July 30, 2018

Mending the Melrose Quilt

This quilt has been on a magical journey of rediscovery.

It was sent to me for repairs a few years ago.  When I told the owner that I'd poked around on ancestry.com and had found some of the names that were written on it, she most graciously gifted me the quilt so I could continue finding its history!  She is an author and historian and has been really happy that the quilt's story is resurfacing.  Turns out, she is Jane Anderson, the person who wrote the screenplay for the movie "How to Make an American Quilt." Honestly, this quilt repair biz has taken me down some pretty amazing paths!

I since have identified about 2/3 of the people named, and located the quilt in time and space: Melrose, MA - probably 1897-8.  You can read about the process in earlier posts, and the resulting exhibits here and here.  (A full list of links is below.)

The next step in the quilt's journey was a chance contact with Alanna Nelson, a textile lover and event planner who lives right there in Melrose, when she just happened to order my quilt repair book.  She has since been making plans for a "homecoming" celebration of the quilt in December 2018, with exhibits, programs, participation by local quilt guilds and local historians, etc., etc.  And, she put me in touch with the genealogist at the Melrose Library, who has shared records that the library holds that helped identify even more people.

The venue for the exhibits requires that the quilt be appraised for insurance during the event.  My appraiser friend, Sherry Branson, said I should do the repairs before bringing it to her.  So after being with me for three years, the quilt has finally been repaired!  Hee, hee!

Here are details of the repair process.  I found myself going through the same assessment process that I ask my customers to consider.  Not surprising, but I kept chuckling to myself, thinking - oh, so this is what it feels like.

The main question I needed to answer:  What is my goal for the repairs?  Do I want to patch or do I want to conserve as much of the original fabric as possible?
My answer:  My goals are to preserve the quilt in its original state as much as possible - because for me it's the history of the quilt that makes it so special - while also strengthening it for travel and its short stint on a wall.  (I am probably going to tie a temporary muslin back on the quilt to support it while it is hanging, only 2 days.  There is one edge that has no damage, so that will be at the top.)

I settled on a combination of patching, conservation stitching, and leaving things as is (which I feel should always be considered as an option):

1.  On the back, there were some long tears right at the inside edge of the binding.  Batting was escaping through these tears.  I decided to patch over those areas.  The patches will not be visible during display, plus will give better support than stitching.

2.  On the front, there is some weakness and fabric loss, also along the edges.  I decided to fill and support these areas by inserting new fabric and stitching over them.  The overall effect of the design will be maintained, without adding new fabric which will not totally match.  There are some reproduction fabrics that approximate a turkey red, but the color is just not quite the same without the actual dye process.  Also, turkey red's signature mode of fading is impossible to actually recreate.  The color wears off the surface of the weave, leaving white threads, so the fabric ends up looking somewhere between red and rose pink.  This quilt has a range of such faded colors.

3.  I'm leaving the binding as is, since the wear is not dreadful or distracting when the quilt is viewed. These two photos show the same area.


I'm also leaving the previous repair of two little rips.  I love seeing evidence of a quilt having been loved and cared for through the years.

The next step was searching for fabrics.

For the patches on the back:  I didn't have a red dot in my stash of repair fabrics.  I didn't see anything vintage available online, and a new fabric would probably have too white a background anyway.

So I settled on a solid white.  Old whites are never a pure white, so I have a range of off-whites in my stash.  I pinned on some swatches.  I picked the one on the furthest right, which is actually more of a beige or very, very pale tan.  Rule of thumb: when choosing between too dark and too light, I nearly always go with too dark.  It blends in better whereas too light shines out.   

For support fabric on the front:  I'd bought a length of a really close reproduction red a few years ago from my favorite source, Reproduction Fabrics.  For an earlier project, I'd hung a 1/2 yard of it in my window for a long time to fade it some.  It never really faded as much as I'd wanted at the time, and I'd ended up using an actual dusty rose on that quilt instead.

But this time, the faded red made a pretty good match for the less faded places on the quilt.  Even though not quite light enough, I figured it would work in this quilt since it would show in just the worn little bits, and hopefully create an illusion of the those areas being closer to the less faded colors in the center of the quilt.  (Spoiler - it worked!)

Because of the way that Turkey red fades, I chose a rose thread rather than red.  It looks too pink on the spool, but a single strand blends in well.  I use a size 60 cotton thread.

Here are before and after photos of the repairs.


Before.  Rip with batting escaping.



I inserted pieces of the new red solid under the worn areas.  This both fills the gaps and gives a sturdy base fabric for the stitching that comes next.

I recently bought a set of tiny tweezers, and this was their debut performance.  Wow - they worked like a dream!  I especially like the ones called "reverse action".  That means they are closed when at rest.  So I could attach them to the fabric and then maneuver the fabric without having to also keep pressure on the tweezers.  Wow!  Thanks to Martha Spark, who was so surprised that I didn't use tweezers.  Well, now I do!

And then I stitched over the raw edges of the original red with herringbone stitches.  I find herringbone to be quite good at containing the tatters.  Also, the stitches go parallel to the edges of the fabric (unlike the stitches in the old repairs in the photo way up above), which reduces the chance of the new thread pulling through the weave in the weakened areas. 


During.  With new support fabric inserted between the top and the batting.

After.  Close up.

After from a bit further away.


During.  With new support fabric inserted between the top and the batting.

After.  Close up.

After from a bit further away.

Next stop - professional photos.  And then, Melrose, MA, here we come!

Here are all the previous posts:
Part 1 describes the quilt and the initial research.  Part 2 details how I narrowed down the dates, and relates some of the interesting family stories I began finding.  Part 3 tells the story of the Phinney, Dyer, and Hersey families.  Part 4 has general observations on life in the late 1890s.   Part 5 sums up my research.  Part 6 shares the first information from librarians and historians in Melrose.  I wrote a little aside about the fun of being able to look at original records online.  And, since the quilt did initially come to me for repair, and I did eventually stop reading census forms and do the repair work, and wrote up the techniques and choices involved.  After the events, I described the homecoming experience and the exhibits, and wrote about the little quilt I made that was inspired by the historical quilt.   A set of summaries of the data and stories that brought the quilt to life.  And a very astonishing coincidence with another quilt and a family tree.  I was given a photo of one of the people named on the quilt. 


  1. THANK YOU for saving these treasures. It brings tears to my eyes to know that others will enjoy this special quilt for years to come. LOVE it!

    1. Thanks, Annmarie! And to think it was rescued from a garage sale. Such a lucky find!

  2. As always - excellent work in showing your process on this quilt! Welcome to the wonderful world of precision tweezers! :-) I know you'll be acquiring more...

    1. Yep, tweezers are my new best friend. Next to you, of course! Sorry for the delay in replying. Blogger apparently has stopped sending notifications of new posts. Odd. Computers are odd.