Rediscovering Your Quilted Heritage

Fashions come and go, and for a while handmade quilts fell out of fashion in favor of “store-bought” bed coverings. Since our nation’s bicentennial in 1976, Americans have once again come to value handcrafts like quilting.You can help to preserve the lovely handmade quilts in your family. The more than 3,500 quilts documented by the North Dakota Quilt Project represent just a fraction of the wonderful quilts in the state. You can add to the collection.

Searching The first step is to locate your family’s quilts. Check with your relatives to discover what treasures may be lurking in their linen closets. Don’t forget to ask about untreasured quilts as well. Some wonderful old quilts have been discovered in many unexpected places – used as a dust cover in someone’s woodworking shop, as a bed in a dog house, in the trunk of a car, covered over with polyester chintz for use as a “modern” bedspread.

Researching Ask you family for all the information they can give you about the quilt and its maker. Once you learn who made it, it will help you determine the date, but be sure to double check the family stories, which can be wildly inaccurate.A quilt can tell you a lot about itself. The type of pattern, the fabrics used, the techniques employed, even the thread can give clues to when it was made. To learn more about dating a quilt, visit the Prairie Quilts web site. You can also check with your local historical society, or the nearest quilters guild where there are sure to be knowledgeable quilt lovers.

Labeling Once you gather information about the quilt, make sure the information doesn’t get lost. You can make label from prewashed, undyed muslin and record the information you know on the label with a fabric pen. Hand stitch the label to the back of the quilt in an inconspicuous place.

Preserving Anything made of fabric is subject to the effects of time. Some tips to help your preserve your family’s treasures:Sunlight can be very damaging to fabric, especially dyes. Store your quilt out of direct sun.Roll rather than fold your quilts. If rolling isn’t practical, take your quilts out periodically and fold them in different places so they don’t develop creases which can weaken the fabric.

  • Don’t store your quilts in plastic — fabric needs to breathe. A cotton bag or large sheet can be used as a dustcover.
  • Don’t store fabric on a wood shelf or in a cedar hope chest. Oils from the wood can leach into the fabrics and stain them.
  • Wash your old quilts with care — by hand. Old fabric can disintegrate with rough handling in a washing machine even on the delicate cycle. Use a soap especially designed for old textiles such as Ensure™ or Orvis Soap and wash your old quilt in the bathtub carefully rinsing all the soap out.
  • Never dry clean a vintage quilt.
  • To learn more about preserving quilts, visit the Collecting and Caring For Quilts site at