How to wash a quilt: dust, dirt, spills, worse (+ printable)

Picture this: Your precious grandchildren surprise you with breakfast in bed on your birthday. Wonderful, right? And then the orange juice tips off the tray and onto the appliquéd, hand-quilted masterpiece you’ve proudly displayed on your bed for years. Quick—what do you do (besides bite your tongue and whimper a little)? Or maybe you’ve discovered a fabulous antique quilt in a local shop but it smells a little, um, funky. If you bring it home, can you wash it? Or suppose, like many of us, you’ve given the gift of a baby quilt only to learn later that it was put away for safekeeping so it wouldn’t get dirty. That quilt would be drooled on and cuddled and dragged around, just like you meant it to be, if the baby’s mom knew the basics of quilt cleaning.

One-of-a-Kind Quilt LabelsToday we’re going to discuss how to wash a quilt. It’s not hard and it’s not scary, provided you follow a few guidelines. The most important things to consider are the quilt’s age and its construction. Keep in mind that any laundering will contribute to wear and fading, so try not to wash too often except perhaps for baby quilts. Let’s look at a few scenarios and a good approach for each. These tips from author Thea Nerud appear in her book, One-of-a-Kind Quilt Labels.

Thea prints cleaning instructions onto fabric that she then turns into a quilt label. Brilliant! The instructions below are abbreviated; you can print out Thea’s complete instructions by downloading this free printable. Even if you don’t add washing instructions to a label, it’s a good idea to include them with any gift quilt.

First up, machine stitched, machine quilted: Think baby quilt, couch throw, dorm quilt, bed quilt—these are quilts made to withstand the rigors of regular use. Machine wash in warm or cold water. Set the machine for gentle or delicate, at the highest water level and for the shortest cycle. Use quilt soap such as Orvus or a mild detergent. Agitate the quilt for 1 or 2 minutes, stop the machine and soak the quilt for 20 minutes or more, then restart the machine and complete the cycle. To dry, lay the quilt out flat on a sheet or some towels, or machine dry on low.

Grace's Quilt from Cuddle Me Quick
If it’s a baby quilt: toss it in the machine! (“Grace’s Quilt” by Christine Porter, from Cuddle Me Quick by Christine Porter and Darra Williamson.)

Hand or machine stitched, hand quilted: You’ll want to be more careful here. A quilt that was made by hand should be washed by hand. Run warm water in a bathtub or laundry sink and add quilt soap or mild detergent. Press the quilt down into the water and let it soak for 20 minutes or more. Drain the tub and add fresh water to rinse the quilt, repeating this process until the water runs clear. Carefully remove the quilt from the tub; if it’s large, use a sheet as a sling and get someone to help you. The idea is to avoid putting any strain on the stitching. To dry, spread the quilt out flat on a sheet or some towels. Turn the quilt over several times if necessary until it’s thoroughly dry.

Homestead Harvest quilt from Simple Appeal
Hand and machine appliqued, hand quilted: treat it to a gentle bath. (“Homestead Harvest” by Kim Diehl, from her book
Simple Appeal.)

Antique or damaged: Cleaning old quilts is a delicate process. If the quilt is fragile or damaged, the best approach is to simply air it out, but don’t just hang it on a clothesline. Spread it out on a sheet indoors, or outdoors in the shade. If you wish, vacuum it by covering the end of the vacuum hose with a nylon stocking and holding the hose a few inches away from the quilt. If the quilt is old but undamaged and you’re confident it’s been washed before, and you really want to wash it, follow the directions above for hand washing.

Four Play quilt from Small Blocks Stunning Quilts
Oh, no you don’t. This amazing antique does not want to go near the water. A good airing and maybe a little vacuuming should do the trick. (“Four Play,” circa 1880, maker unknown, from the collection of Biz Storms, in the book
Small Blocks, Stunning Quilts by Mary Elizabeth Kinch and Biz Storms.)

What not to do to a quilt: Dry clean. Never. The chemicals are unkind to quilt fibers.

With a few guidelines and the right tools, you have all you need to give your quilts the care they deserve.

How do you wash your quilts? Tell us in the comments.

30 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Hi , great information. I was wondering how you clean a quilt with cotton background with felted wool appliqué that has been hand stitched down.? I’ve been having fun making these lately. But I’m concerned how to care for them. I love to hear how Thank you

    —Veronica Longobardi on February 4, 2015
  • Use a plastic shower curtain instead of a bed sheet as a sling to carry the hand-washed quilt from tub to drying area–you won’t drip as much water in the transport.

    Karen Lukac on February 4, 2015
  • Wow, thank you for the cleaning info’. I machine piece and hand applique, quilting by hand or by machine. I have washed all in the washing machine, but never use the agitate cycle (I swish by hand). I do however allow the quilt to go thru a gentle spin cycle. I have dried hand quilted ones flat on the floor, and I have dried a couple in the dryer, again on gentle, knowing that they would be used heavily. I always hold my breath and hope that my cleaning methods don’t ruin my quilt. So getting these tips are awesome. I do have a question…when using the bathtub, do you wring it out by hand?

    —Karen on February 4, 2015
  • I wash my quilts in the washing machine on gentle cycle with a capful of Dawn dish detergent. Whatever the stain is Dawn takes it out. Then the quilt is dried outside, never in the dryer. And yes, we have grandchildren and dogs. Although the dogs have learned to lay on their throw over the quilt, the grandchildren have not learned the value of a homemade quilt, yet.

    —Brenda Heath on February 4, 2015
  • Up until I read your instuction, I machine washed and tumbled dry. Thanks so much for printing the instructions. I will include with quilts that I give as gifts.

    —Joan on February 4, 2015
  • I use my washing machine (don’t worry) and I do the "bathtub" method using my machine. I allow the machine to fill but not agitate then I swish my quilt around manually, just a little. I use the spin cycle to spin out the water because I was taught that the centrifugal force was less damaging to threads than pulling a sodden quilt out of the tub (easier on your back, too.) Repeat the process for the rinse cycle. Then, I spread the quilt on a sheet on the grass or over a thornless bush and cover it with another sheet to dry. (Now, my day-to-day quilts do just wash and tumble dry…but don’t tell anyone!)

    —Beth Strand on February 4, 2015
  • I try to wash quilts very carefully. If it is an "old" quilt, cold water in a bath tub, swish around gently, baby shampoo, drain and if really bad water, do the same procedure. Let drain, try to get most of the water out before laying flat on towels. Try to do this only during summer.

    I bought at an auction a beautiful two color (blue and white) antique Kentucky quilt years ago – used the washing machine, detergent, and dryer. I opened the dryer and a messy ball of batting fabric was all that was left. Nothing beautiful left. A hard lesson to learn.

    I try to be careful with new quilts also. Always open to new techniques.

    —carol on February 4, 2015
  • I use ORVUS W A Paste. Small ones I do by hand and larger ones on gentle in the machine.

    —Patricia D. Roberts on February 4, 2015
  • I haven’t washed a quilt yet. I’m still making them and haven’t dared do the heirlooms. But I have wondered mightily how to go about it when the time comes, so thank you for these clear but concise instructions!

    —Kathleen on February 4, 2015
  • This is not printable. I have tried to decrease the font but it will not fit on a page. Help!!!

    Connie, the link to the free printable is right underneath the photo of the One-of-a-Kind Quilt labels cover. It is a bit hard to see, but it’s there.
    ~Cornelia/Customer Service

    —Connie Christiansen on February 4, 2015
  • Thank you so much for this information. I cannot get down to the tub to wash by hand so must rely on my washing machine. So depending on the quilt I choose the appropriate cycle. Today’s fabrics and threads are of such high quality they can withstand machine washing/drying. My vintage and antique quilts however do NOT see or feel water on them.

    —Cindy on February 4, 2015
  • Until now I have washed my quilts in the washing machine with a mild soap and then I put them in the dryer. No accidents yet !

    —Agnes on February 4, 2015
  • For any older quilt, I’d also suggest adding 1 cup of salt to the water, before you add the quilt. In a lot of the older fabrics the dye was not set. If you have red or navy in particular, be sure to do this so the color does not run.

    —Sherry Jurykovsky on February 4, 2015
  • Also, love the instructions for use on the baby quilt. "Wrap one child in quilt. Squeeze gently." 🙂

    —Sherry Jurykovsky on February 4, 2015
  • Archive quilts can be vacuumed by placing screening over it and using a very low suction on the vacuum while holding the nozzle about an inch above the quilt.

    —Nadine on February 4, 2015
  • I ALWAYs wash my quilts by hand…in the bathtub, if big…and air dry on a rack. I have 2 family quilts that are 79 years old and I want to preserve them! they are precious to me and the family generations to come.

    —Jeanette on February 4, 2015
  • I wash all of the quilts I have made and hand-quilted in the washer, using Dreft laundry detergent. If they have cotton batting, I dry them in the dryer. I hang the older ones with polyester batting over a shower curtain or on the porch railing to dry. I have had no difficulty at all. Dreft does not fade colors as readily as other detergents.

    —Barbara Ostrander on February 4, 2015
  • I’d add one suggestion to the washing instructions. One concern is always dark or bright colors bleeding/running into the light colors of a quilt during washing. A long-time quilter friend suggests a product called Shout Color Catcher. They look like dryer sheets, are sold 24 to a box in the laundry section of some grocery stores, and are made for mixed loads of laundry. One or two (depending on size of load) will "trap dyes in the wash," preventing them from transferring to light items or light areas of a quilt. The color ends up on the sheet. (Neither she nor I have any connection to the company that makes this product (SC Johnson). We just know it works!)

    —Kathy Schmitz on February 4, 2015
  • Not knowing if the colors are going to run or not should be a heads up.I’ve treated "the" quilt with various vinegar or salt soaks before washing . most of the time successfully. IF an old quilt is machine stitched and has no broken seams I prepare my water in my deep tub washing machine, carefully put the quilt in and let it soak for a few minutes to make sure its wet through, then use my trusty commode plunger to gently push it up and down in the water several times, then let it agitate on gentle cycle for 1 minute, punch it down for a 5 minute soak, agitate for 1 minute, spin out the dirty water, fill with rinse water and go through the same wash steps, spin out again, refill again, and spin again. Getting it out of the washer needs to be done gently, never pulling it out by one side. Carefully lift it from the sides, working it out gently from each side. Lay the quilt out on sheets in a clean space to dry for a few hours. It may be put in the dryer now ,on low heat , to fluff it back up. I’ve been lucky most times, using this method to wash some really dirty quilts. The second rinse is always necessary for very dirty quilts. I NEVER RUN A QUILT THRU AN ENTIRE WASH CYCLE because an agitator is too much for most quilts.

    —Elizabeth schnelle on February 4, 2015
  • I wash my quilts in the washing machine, perm press cycle dryer on perm press also. Both machine pieced & machine quilted. We use my quilts.

    —Barb Neill on February 4, 2015
  • My bed sized quilts are made to be used! My standard poodle sleeps on top so they get washed in my washer on cold and into the dryer. Yes, they get that "antiqued" look and I live it!

    —Judi on February 4, 2015
  • I wash quilts that only really need it. Gently soak in a bathtub, rinse until water is clear and spread it in the backyard on a white sheet on the grass in the shade on a warm day.

    —Nancy on February 4, 2015
  • In the washing machine or by hand, depending on the size. The few Grandma and mother’s quilts that I still have, have been washed so many times, it doesn’t matter anymore. We were taught, you only wash a quilt once a year after the Winter months were over and Spring arrived. Quilts were either laid on a sheet outside in the shade or hung on a clothes line taking up two lines forming a "tent".

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on February 8, 2015
  • Excellent information about cleaning a quilt. However, no one has addressed the issue of HE washing machines. I can’t fill the machine with water. I doubt I could kneel on tile floor to hand wash a big quilt. Needless to say, if this washer ever dies it will be replaced with a regular tub washing machine. I too use Orvus and Color Catchers. A friend suggests just putting in a piece of clean muslin will catch colors like the commercial product. Any suggestions for cleaning a quilt top that hasn’t been made into a finished quilt yet?

    Bonnie in Va on February 9, 2015
  • Howdy!
    I wash all my hand-quilted quilts by machine, gentle cycle, & dry them in the dryer. They’re made of cotton, batted w/ Hobbs Heirloom, quilted w/ Gutermann’s cotton quilting thread. In the 40+ yrs I’ve been doing this (quilting & laundry), I’ve never had a quilt fall apart, never caused any damage to the fabric or stitches. With old quilt tops that I’ve turned into new heirlooms (hand-quilted, of course), I use the gentle cycle, a little detergent, a quarter-cup of BIZ if there’s no silk in the quilt, AFTER the quilting & binding are finished: sparkling clean quilt, brighter colors, removes most stains. I now own a top-loader washer w/ no agitator/spindle; it’s great for quilts, pillows, other large items. I wish "experts" would do more research & share actual, modern-day tips for washing quilts that are made to be used & cleaned.

    —Ragmop on February 11, 2015
  • I have learned a lot from reading all the different ways to wash a quilt, but no one mentioned anything about a necktie quilt. My Mother made one a few years ago before she passed and it has gotten terribly dirty. It is made by hand and needs to be taken apart and redone, not the necktie part. But I would like to clean it first if possible. Any ideas?

    Hi Maxine, because it’s hard to tell what each tie is made of, I’d suggest handwashing the quilt using the step-by-step method above. Thanks for your question! –Jenny

    Maxine Roles on March 20, 2015
  • If a quilt needed washing, I used to do it in the tub, as described above. However, we recently renovated our bathroom and took out the tub, installing a shower with accessibility features. Oh dear! No tub! I guess I’ll have to find a friend with a tub!

    —Dottie on May 14, 2015
  • Thank you so much for this precious information. I am always tentative when trying to figure out what to do. I machine quilt and have always told the kids to just toss in washer and dryer. I will let them know the proper way to clean the quilts I have given them.

    Sallie Cook on April 15, 2016
  • I really miss my older Top Loader washer. I washed plenty of quilts in it, with lots of water. I even used to Dye stuff in that washer! I now have a new Hi-Effeciancy Front Load Washer. Fine for clothes but I’m intrigued that someone here mentioned a Top Loader with no central agitation post? This sounds like a great idea for a quilter!

    —DpBluSea on August 17, 2016
  • Thank you for this posting. I plan to make pet quilts (that have been machine stitched and machine quilted) out of recycled shirt cotton fabric with polyester batting/wadding.

    What advice would you give for washing regularly? Any advice or tips about the construction of the quilt so that it suits a utility/dog use?

    I would really value your input on this. Thank you. xxx

    —Lisa McLoughlin on October 24, 2016

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