the most realistic storage option is boxing your quilts.
Your Ideal Storage: To really enhance your in-home quilt storage, it is best to store quilts folded in acid free boxes. Proper quilt storage boxes are made of inert material called blue board that is free of any dangerous chemicals or materials. If you are able to financially invest in storage, you can buy these boxes from a number of museum retailers. Gaylord Archival and University products are two popular museum storage supply retailers, but there are many more. You'll also want to order unbuffered acid free tissue to use as cushion and padding.
What to Avoid: Do not store your quilts in acidic environments that can cause serious and irreversible damage to your textiles over time. Cardboard boxes should never be used in place of archival blue board boxes. Wood is extremely hazardous to textiles. Using a beloved cedar chest for storage will very badly damage your quilts over time as oils in the wood will seep into your textile causing it to discolor and deteriorate. If your only options for quilt storage is in a wooden box or cabinet, you can minimize negative effects by sealing the wood with polyurethane varnish. Wrap your quilts in washed unbleached cotton muslin or unbuffered acid free tissue as an extra layer of protection against long-term contact with wood.
How to Handle Your Quilt
I'm going to let you in on a secret...most museums textile specialists don't wear gloves! Many do, but I choose to work without gloves. Gloves create a barrier between you and your textile, and you are more likely to accidentally damage a textile with that barrier in place. Cotton gloves can be especially damaging because they hold dust and grime that can be transferred to your quilt. So, by making sure you carefully wash your hands before handling a quilt, you are doing exactly what most textile specialists do in museums!
Remove any jewelry that may catch on your quilt and cause a snag or tear. Rings, bracelets, watches, and long necklaces should not be worn when handling your quilt. Do not eat or drink near your quilt.
Visually assess your quilt as much as possible before you pick it up. Look for any weak seams or damaged fabric, like shattered silk or unidirectional loss. Damage like this is especially likely on crazy quilts. Look at your quilt and determine the strongest areas. Only handle your quilt in those strong areas. The crazy quilt photos below show damage and weak areas to avoid handling. Photos courtesy of my friends at the Downers Grove Museum, visit them to see this quilt yourself!
Folding Your Quilt
Now that you've gathered your storage supplies and learned about safe handling, it's time to fold your quilt. Line your acid free blue board box with unbuffered tissue. Make sure to fold it as few times as possible to fit in your storage box. When you fold a quilt, your fold lines are likely to become creases which cause permanent damage and can lead to tears or loss. Start to envision your fold lines more as gentle curves than harsh flat folds. You can create these curves by making long pillows out of your unbuffered tissue. Pad each fold with a tissue pillow. Gently put the folded quilt in your box. These photos show a demonstration of folding and boxing a multi-layer textile from the Pick Museum's textile collection. The piece is a modern Hmong American reverse applique textile.
Try to only store one of two quilts per storage box. The weight of your quilts can press down on tissue pillows and cause permanent creases. Open your storage box about every six months to refold your quilt in a new way so it is not folded along the same lines for too long, leading to permanent creases. This is also a great time to check for any pest activity in and around your quilt storage area.
Textiles, including some multi-layer quilts, can also be rolled onto acid free tubes, but that is a much more difficult technique to execute in your home. Here is a look at the Pick Museum's rolled flat textile storage and photos demonstrating how to roll a textile.
Choosing Your Storage Location
Quilts will be most safe in a storage space on the main floor of your home, or any space in your home where temperature is regulated. Quilts are typically made of organic materials, and so are you! If you're comfortable in an area of your house, your quilt will be too.
Storing quilts in an unregulated attic space will expose your quilt to high levels of heat which will dry out the textiles causing them to become brittle over time. Basement storage is likely to have high levels of humidity, which can be absorbed and held in organic textiles. Your quilt could change shape, discolor from die transfer, retain water marks, or even grow mold. The museum standard temperature of storage and exhibit spaces is around 65-72 degrees and the standard for relative humidity is around 45-55%.
Basements and attics are also the most likely location for pest activity in your home. Storing quilts on the levels of your home that are temperature regulated will reduce the chances that pests like carpet beetles, clothes moths, silverfish, or rodents will eat or nest in your collection. Make sure to keep your storage area very clean to deter pests. Do not use any chemicals or moth balls as pest deterrents.
Sun is very dangerous for textiles. Damage from natural light is permanent, so do not store your quilts in a bright area of your home. If you display heirloom quilts from your collection, avoid hanging the quilt on a wall with heavy sun exposure. If you're serious about preserving your quilts, it's best to rotate them off your walls about every 3-6 months and put them back in your storage space for a couple years. That gives your quilt a break from light, dust, and other hazards, and gives you a chance to show off more quilts from your collection!
Cleaning if Necessary
If your antique quilt needs to be wet cleaned, it's best to hire a professional conservator who will test the fabrics and make sure it's not damaged in the cleaning process. You can find a conservator through the American Institute for Conservation. Avoid taking your quilt to a dry cleaner.
If there is dust, pet hair, or other light surface grime on your quilt, you can vacuum it. Museum Textile Services has great instructions for vacuuming textiles on their website.
Where to Learn More
One of my favorite textile books is Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist by Harold F. Mailand and Dorothy Stites Alig. This book will provide you with information about how museums store, preserve, and display textiles and give you ideas for taking better long-term care of your own quilts. Preserving Textiles is available on Amazon.
Museum Textile Services is a great textile conservation company in Massachusetts. MTS has dozens of helpful resources available for free download on their website.
The International Preservation Studies Center is an incredible resource for hands-on learning experiences about caring for textiles. Located in Mount Carroll, Illinois, IPSC offers six multi-day workshops on textile preservation. IPSC brings world-class instructors to their campus for immersive and hands-on classroom experiences. Food and housing are provided in the cost of registration, and Mount Carroll is high on small town charm. IPSC currently doesn't have a class focusing exclusively on quilts, but you can apply what you learn in other textile preservation classes to your quilt collection. The best part is you don't need to be a museum professional to take classes! IPSC is open to anyone wanting to learn more about caring for collections. The photos below are from some of the textile preservation classes I've taken at IPSC.
Thanks and Come Visit the Pick Museum!
Thank you for reading my tips for home quilt storage. One of the things I love most about working with textiles is their complexity. I learn more about care and preservation of textiles every day! Please feel free to contact me through the website for any questions or clarifications.
If you're in the DeKalb, Illinois area, make sure to visit the Pick Museum! We feature textiles in exhibits regularly since they are such an important part of our collection. Our current exhibit, Storytelling: Hmong American Voices, explores 40 years of history since Hmong refugees came to America after the Vietnam War. Textiles are integral to Hmong history, and our exhibit highlights the incredible textile art made by Hmong Americans, like Chicago-based artist J. Tshab Her.