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I've been practicing my ladder stitch. It's a sewing method used to repair seams invisibly. I have used this stitch many times on qu...

Saturday, October 29, 2016

So the quilts in my collection range in vintage from the mid 1800's to the 1960's. There are some whose vintage has not been documented, some because I haven't gotten around to having them appraised and some because I don't think an appraisal will add to my sense of what they are worth, at least to me. As I've said before, I don't have a large budget for collecting so most of what I have is mine because I liked it, it was available, and it was a good price for me.

My oldest quilts are both from the 1800's. They are both displayed continuously, one in my family room and one in my living room. Neither is directly affected by window light. They both have sleeves in the top and bottom which allows rotation a couple of times a year. They get vacuumed at the same time they are rotated. Neither gets washed anymore.

I have a couple that I believe are circa the turn of the 20th century. They are stored and shared at presentations. Most of the quilts in my collection that are in really good shape are from the mid 1900's. They get washed very occasionally. They are alternately stored and displayed and even sometimes used.

And, of course, I have newer quilts that I made. Technically they're in the collection but as I have said before, I believe the quilts I make should be used and used and used, so mine are. In a way, I think most quilt makers feel the same way. A lot of love as well as blood sweat and tears go into quilt production.  What is all that effort for if not to be loved into softness? So while my more fragile quilts are protected, most are out and in use.
I was thinking about organization of quilts collections. Included in mine are intact, wholly quilted pieces that need no repair, quilts that need repair, both quilts and unquilted tops that are in the que for evaluation, quilts and tops in some stage of being repaired, pieces of quilts and orphan blocks that will never be quilted or changed in any way, pieces and orphan blocks slated to be made into something useful, and examples of quilts and blocks that I use in my presentations so will leave as is.

Whew! So, how do I organize and store all of this stuff? I'm not sure it's organized all that well even if I can find it all without much effort. When I take things to a presentation, I pack some of it in large plastic soft cubes that zip closed. These fit well into a suitcase with wheels. What doesn't fit into the cubes is put in plastic bags to protect from moisture. But that's a short term travel solution. I can't keep the quilts in plastic very long.

I am trying to ensure that my quilts and other items go back into their places so I can keep track as well as knowing that they are folded and protected. Most of the time that works but on occasion, something gets placed on a shelf that doesn't belong there. Finding the time to straighten things out can be challenging. It's a constant battle and when another piece gets added to the collection, things must be rearranged.

I started an written inventory on my laptop to help me remember which piece is in which place so I won't need to disturb whole piles trying to find what I want. I plan to develop a coding system that will enable quick recovery of what I need for the presentations I give. One is a workshop on quilt repair, restoration and conservation. I have quilt examples of the techniques used for each kind of quilt preservation. I also have a couple of quilts that I use to lead participants in evaluating worn and damaged quilts and deciding what type of repair would be best for the purpose the quilt will serve.

The other workshop is about options for working with quilt tops and orphan blocks. I have several examples of quilt tops and the repair needed to help them be suitable for quilting. I add in a couple of pieces that didn't work out so it's clear how and why not all unfinished tops can be made into something else. I have a good collection of orphan blocks and some sets of blocks whose purpose remains a mystery that I talk about and share.

My point is that I need to get and then keep all these things organized. Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

In my post about washing quilts, I should have mentioned Orvus Paste which is a washing agent that is highly recommended by many who clean vintage quilts. It's an extremely gentle surfectant cleaner used on horses but has been found to work very well on quilts. It's a bit pricey at about $35 a bottle but for priceless quilts, not at all expensive.

While I think that properly storing quilts to keep them clean is a good idea, we still need to clean them at some point. Even quilts stored in the ideal temperature and humidity of a climate controlled room need attention. Maybe they won't need cleaning but they do require unfolding and refolding at regular intervals.

I store my older quilts in cotton pillow cases. They are folded with acid free tissue paper logs in the folds. I take them out to workshops and they get refolded then but most experts recommend refolding your quilts regularly.

My storage space isn't adequate because I have to stack on shelves the quilts that I'm not displaying. Some folks caution that stacking too many quilts, one on the other, compresses the batting. I can't argue with that but frankly, most of my quilts have very thin batting so there is really nothing to compress. I'd love to have more and better storage but at this point I do not.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Other methods of cleaning quilts, in addition to washing, are much less intrusive. They don't compromise the fibers which are deteriorating slowly but constantly. Washing can weaken fabric and actually break it down faster than not cleaning it at all. When I had my quilt from the 1860's appraised, I was to cautioned to never wash it again, and I haven't.

So, how to help our fragile quilts with the dust and dirt of life in our home? Well, first, displaying a quilt correctly will help. Keeping it away from damaging conditions, like cooking or fireplaces which send lots of dirt into the air. Keeping it out of sunlight is important also. There are some who suggest that quilts should never be displayed at all, but carefully stored out of the influences of air and light. I can't agree with that. The quilts I collect are living, breathing history and may be all that survives a quiltmaker. Okay, a bit dramatic. But because I respect the efforts that produced the quilts I have, I want to see them, enjoy them, and share them.

It turns out that airing quilts out of sunlight is a good idea. I have a small screened porch but it's usually so crowded that I couldn't air any quilt for a long enough time to help it shed it's dust. Airing does help with odors also.

From what I read, and have done, vacuuming quilts is an efficient way of cleaning them. Use a screen to protect the fabric from the pull of the vacuum. You can extract a lot of dust by this method. I have several quilts that get vacuumed several times a year. It probably should be done more often but I do my best.

Friday, October 21, 2016

I've learned some hard lessons by trying to use my own methods for cleaning soiled older quilts. Thank heaven that I haven't yet ruined a newer quilt that I made. My children bring their graduation quilts to me to clean for them because they worry about damaging them.

One old quilt top I got about 40 years ago had many lives as a tree skirt, a table cloth and as a quilt mounted on stretcher bars to hang on my office wall. It had some brown spots so I dabbed bleach on the spot which pretty much took care of the problem. That is, until later when the spots became holes. I didn't know then what I know now (Jeesh, how many times have I said that in my life?). Bleach is destructive to fabric and never goes away. There are also cautions about using enzymatic cleaners that can also cause the fabric to develop holes.

I have had luck using an oxygen activated cleaner like Oxyclean. I use about a quarter cup in about 5 gallons of water. This is a very weak solution of the cleaner. I soak the top or quilt for a short time, maybe 15 minutes, and then I dump the bucket into my stationary tub (lined with old towels) and run cool water over the fabric, swishing it gently. I drain the water as I go, then leave the quilt sit on the towels as the water seeps out (maybe 30 minutes). The towels at the bottom of the tub help when lifting the quilt. I lift the towels, not the quilt, in an effort to put as little stress on the quilt fibers as possible. I then dump the quilt on a fresh set of towels and use more towels to blot up as much of the water as possible. When the quilt is finally light enough to lift unaided (without the towels), I move it to a place where I can spread it out flat to let it dry. In good weather, it's on my lawn in the shade. In cold or otherwise inclement weather, it's on my living room floor on top of layers of towels (yes, I have a huge supply) and a clean white sheet. I try to turn the quilt several times a day, flipping it gently and spreading it as flat as possible. I've had quilts dry in hours on the lawn on a warm breezy day. I've also had a quilt take a week on the floor even though I replaced the damp towels, so it's not always a time efficient process.

Because unquilted tops are lighter and easier to handle, it's tempting to think of using the washing machine. I have not done this. I guess that I've ruined enough clothes and bedding to be wary even though we have a high capacity washing machine. The extra time it takes to hand wash is very much worth it.

The results of my washing method are brighter, dirt free quilts, ready to be repaired or restored. Some times a very smelly quilt can be freshened considerably by this method. I do look over any quilt that I am considering for a wash for fabric content and any other weird things, like pins or long loose threads. Sometimes I sew a larger seam closed because I'm worried that the washing process will dislodge batting or threads that will end up tangled.

That's my washing protocol but I can't always wash. Next time I'll share other cleaning methods I've tried.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I've been thinking about the repair, restore, conserve stuff. I collect quilts that other people want to get rid of for unknown reasons. When I am really lucky, a quilt may need no more than a cleaning and a bit of repair of broken seams or binding. This is the best case scenario because when I buy from ebay, I have to rely on seller descriptions and condition reports. I also have a few favorite antique and vintage shops that I frequent. I am a real bargain hunter, with a budget to match, so what catches my eye is often in need of cleaning and some sewing to fix loose seams.

Despite my frugal ways, I have been able to collect some special pieces in good condition. As I've examined them, my mind still wanders to the maker: what was she thinking? Why did she choose this design? Where did she get the fabric? How long did it take her to piece it? Did she quilt it herself or did she have friends to help? How long did it take to quilt? Where did the batting come from?

Sometimes the answers are evident, like when there is an open seam on the back that reveals the batting. Sometimes no clues are available unless I find reason to pick apart a quilt. That only happens in my house when the quilt is in bad enough shape that I want to try to rescue some of it. I've become better at finding quilts that could never warrant a complete teardown.

The repair of a quilt is very rewarding to me. It means two things: one, is that I found it in time. It can be treated quite easily in ways that will extend it's life for more people to appreciate. Second, since repair means just sewing up compromised seams, it's often all that is needed in addition to some kind of cleaning. Cleaning is a topic for another post.

Monday, October 17, 2016

So when do we repair a quilt, when do we restore it and when do we opt for conservation methods to protect it? Funny question but when you like to collect and work with older quilts, it's an important one.

I think of repair as the simplest of the three processes. It involves using a needle and the most appropriate thread to close open seams and loose binding. Nothing is changed about the quilt except it's original integrity is restored because all the seams are intact and the batting is enclosed once again.

Restoration is more extensive. Fabric patches may be replaced. Holes may be filled with batting, patched, and requilted. Fabric type and color should be matched as closely as possible, which sometimes is a job in itself.  Patches are replaced as invisibly as possible. If there is a hole all the way through the quilt, the backing is patched first, then the batting is replaced before the fabric patch is sewn into place. Quilting is redone to make the patching virtually invisible.  Restoration could include redoing worn binding by sewing a new binding over the old.

Conservation is all about stabilizing the existing fabric with techniques that will maintain the quilt as it is while protecting it's historical significance. Fabric is added only when needed for structural support.

So, hypothetically, what should happen to the quilt great grandma made? It has worn binding, a couple of holes, and shredded fabric in several places. The answer is complicated and requires careful consideration. If the quilt is special enough to be museum quality, then conservation is the best route. If it's main value is sentimental, restoration will help it last for more generations to enjoy.

I collect older quilts that often need some work. My decisions on what to do with them never involve the sentimental and I know that few if any of them are unique enough to hold historical interest. So I opt for restoration if repair is not enough. I do have one that I keep to practice conservation techniques and use in demonstrations.

I wish that there were historically important quilts handed down in my family. There aren't. But I can appreciate the work of women from other families and do my best to do what is necessary to help their quilts last many more years.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Ever wonder how long it took a woman in the 1860's to make a quilt? I'm looking at the circa 1860 quilt I mentioned in the previous post as it hangs on my family room wall. It is composed of Ohio Star blocks separated by sashing with a pieced border.

The blocks are meticulously pieced with sharp points and even blocks. So, how did the maker do that? Did she make templates from paper? Where did she get the variety of fabric? There are at least 20 different fabric patterns in the quilt, not including the sashing, borders and backing. The backing is all one pattern, made of several pieces sewn together. Since the home sewing machine wasn't around until the 1860's, it's not surprising that the quilt is hand pieced.

I'm sure that the life she had was very different from mine. No TV, no phones, no computers but also no miracle cleaning supplies, no clean heating system, no modern plumbing and no cars. Wow - how did she find time to sew? Or was that a way to both keep her hands busy and make useful things for her household, especially during the long winter months.

How do I find time to sew? Good question. Sometimes it's easy: I just start sewing instead of doing something else. Sometimes I have to strike a bargain with family members so I can work without too many interruptions. Other times days go by without a stitch. I have taken years to finish some quilts, days to finish others.

How long did it take her? Did she have a sense of accomplishment when she finished it or was it just immediately put to use to keep someone warm and the effort forgotten? There are no answers, just a beautiful, old, fragile quilt to admire.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Another fascinating aspect of older quilts is the batting. I think contemporary quilters are very accustomed to going to the nearest quilt store (or Joann's with coupons) to buy batting by the piece in a package or by the yard off a bolt. There is a choice between 100% cotton as well as blends of polyester and cotton, all polyester or wool. Bamboo batting is becoming more available also.

Before 1960, cotton batting was used almost exclusively. Earlier quilts were padded with all sorts of things, old quilts included. I bought a "cutter quilt" a couple of months ago, thinking I could save some of the string stars to use in other projects. That didn't work because the fabric was too brittle but what was interesting was the filler. Inside the top and bottom layers were random pieces of cloth, some flannel, some possibly wool. They were all of different colors and some quite small. The quilt maker not only economized by sewing together small strips of fabric to make the stars, she also cobbled together various pieces of whatever fabric was available to make a sheet of batting.

I have one quilt in my collection that has been dated circa 1860. The batting is raw cotton fibers with the seeds still attached. The quilt itself is getting more and more fragile with the years. The backing is shattered in a few paces so the batting is visible. The cotton fibers are feathery and soft. The batting is very thin so the quilt is also. I can only imagine the labor required to collect the cotton and spread it on the backing, then make the sandwich, baste it and quilt it. I am very glad to have found this quilt in the early 70's in a box at a farm auction, even though I had to withstand a lot of teasing and questions about why I wanted "that old thing". It has hung in every house I have lived in. It's now too fragile to wash so it gets vacuumed a couple of times a year.

When repairing an older quilt or actually, any age quilt that has damage extending to holes, batting must be replaced. It's important to understand the kind and thickness of the quilt's original batting so you can match it as closely as possible. Remembering that repairs should be as inconspicuous as possible, using the right batting will help the repair blend in. I am working hard to do that when I repair a quilt.

Monday, October 3, 2016

I've been reading Ann Wasserman's book entitled Preserving Our Quilt Legacy: Giving Antique Quilts the Special Care They Deserve. She is a quilt conservator and expresses great respect for quilts and the historical value they have. While she works with bonafide antique textiles, much of what she says should be considered when repairing any quilt.

Ms.Wasserman outlines the concepts behind three underlying rules of quilt care: "1) Do as little as possible, 2) Don't do anything that can't be undone, and 3) Preventative maintenance is the best medicine".  While I understand what she means by these three things and can pretty much do many of the work she teaches about in this book, I don't believe that the quilts I work with are best served by doing the minimum or just displaying many of them to avoid what it would take to make them more useful. The quilters I've known all my life share the philosophy that the work to make a quilt is worth it only if the quilt is used and used and used. The third rule makes a lot of sense but doesn't mean that the quilt should be stored and never used to preserve it. The other two make sense also but sometimes repairs that really aren't meant to be undone are necessary.

The bowtie quilt I described in my last post has very raggedy worn binding. I believe that if the binding is renewed, the quilt will have many years of life by which to delight. I had considered removing the worn binding. Now I that I have read what Ms. Wasserman has to offer, I think that sewing a new binding over the old may be best. That way, I won't  do any more damage trying to remove stitches, the old binding will provide a base for the new, and if anyone is interested in the future, the new binding could be removed so the old could be studied.

This is a good book. Consider reading it.