Washing old quilts

Dirt is every quilt's enemy.  But how - and whether - you wash a quilt depends on how you answer these questions: 

  • Is it sturdy? Does the fabric show signs of deterioration (browning, brittleness, breaks in the fabric along seam or quilting lines)? Is it embellished with embroidery? If so, vacuum only (see below), or consult a pro.
  • Is it colorfast? If the quiltís been washed before, you can tell if itís got "trouble fabrics".  But if itís unwashed and dates from before the Depression, think twice: you may end up with a bloody mess.  Burgundy, chrome yellow, indigo and some red dyes can bleed forever, and yellow bleeding in particular is almost impossible to remove.   Washing can even devalue a quilt - many collectors love never-washed antiques with penciled quilting marks intact.  Quilts made from silk, rayon, or wool, or from tobacco premiums (either silk or cotton) are best left to quilt conservators.
  • Is it really dirty? If a quilt just smells a little "old" or looks a bit dingy, you might do best with a simple vacuuming and airing (see below).
  • Is it worth the risk? A quilt which is so dirty that it has to be discarded  unless it's cleaned is, obviously, a pretty good risk. If ruining Great-Aunt Hattieís heirloom will get you disowned, call a pro.

Whatever you do, please donít dry-clean a vintage or antique quilt.  And keep it away from the dryer!

First, go to Home Depot. Then get out the vacuum.

You can do this to all but the most delicate quilts.

Pick a nice breezy day for this. Buy some fiberglass screen (this is the kind modern window screens are made of). Cut a manageable piece, say 18" square or so, and cover the edges with masking tape so you donít snag yourself or the quilt. Lay the quilt down on your carpet, put the screen over it, and use your vacuum cleanerís dusting attachment to suck out dust from the quilt through the screen. You will be amazed at the difference this can make.

Then move the quilt outdoors . Lay it on a sheet in the shade, or (if itís sturdy) drape it over a sheet-covered rail fence (no pickets!) or a couple clotheslines spaced a few feet apart so the weight is evenly distributed and the quilt isnít flapping around, and let it snooze in the fresh air for the day. No Febreze or other "freshening" sprays, please. We donít yet know their long-term effect on fabrics, especially antique ones.


Ready to wash?

If youíve decided you just hafta wash your quilt, and youíre sure itís colorfast, try to keep in mind how professional textile conservators wash: they keep the quilt flat, well-supported, and as much as possible undisturbed. So your best choice for home washing would be a wading pool or the bathtub, and several fine summer days

First, make life easier for yourself  Get out as much dirt as you can before you wash the quilt: by vacuuming it as described above.

The best way to wash.  

It helps to be motivated.  And athletic.

  • Fill your kiddie pool or bathtub with lukewarm water and swish in your chosen detergent (liquid laundry detergent with no brighteners, bleaches, fragrances or softeners is fine for most 20th century quilts; Oruvs and Synthrapol are other good choices. See below for more on detergents.) Lay the quilt on an old bedsheet, and lower it into the bath. You can sort of accordion it up as you immerse it so that it stays on the sheet properly without folding over onto itself. Once itís all nice and saturated, go away. Leave it alone at least a couple hours, or overnight. Then drain out the water. Yucch!
  • Now with the quilt still in the bath, fill it again with lukewarm water (scootch the quilt toward the other end of the tub to get it away from the tap). Very carefully smoosh the quilt around a little bit so that the clean water flows through it. Once again, leave it alone for at least a couple hours, and then drain out the water. If you can stand it, do this step several times.
  • Bit by bit, smooth the quilt out in the bottom of the bath and then press on it, flat, with your hands to squeeze out some of the water. Donít bunch it up and wring it out!  Be nice.
  • Now comes the sloppy part. Spread out every clean towel you own on your clean kitchen floor. Then commandeer your best friend and have her grab two corners of the sheet while you hold the other two, and lift up the quilt. Weighs a ton, huh? Lug the quilt out to the kitchen and lay the whole thing out on the towels, and lay more towels on top of the quilt. Then with your hands, press the whole thing flat to squeeze out more water. Remove the towels, and change that wet sheet (if youíve ever had to change a bedsheet with a person in the bed, youíll know how this is done).
  • Now you can carry the quilt on its fresh sheet to a spot in the shade, or to a room where it can lie flat, undisturbed, until itís dry.


The waaay easier way.  

You can use this on most sturdy quilts.

  • Fill up your washer with lukewarm water, and add your chosen detergent.   "More" detergent is not "better".
  • Gently put the quilt into the washer, smooshing it around a bit to make sure itís saturated. Agitate it for about TWO SECONDS - chug chug. Then shut off the machine. Leave several hours or overnight.
  • Now switch to the "spin" cycle to drain out the water. Let it run through the spin cycle. This will squeeze out the water with centrifugal force. DO NOT AGITATE THE QUILT or you are likely to end up with a mess of shreds.
  • With the quilt still in the washer, fill it up again with water by restarting the "wash" cycle . Shut off the machine, leave it overnight to rinse, and "spin" it as before. HEY!  DO NOT AGITATE THE QUILT!
  • Gently lift the quilt out of the washer and spread it out on a clean sheet in the shade or a spare room where it can lie flat, undisturbed, until itís dry.

Now you know why our foremothers put "chinners" or "beard guards" (little decorative slipcovers) over the top edges of their quilts.   Washing is a chore.  So store your quilts properly. Fold them up gently in a nice clean bedsheet, and store them in a cool, dry place.  Not in a plastic tub where mildew can grow, and not on a bare wooden shelf where oils can leach in. 

So...what about Orvus?

Orvus Paste is widely marketed to quilters as a sort of Miracle Cleaner. Some people insist that quilts and vintage textiles must not be washed with detergent because detegent is "harsh," and that the reason Orvus is recommended is because it's a "soap" and "gentle".  Others go so far as to claim that a quilter will "ruin" her quilts if she uses anything but the magical Orvus. What a guilt trip. How on earth did our foremothers survive before Orvus was available?

Truth is, Orvus is detergent. It's livestock shampoo; we wash all our pets with it.  Its value lies not in some secret, special ingredient, but in what's not in it - softeners, fragrances, bleaches and brighteners which may adversely affect fibers over time.  (Fabric softener, for example, leaves a film that can attract dirt, and dirt is one of fabric's biggest enemies.)

The other truth is that the price of Orvus in quilt shops (averaging 75 cents/ounce) is six times higher than if you ordered it online from a livestock supplies shop.  Just use your favorite search engine to search on "Orvus" and "horse" to find lots of suppliers, but if you live within half an hour's drive of a feed store, hop in the car and buy it there.  I buy a 5lb. jar for $18 and it lasts me more than a year, and that's with bathing the pigs too.

So what gives?  Is Orvus really worthy of its cult status?  If you decide to use it, what should you know? What else can you use?

Kay Lancaster responded to this question in an issue of Creative Machine's online newsletter.   I reproduce it here, with many thanks to its knowledgeable author.

...Orvus,a/k/a sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS (same as sodium dodecyl sulfate) is an anionic detergent, not a soap. (If it were a soap, it would be a pain in the posterior to use in hard water areas, forming grey, insoluble scum.)  Conservators use Orvus because it doesn't have the optical whiteners and brighteners and bleaches, etc., and rinses out fairly well most of the time, except in very hard water-- you need many, many more rinses in hard water areas. (Conservators typically use water purified by reverse osmosis or by deionization to get around the hardness problem.)

Because it lacks optical brighteners, bleaches, builders, etc., it's not going to foam the  way you think of most detergents foaming, and it's not going to give that "whiter than white" look you get from commercial laundry detergents, and things may start looking dingy after repeated use.  (Optical brighteners are compounds that absorb ultraviolet light and re-emit it in the blue wavelengths.  Absorbing UV and re-emitting the energy may be good for long term light stability).

Orvus also lacks "antiredeposition agents", which means compounds that keep the dirt that's now suspended in the wash water from re-depositing in the fabric.  You get around this with Orvus with multiple rinses... textile conservators may use 20 or more rinses.

Best pH for getting greasy dirt out of clothes is quite alkaline, about 10 or so, so you may have a tougher time getting greasy dirt out with straight SLS, which generally has a near-neutral pH.

There are some other potential gotchas to using it under some conditions: adding vinegar or other acid to rinse water (which you'd typically do with a soap, and might do with wool or silk) can force the water's pH down to the point where the SLS chemically bonds to the wool or silk fibers.  If you treat fabric like a textile conservator, you can then rinse in deionized water till the cows come home and rain falls up, and you're not going to get it out of the fabric again.

Fabric softeners (and some of the germicides like quaternary ammonium compounds) are cationic detergents; they will react with anionic detergents like SLS in a reaction called "reverse saponification," which leaves a greasy, waxy goo on the fibers that's difficult to remove without using high pH (very alkaline) conditions or solvents.  If you leave it in the fiber, the goo will attract more dirt quickly.

Finally, there are some skin safety issues. Wear gloves or use a spoon or point of a knife to handle Orvus paste, and make sure the solution is pretty well diluted before you put your bare skin in contact with it. It's a pretty good irritant to skin, and can cause allergic reactions, dermatitis and eczema for some of us lucky souls. It can also sting pretty badly, especially if your skin is damaged in any way to begin with. [HCQ note:  I have extremely sensitive skin and have used Orvus as a body/face wash with absolutely no problems whatever.] We used it in biology labs for (among other things) breaking cell membranes so we can get at the contents of the cells -- it can do the same thing to skin cells.

And if you're dealing with dry (rather than paste) SLS, wear a good dust mask -- it's a pretty powerful respiratory irritant, and can cause lots of coughing or choking, and even, in my experience, bring on a bad asthma attack that may require hospitalization.  This shouldn't be a problem with Orvus paste, but may be a problem if you're dealing with the dry form of SLS.  Be especially careful to keep it out of your eyes...  it'll sting like crazy, and can cause some damage (if you do get it in your eye, rinse with lots of water -- lots and lots and lots of water!, and call your doctor.)

All this is not to say that Orvus isn't a good detergent, but that it's not quite as simple as "use this like regular laundry detergent and be deliriously delighted with your laundry forever", like a bad TV commercial.  If you use it like a textile conservator would, it's pretty good stuff.  If you start mixing and matching with other products or if you have the wrong tap water for your fiber (few of us have a copious supply of really pure water), you may not be so happy.

Okay, so... what are you supposed to use?

In my experience, if the quilt appears to already have been washed successfully, and unless you have serious doubts about the colorfastness of the fabrics, regular liquid laundry detergent is just fine, as long as it doesn't contain softeners, fragrance or "colorfast" bleach.  That means look for the cheapest "free" detergent you can find. And you don't need to use much.  Frankly, since all that detergents do is help water rinse away dirt, unless your quilt is really grimy or looks like it may bleed, "washing" in plain water can give you really good results.

I used to recommend Biz to soak out dinginess, but they've recently added "colorfast" bleaches to the enzymes, and this can produce some very surprising and unfortunate results.   Avoid Oxyclean and any other colorfast bleaches unless you test first.  In my experience they can fade 1930s blues, and will do very nasty things to 1880s pinks and browns.

Synthrapol, a commercial-grade detergent used in the dye process, is excellent for fabrics that may bleed - be sure to use LOTS of HOT water and rinse like mad.  You can actually rescue "hemorrhaging" quilts with a couple washes in Synthrapol. Most quilt shops carry it, but you can also get it online at Dharma Trading Company.  Buy a gallon.

Speaking of bleeding....While dye "magnets" do work if you put a red sock in with your tighty-whities, they don't work on quilts.  That's because they're designed to catch loose dye molecules floating in the wash water (for example, from that sock).  But they don't loosen dye molecules which are still partially attached to the fabric.  That's no problem when you're talking about two separate garments, but a real headache when your quilt is made of red fabric sewn to white.  So although your quilt may not pick up anything from the wash water, once it's lying there slowly drying, those "rogue" molecules are going to start traveling all over your quilt again, and what looks just dandy coming out of the washer at 8PM may have you screaming in horror the next morning.

When all else fails and you're faced with a bloody mess you'd otherwise have to throw out, tumble-drying a quilt can minimize bleeding because it gives the dye less time to travel where it shouldn't go.  But of course the agitation and heat of drying is not the sort of thing fabrics enjoy. Best to start out with good colorfast fabric, yes? 


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