Displaying Quilts

This is an excerpt from "Miller's Treasure or Not? How to Compare & Value American Quilts" by Stella Rubin, now out of print.

Most quilts were made as functional objects. Many have survived more than 150 years and will continue to last if handled with a modicum of care and respect. When choosing a quilt, consider the use to which you plan to put it. Some are obviously much more durable than others. If you are planning to use your quilt on a child's bed, for instance, it might be best to select one from the early 20th century that is likely to withstand more washing and use than an earlier example. A quilt on a guest-room bed or hung on a wall will be handled less and could make you comfortable with an earlier and perhaps more fragile piece.

When using your quilt on a bed, be sure to use a sheet underneath it. This will minimize the effects of body oils on the fabrics. For the same reason, it is best, when the pattern allows for it, to rotate the direction of the quilt on the bed. The end toward the head inevitably gets the most wear from being tugged and pulled and has the most contact with the oils in your hands. Try not to share your bed with your pets when the quilt is on. Cats and dogs can do terrible damage to antique fabrics. Use care when tucking the quilt under the mattress, particularly on an old bed. Bedsprings have ruined many fine quilts.

A quilt also makes a wonderful decorative accent when used as a throw over a table or sofa. It can provide a splash of color and design even when not viewed entirely. Nothing provides a cozier cover when you are sitting on the sofa and need just a little bit of warmth. The wonderful tactile quality of a soft quilt, combined with beautiful fabrics, pattern, and color, is hard to surpass, regardless of how the quilt is being used.

Consider, as well, where you are going to use the quilt. Whether displaying your quilt on a bed or a wall. care must be taken that it receives minimal exposure to light. Both natural and artificial light do irreversible damage to textiles. The less light the better. Ultraviolet (UV) filtering materials are available that are of some benefit in minimizing the effects of natural light. Keeping the shades or curtains drawn as much as possible is a wise precaution.

Fireplaces and wood stoves, on the other hand, do not constitute a light hazard but give off barely perceptible amounts of smoke that build up over time and cause quilts to yellow. Cooking oils also take a long-term toll by depositing a film on fabrics.

Many quilt owners feel most comfortable displaying antique quilts as wall hangings. Several methods work well for hanging a quilt. Regardless of the particular method, what is most important is that the weight of the quilt be evenly distributed. Once that is assured, the specific method used is a matter of individual taste.

Alphabet Cotton Quilt Circa 1890; Pennsylvania Stella Rubin Antiques

Alphabet Quilt: Circa 1890; Pennsylvania

Display Do's & Dont's

  • Many people choose to hang a quilt by sewing a sleeve to the back and placing a wall-mounted rod through the sleeve. The fabric used for the sleeve should be cotton or muslin that has been washed to remove any chemicals or sizing. The dowel or bracket should never come in direct contact with the quilt.
  • Another popular method for hanging a quilt uses VelcroTM. A strip of Velcro™M is sewn along at least one length of the quilt. The corresponding half of the strip is stapled to a wood strip that is attached to the wall. Some people prefer to make a wood frame and attach the quilt on all four sides. This has the aesthetic advantage of giving the quilt the look of a painting stretched on a canvas. From the point of view of preservation, either method is suitable.
  • Another variation is to sew VelcroTM on all four sides (if the pattern of the quilt allows it to be hung from all sides), even though the quilt will be attached only at the top. This allows for convenient rotation of the side from which the quilt is hung. This is desirable for the sake of the quilt's life. Hanging the quilt creates a certain amount of unavoidable stress on the fabrics that can be offset by the rotation.
  • Staples, mails, clips, pins, and tabs that penetrate or touch the fabric of the quilt are to be avoided, as they place strain on particular areas and may mark the fabric or damage fibers. In a short time, they lead to distortion of the quilt's shape.
  • Glass or plexiglass box frames are useful for keeping dust away from your quilt. It is essential, though, that spacers be placed in the case to prevent the glass and the fabric from touching. That contact encourages the growth of mold and mildew. Allow for air circulation by using cotton across the back of the frame.
  • If you display your quilt over a banister or rod, be sure that the wood is sealed. For added protection, place a cotton sheet between the wood and the quilt.
  • If you own more than one quilt, it is best to rotate which quilts are displayed every few months to give each one a "rest." Ideally, a quilt should not be kept on continuous display.
  • The preceding warnings are not meant to discourage buyers from using and enjoying their quilts. They are simply a reminder that quilts that have lasted through the decades were made with love and great care many years ago. They should be carefully and lovingly used, displayed, and appreciated today.

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