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.


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