Monday, August 6, 2018

Washing a Vintage Quilt Part I

Vintage Tumbling Blocks
About 74" x 90"

When I first set eyes on this beautiful quilt, I longed to take it home with me despite the condition. Today 60 degree pieces cut with an acrylic ruler and rotary cutter require attention to cut exactly.  The pieces in this quilt would have been cut with scissors and paper template. A one patch pattern, Tumbling Blocks is sewn with Y seams. It takes a good eye and practice to match Y seams. I know because I've sweated through it. From what I can see, the majority of this project was done without a sewing machine, but with hand piecing. It was a tremendous investment of time and energy for the maker.

Here was a quilt likely made pre-1900's, and the points were consistently good. You can see by the picture above it laid very square. I was thoroughly impressed. This had to have been someone's pride and joy, and I intended to preserve it as best I could despite the condition.

Dye Rot

Madder is a dye used since ancient times to create many colors depending on the mordant used. A mordant is the component needed to keep the dye attached to the fiber. Without a mordant, the color washes out. Changing the mordant or process will often give you a different color with natural dyeing.  Iron was one common mordant for madder, and also known to deteriorate cotton fiber over time. We call this dye rot. The brown patch above had nearly rotted away completely leaving only the batting visible.

The green patch above has also begun to rot. In this case, madder and its mordant may also be to blame, though madder doesn't produce green on its own. First the fabric was dyed with madder to create yellow then over-dyed with indigo to produce green. Yellow + blue = green

These two green patches are in better condition, but you will often find all of one print has rotted completely in a quilt.

This gorgeous antique red is the famous Turkey red, but has nothing to do with the bird. (How many of us were led to believe it was for the red wattle?) It was also created with madder, but refers to the area of the Mideast where the root was cultivated, likely Turkey or India. It is a rich, saturated color here, but could be lighter or darker as you can see in the plaid below it, and other pictures. One of the most wonderful things about Turkey red is it is colorfast. It will not bleed like a synthetic, or aniline dye today.

Worth noting: Colorfastness was and continues to be a problem with natural dyes, or those based on plants. You can achieve beautiful color, but it often washes out with each laundering. Finding a dye process to maintain the color was key. When we think of an era in the colors they used, the popularity might have been based more on what they had that held color above personal preference. 

*You can check out some of the work I've done with natural dyes at One More Thing Before I Dye also listed in the sidebar.

In this time period, the range of reds, browns, indigo, double pinks, and shirtings or light background prints printed using these same colors were popular. Black was notorious for washing out so we see few black fabrics. Green had to be dyed twice with blue over yellow or visa versa, and often one of those colors faded out leaving the other. We call that a fugitive dye meaning it will not hold fast.

You see these same dye issues across solids, prints and wovens. As aniline or synthetic dyes were developed over the next few decades, we can approximate the date of fabrics to their colorfastness along with actual colors that were developed, and any other problems associated with the new dye. This is one more clue to date a quilt through the fabrics.

I love the early geometric prints!
The lock washer print in pink and red looks so modern.


The dark, saturated blue patches are created with indigo, also a plant-based dye. This is the same dye still used for shibori and indigo dyeing.

The backing is dirty, but intact except for one long side.

This quilt was quilted by hand with at least 3 colors: brown, black, and white. It also appears that more than one person did the quilting when you look at the quality.

The long side is missing a strip of the backing. You can see the remnant of the strip that was sewn onto the adjacent selvage as a pieced backing. I wonder why this one backing fabric completely deteriorated while the rest of the backing held up so nicely. The batting is also gone. While this is unfortunate, it does give us an excellent glimpse inside the quilt! So much can be learned by a peek inside.

One thin layer of batting is visible. I believe it is cotton, but I will do a tiny burn test to be sure. Cotton will burn completely to ash, but wool is resistant to burning. It's also possible it is a blend. It is so clean--as in no plant residue from the cotton, that I wonder if it was a commercial batt. This could be another clue.


This binding is also quite deteriorated leading me to believe there was dye rot as well as wear.

Bath Time

Disclaimer: This is my personal quilt, and not a priceless family heirloom. It's physically dirty along with smelling dirty, but not musty. I would not want to store it in this condition. I am taking a risk by washing it, but I accept the risk. Should you choose to wash a quilt of your own, it's at your own risk. This is not advice on how your should wash your own vintage quilt, but the method I use to wash mine. 

A large outdated jet tub comes to the rescue for washing vintage quilts, and that's a good reason NOT to remodel the bath. (My husband brings this up when I start hinting.) I start by using lukewarm to cool water with a small squirt of Dawn Blue Dishwashing Liquid, and a couple tablespoons of Oxyclean to the water. Mix well, and then add the quilt. Fill the tub a few inches or more so the quilt is actually supported and floating in the water. 

I want the quilt to have enough water to move freely. It should not drag on the bottom. I slowly turn the quilt to reach all sides, and only press down gently to help release the dirt. No, walking around the tub like the episode of I Love Lucy showed her smashing the grapes is not in order!

To rinse, move the quilt to one area of the tub to help it drain, or leave it in place. Once the water has left the tub DO NOT pick up the quilt to squeeze it! This creates tremendous stress on the delicate fibers. 

You can see the dirt in the water after the first cycle.

Four more cycles, and left to soak overnight, the dirt continues to come out. I know some of you will question the color of the water as reddish, and wonder if the colors are bleeding. I've seen this before with old fabrics that are very yellowed with age, and there has been no dye transfer onto the light patches of this quilt. Therefore, I believe it's fine to continue the slow cycle of soaking and rinsing. 

Tomorrow I'll show you the next, and most important step of this wash process: How I lift the fragile, wet quilt out of the tub and how I dry it. In the meantime...

Come on, Doxie girls.
Let's go sew.


Quilting Babcia said...

It will be interesting to see the results tomorrow. I have an antique quilt from about the same era (1890-1910), mostly blacks with some reds and beige/tan fabrics. The backing is from the same era, a 'cheater print.' It's in great need of a bath, and before attempting that I tested each fabric with a dampened q-tip to check for colorfastness. Yep, the cheater print BLED red as soon as the damp swab touched it. Sigh. It hasn't been washed because of that, but it would be nice to know a safe way to clean the quilt beyond just gently vacuuming it, which I've done.

Angie in SoCal said...

Very informative, Julie. Have a few I must wash.

Julierose said...

I have a few that my Grand-mere made by hand--they are in need of gentle cleaning--don't know if i am brave enough to try this...will be following your progress...hugs, Julierose

SandraC said...

Oooohhh....a cliff-hanger, I love it!!! Such a very informative post. I look forward to then next chapter!

Michelle said...

That is SUCH a gorgeous quilt! I'll be watching to see how you finish washing it.

Barb Neiwert said...

Julie - you left us hanging out to dry! It's two days later, and we don't know how to take the quilt out of the tub! (Such first-world problems, eh?)

O'Quilts said...

Thanks...I love the quilt too

helenjean@midgetgemquilts said...

love this quilt, it is so obviously a vintage quilt, yet it still has a modern vibe off it. I am rather worried about this burn test, don't set yourself up in smoke!

Sandy Panagos said...

Getting all that water out of it without having it stretch is what I'm most curious about. Looking forward to the next installment.

KaHolly said...

I will be eagerly awaiting the outcome, Julie. I, too, have a few that could use a good washing. Thanks for always posting such interesting info! XO