is every quilt's enemy. But how - and whether - you
wash a quilt depends on how you answer these questions:
- Is it sturdy?
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?
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
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!
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
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.
best way to wash.
It helps to be motivated.
- 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.
- 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
waaay easier way.
You can use this on most
- 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.
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
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
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.
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.)
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Buy a gallon.
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?