July 12, 2023

Caring for Family Mementos

Here comes some thinking and wondering that I've been doing lately.

Over the last few years, people have been asking me to repair soooo many really seriously damaged quilts from the 1960s-70s and onwards.  For the most part, these are family heirlooms, made by beloved grandmas and great-grandmas.  

I'm thinking that what I'm seeing are the quilts that have been used and loved and "used up" in the old-fashioned terminology. 

Many are not fancy in pattern or workwomanship.  Part of this is that in the 1950s-70s era, the making of super intricate quilts kind of drifted off.  I've heard that put to the country's excitement about all sorts of new technological advances, and the exciting prospect of moving into a modern world and leaving the past behind.  Another culprit is the advent of polyester batting which doesn't need nearly as much quilting.  

I've also thought about fabric quality, which I think has been on a decline for several decades.  I think it was in the 1990s or so when people started complaining about being able to see seam allowances through white and pale fabrics, which hadn't been the case before that.  A friend of mine who's been quilting for ages, brought one of the quilts she made in the mid-70s to a show and tell in about 2018.  She told us how she has used it lightly, stored it properly, and all that, and yet the fabrics are just pulling apart along the quilting lines...while sitting quietly in storage.  And this was name brand fabric, not a thinner, discount store knock-off. 

It's lovely to have people wanting to have the everyday kind of quilt to be saved.  Quilt historians of today certainly would love to have more of those from previous centuries (not just the "best" quilts, in other words) - but the time to save them is before they are really damaged. 

These fabrics get thin before they tear.  That means that one more wash can end up making massive damage, all at once. 

The cautionary tale here is that the time to start caring for family quilts is before you see the damage, not after.  Fabrics are not as sturdy as furniture or paintings or china.  Clothes that are worn and washed don't last past a handful or two of years.  And quilts are made of the same kinds of fabrics as our clothing.  Heirloom clothes like wedding dresses get special treatment, so should heirloom quilts.

I like to say that I can repair just about any quilt, given enough time and money.  And I have repaired things that have come to me looking like a pile of rags.  I'm happy to do so, because I value the family memories, too.  But the other side of that coin is that the more work I do, the less it is the quilt that the ancestor made and the more it has a lot of me in it, too.

I have developed a way to support very tattered quilts.  This neatens up the appearance and makes it safer to handle the quilt, but doesn’t actually repair the damage.  This can still cost several hundreds of dollars.  Some folks opt to have me do this to maintain the heirloom, and then also find someone to make a replica that can join the family and be displayed or used.  This is basically having the best of both worlds.

Certainly, loving use is often what quilts were made for initially.  But once the thought of saving one as an heirloom crosses your mind, that's the time to think about conservation, proper storage, and removal from use.

It's a personal choice of course, but I believe it should be a conscious choice between use and passing to the next generations.  Sometimes, it's really not feasible to do both.

What's your opinion?


  1. Could not be in stronger agreement. "Used up" is a phrase I'm going to try to remember the next time someone brings me one of these quilts that are just too far gone. I like that "used up" doesn't imply that the person who cherishes the quilt is to blame for its demise, but that the quilt is a useful object with a certain lifespan and it has now reached the end of its ability to serve that purpose. I love, love, LOVE the idea of suggesting that the client commission a replica of the family heirloom that can continue to be used, especially since so many of these are simply pieced utility type quilts in the first place and the cost of extensive repairs (repairs that can't guarantee the old fabrics won't continue to shred and tear anyway) is probably comparable to cost of making a whole new quilt from scratch out of brand new fabrics that could last for decades.

    1. Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for all the great comments! I'm glad to have your help in circulating these ideas far and wide!

  2. AnonymousJuly 13, 2023

    Very thought provoking, thanks

  3. I find myself in denial, Ann! I have only made a few quilts, and none of them has even been washed yet! I know they will wear out eventually, for they are used; but it must be true that well-made quilts will take a lot of use IF they are cared for properly (minimal and appropriate washing techniques, keep them out of the sun, repair when repairs are small. If people cannot do basic sewing repairs, surely that is when the problems become major. And people have to have that mindset, that it is something worth taking care of and preserving (it may not be valuable in itself but have sentimental value, like a "utililty" quilt I made for my daughter when she was three that I threw out when she was away at college and we were moving. It was a rag, but a precious one, to her. lol. That was another one I shortened its life by washing it in a washing machine with an agitator).

    It must make you so sad to see these beautiful old quilts in such sorry states. I find myself wondering whether the quilting lines cutting into the fabric were done with polyester thread.

    The two "heirloom" quilts I hope to pass down to my children, I use on the guest bed, underneath the spread, to protect them from the sun. The one was made for my mom as a wedding present, in the sixties. Mom told me she used to use it as a bedspread. It is still in wonderful condition, so she probably took it off the bed at night (and later, stored it in a dark closet in a pillowcase). Just some thoughts. Thanks for your lovely post!

    1. Hi, Christina. Thanks for putting so much thought to this topic! I think you're right on point with your comments about how quilts can be used and still last a good while if they are treated with care during the using. My point is that it's going to require some thinking ahead....make the decision that you have an heirloom you want to pass down at an earlier point. You are on the right track with the care you're giving to your two heirlooms. Also....I totally believe that monetary value is far from the most important thing when it comes to family quilts. It's the quilter's life and spirit and stories that are what is being saved by saving the quilt. Quilts are the best, right?

  4. Not so much the top and design. The batting needs to be flat and clean enough to use. I’m afraid to wash my quilts, the heavy water weight might tear the string thru the patterns.

    1. Yes, it's true that washing can cause damage to old fabrics. And the weight of the quilt when wet is one of the ways. I have some basic washing instructions on my website: https://www.annquilts.com/quiltrepair.html (scroll down towards the bottom of the page). Full instructions are in my book: https://www.annquilts.com/book.html