Antique Quilts: Treasures Found, Lessons Learned

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of collecting or repairing vintage and antique quilts. Most of the time, these ventures filled me with joy. Occasionally, there were disappointments. But always, I learned something.

Two examples:

Several years ago I was commissioned to complete a quilt that had been started 60 years earlier. There were 45 redwork blocks beautifully embroidered, and enough vintage muslin to make a bed-sized quilt.

antique quilt backing with paper piecing
Here’s another example of a vintage quilt where the back interested me more
than the front. I will treasure this piece: the comics are actually dated 1976.

Before my client left, she pulled five log cabin squares from her purse that she found in the trunk with her grandmother’s unfinished quilt. My heart stopped. The fabrics were clearly very old–some were made before the turn of (the last) century and had still retained their color and vibrancy.

When I turned them over, I had another moment of discovery: the blocks had been foundation-pieced on salt bags, all from New England and New York. The fronts of the blocks were beautiful, but it was the back of the work that made them worthwhile and told their history.

Another time, I snagged a pretty little antique quilt my friend was about to give away.  It was composed of 24 hand-stitched 4″ wool log cabin blocks, with strips about 1/2″ wide. I could see indigo foundation fabric through the moth holes; there was a sweet sateen ruffle around the edge that has faded from cherry red to light pink. It must have been a doll quilt for some very lucky child.

I had lots of ideas for what to do with this darling textile, but first, it needed washing. It was quite dirty, so I let it soak in a pot of gentle detergent at room temperature.

antique quilt
The pretty antique quilt–before washing. I had hoped to re-fashion the blocks into a new quilt design, but it was not to be.

The results were…interesting. Lots of dirt washed out of the fabric, as well as lots of red dye. All of the fabric on the back disintegrated, probably due to the mordant breaking down the fibers. The fabric literally shredded, and much of it was in a lump at the bottom of the pot.

The ruffle–the source of the leaching dye–was now badly faded.

Washing had been absolutely necessary, but the clean antique quilt was not nearly as pretty as the dirty version. On the other hand, some aspects improved: the wool fabrics now had texture and were beautifully fulled and enough indigo fabric remained to help date the piece.

Lessons were learned, and I was able to salvage enough of the fabric to use in future projects, so all was not lost.

Quilt collecting can be enormously educational and rewarding. And viewing and researching quilts from the past can help you create your own contemporary quilt patterns.

Expert Bill Volckening has a collection of nearly 250 examples made between 1760 and present day and will present a live online web seminar, Quilt Collecting 101: 250 Years of American Quilts, January 14, 2015.

Bill says: “If you love eye candy, this web seminar is for you. American quiltmaking is such a vibrant, creative field, and I have been lucky to handle some of the most extraordinary quilts made throughout the ages. In the process of sharing my collection I discovered quiltmakers have an insatiable appetite for old quilts because the quilts are full of wonderful ideas.”

I wouldn’t miss Bill’s presentation, and I hope you’ll join us! Register now to see Quilt Collecting 101 live, or to receive a video and audio recording of the presentation you can watch at your convenience, again and again.

P.S. Do you collect antique or vintage quilts? Do you have a favorite story? Leave it in a comment below.

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13 thoughts on “Antique Quilts: Treasures Found, Lessons Learned

  1. Dear Vivika:

    As serendipity would have it, this edition on antique quilting comes right in the middle of my searching online quilt resources for ideas on how to preserve hand stitched tea towels and linens from my aunt who passed away recently. I intend to make small memory quilts for family members. One of them will incorporate floral patterns from a pillow case, and parts of two hand-stitched and embroidered tea towels. I’ve been wondering whether others would appreciate the visible age spots on parts of the fabric and considered the gentle wash you mentioned. After reading about your experience I’m confirmed in my decision not to wash them. Maybe I’ll cover over some of those areas with lace . . .

    From
    Sharon

  2. Greetings,

    You mentioned something interesting about the back of the quilt being more interesting. Having been a “ragpicker” for many years, it was brought to my attention that there’s no such thing as the “wrong” side of a fabric.

    In fact, I have a quilt of about the same vintage that was made by my great-aunt-same thing-the back is even nicer than the front!

    Happy quilting!

    Bill Jonke

  3. Greetings,

    You mentioned something interesting about the back of the quilt being more interesting. Having been a “ragpicker” for many years, it was brought to my attention that there’s no such thing as the “wrong” side of a fabric.

    In fact, I have a quilt of about the same vintage that was made by my great-aunt-same thing-the back is even nicer than the front!

    Happy quilting!

    Bill Jonke

  4. I have been very fortunate to have my great-great-aunt’s redwork quilt that she and her sister did in 1912. For the most part it is in excellent condition. Every square is different as they used patterns that had been found in magazines at that time, every time I look at it I find something new and exciting. The quilt has caused at times arguments between my mother and myself as she started the downward cycle of dementia but I have it and my youngest son will inherit it when I’m gone. I had it appraised last year for insurance purposes and have had 2 museums express interest it but for now I’m keeping it. People are always amazed when I tell them that the quilt has been well loved, pets have slept on it and until about 10 years ago it was always on a bed at my mom’s house and used!

  5. Vivika,
    I have several old quilts. The most recent is an Around The World, given to me by a friend after helping sell two of her quilts. All her quilts are hand made and quite beautiful.
    They have been in the family since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and well cared for and she is trying to sell them as she has none to inherit them. I have photos of them and drool over the photos often. I would like to be the greedy family member who would inherit them. LOL
    I enjoy your posts.
    Barbara

  6. Vivika,
    I have several old quilts. The most recent is an Around The World, given to me by a friend after helping sell two of her quilts. All her quilts are hand made and quite beautiful.
    They have been in the family since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and well cared for and she is trying to sell them as she has none to inherit them. I have photos of them and drool over the photos often. I would like to be the greedy family member who would inherit them. LOL
    I enjoy your posts.
    Barbara

  7. I have no idea how to quilt, I just love quilts. I have asked many friends to teach me and they all say, “Hey, I’m not that good.” so I just love them. However, there was this one quilt that I found in my husband’s Aunt’s flooded basement full of, yes, you guessed it, feces but I knew it was very old the minuet I saw pieces of it and grabbed it up, poop and all. Up the stairs I went and outside to a hose to spray it off. I didn’t know where to go for help and I didn’t have a computer at the time (there was no google) so I took it “Horrors” to a laundry and cold water washed it. Some of it deteriorated but much of it faded. What you have to understand it I saw nothing but beauty because I’m a professional artist and University Instructor. I waited for what I would do with this wonderful save and yes, I cut it up into great strips, glued them to a carpet tupe and added my grandmother, gr Grandmother and Gr Gr Grandmothers ribbons, buttons, jewelry, tatting, handmade lace etc to the textile. where it was off color, I dyed the lace to match. It’s entirely wrapped in loose barbed wireand pearls and sits on a podium in my living room. Now a place of honor, covered in history instead of poop. Oh, and I still have a lot left to make other Fiber pieces for family if they desire such items.

  8. I have several quilt tops that had been made by my Grandma and her mother and sisters. Most of the paper-pieced tops used newspaper from the 20s & 30s. When I asked her why some pieces on the same quilt were hand-stitched and some were machine stitched, she indicated that whoever finished their chores first that day was able to get to the parlor first and got to use the sewing machine (a treadle) and the rest of them were “stuck” doing them by hand!

  9. I was friends with an elderly lady and she had no one to leave her great grandmothers quilt to so she gave it to me because she knew I wou appreciate it. It was a crazy quilt made with velvets, silk and even satin ribbon. The stitches are beautiful. It is kind of falling apart but the lady that gave it to me was in her 90s when she gave it to me and that was in the 1990sand it was made by her great grandmother.

  10. I was friends with an elderly lady and she had no one to leave her great grandmothers quilt to so she gave it to me because she knew I wou appreciate it. It was a crazy quilt made with velvets, silk and even satin ribbon. The stitches are beautiful. It is kind of falling apart but the lady that gave it to me was in her 90s when she gave it to me and that was in the 1990sand it was made by her great grandmother.

  11. I obtained a large quilt top that had been left in an abandoned storage facility. It covers the top of my King size bed and is completely handmade. Each round block has 42 diamonds in them. I have pictures I can share with someone who might be able to tell me the name of the pattern. I have learned that it probably made in the early 40’s.

    I would appreciate any help. My email address is jeanne2price@gmail.com

    Thank you, Jeanne Price
    Aransas Pass, Tx

  12. I’ve just been given a beautiful red & white quilt top made in the late 1800’s. An appraiser recommended I finish it by using a technique called ‘back & tack’ but I can’t find anything online about how to do it. She also recommended I not wash it…telling me the small stains were like the age spots we get on our hands…just part of the aging process! I hope someone can point me in the right direction so I can complete the top. thanks in advance.
    Joelle

  13. I’ve just been given a beautiful red & white quilt top made in the late 1800’s. An appraiser recommended I finish it by using a technique called ‘back & tack’ but I can’t find anything online about how to do it. She also recommended I not wash it…telling me the small stains were like the age spots we get on our hands…just part of the aging process! I hope someone can point me in the right direction so I can complete the top. thanks in advance.
    Joelle

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