What to do with old quilts: 5 ideas to ponder

What-to-do-with-old-quiltsWhat to do with old quilts? It’s a question many quilters have asked. Whether you’ve inherited quilts, enjoy collecting antique quilts, or happen to own an old quilt with a story (or one that’s shrouded in mystery), knowing what to do with an older quilt can stump us.

We asked some of our antique-quilt-loving authors for answers to this quilt quandary. They’ve made antique quilts their passion, so read on—their advice might help you or someone you know bring an older quilt back to life.
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Mary-Elizabeth-KinchMake a copy of your favorite antique quilt. The makers of those quilts may not be around to tell us about their work, but with careful study the quilts will give up all their secrets and you will discover things about color, proportion, scale, fabrics, and prints that will be invaluable and that will influence your own work.

Below is a copy I made of the Dennis Cann Cot Quilt, part of the Quilters’ Guild Collection at the Quilt Museum in York, England. My quilt appeared in Simply Vintage/Quiltmania in 2013; you can see the original on my Pinterest page. Of course my propensity for small pieces means I ‘accidentally’ made the quilt almost half-scale to the original! Those wee squares in the center section finish at ½".”

—From Mary Elizabeth Kinch, co-author of Small Pieces, Spectacular Quilts and Small Blocks, Stunning Quilts

Mary Elizabeth’s remake of the Dennis Cann Cot Quilt. See the original here.

Julie-Hendricksen“I’ve been collecting antique quilts for more than 30 years and at last count, I owned more than 200 of them. Each one is fascinating. The closer you look, the more interesting they become. Over the years I’ve discovered so many unique prints, unusual fabric pairings, faded colors that intrigue me, and distinctive settings or borders. All of this has helped me build a wealth of knowledge. That’s why I’d suggest you use a vintage quilt for color inspiration when making a new quilt. There’s so much to be learned from the quilters of yesteryear.”

—From Julie Hendricksen, author of Remembering the Past and Preserving History (coming September 2016)

Men at Work – antique and new versions – from
Remembering the Past

Nancy-Mahoney“When I started quilting, I was a purist. I wanted to continue the art of quilting much as our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did. Now 25+ years later, I’m a realist. There are too many quilts that I want to make, and too little time. That’s one reason I enjoy collecting vintage quilts; I can own a beautiful patchwork or appliqué quilt without having to make it! I think old quilts are a wonderful inspiration. I love remaking antique designs using new, up-to-date fabrics.”

—From Nancy Mahoney, author of Quilt Revival, Appliqué Quilt Revival, and Treasures from the ’30s

The charming block in this Beginner’s Luck quilt, featured in
Treasures from the ’30s, is based on a pattern from Laura Wheeler Designs, a company that produced quilt patterns for newspapers during the 1930s. Designed for piecing with curved seams and templates, Nancy updated the construction for rotary cutting and used a starch appliqué technique that makes the block much easier to sew.

Karen-Earlywine“If there is damage to an antique quilt from wear or the environment, some intact parts of an older quilt might be used to make a decorative teddy bear. I have one, shown below.

A friend of mine made keepsake birth announcements for each of my grandchildren by using portions of a quilt her grandmother made that had been largely worn out. She embroidered their names and birthdates on a piece of the quilt and then had them framed. It made for a very nice gift!”

—From Karen Earlywine, co-author of Candy Store and More, Fancy to Frugal, and Link to the ’30s

Teddy bear (pattern not provided) and quilts from
Fancy to Frugal

Where does your passion for quilts fit: old quilts only, new quilts only, or a mix of both? Tell us in the comments—and if you have an idea for using old quilts in new ways, please share it

25 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I rescued an old quilt made by my great grandmother. She had made a quilt for each of her grandchildren and this one was my mother’s. It was basically falling apart, but had a few good bits left. (My mother had decided it was too tattered to keep and was going to throw it away.) I made a cute cat pillow out of it and gave it to my mother for Christmas. When she opened it, she asked "Why does this tag say from Linda and Grandmother Kendall?" When I told her it was made from Grandmother Kendall’s quilt, she burst into tears and hugged the cat pillow. I’d say saving old quilts, even pieces, is so worth it!!!

    What a wonderful story, Linda – thank you for sharing it! –Jenny

    —Linda Braley on May 27, 2016
  • I have an antique quilt pieced from wool, such as from men’s suit coats. The colors are drab except for one small piece of red velvet. The pieces are embellished with fancy hand embroidery, and the quilt is tied. My grandmother (1870-1957)used it between mattress and springs.

    Indeed, I wonder what to do with it because I don’t think it’s clean. It’s also heavy and takes up a lot of room. It’s not a display piece but it’s still an example of handwork of the day.

    Kathy Warnock on May 27, 2016
  • I have tops made by my grandmother from the 50’s, and two other tops given to me by elderly friends. I’ve collected several baby size quilts simply for space sake and because I can’t afford the larger! One old (30’s) top I’ve used as a huge wall hanging, and it’s in great condition, so I"d love to have it quilted, but I’d use a light batting since I want to keep the weight from damaging it. I have several old applique squares I am using to make table toppers and bed runners, and we see "cutter" quilts on eBay all the time, yes stuffed animals, yes table runners, yes wall hangings!

    —Sharon Schipper on May 27, 2016
  • I love to find some old wooden frames as they tend to have deeper sides to them. I mount a good piece of the quilt on foam core and pop it into the frame being careful to make sure there is some space between the quilt and the glass. Depending on the style of the frame, I may put some tiny shaker pegs or hooks in a row to use to hang jewelry, scarves, etc. It’s makes a perfect gift for all of my sewing friends.

    —Mary Smith on May 27, 2016
  • I rescue them from the Goodwill or Salvation Army. A lady in my guild gave me an old quilt her mother had made to use as batting for kennel quilts. I just couldn’t do that, I saw a picture of a heart made from an old quilt. I ended up making 139 2 sided hearts on a skewer with a ribbon and buttons and gave one to everyone in the guild as a remembrance of her mother. It was a surprise to her and it really touched her heart that I would take the time to do that. She had tears in her eyes, she is close to 90 and the quilt was just too special to use as batting for kennel quilts.

    —connie b on May 27, 2016
  • Love both old & new quilts. The color combinations, use of scraps, handwork, & history in old quilts is fascinating. Making new quilts challenges me.

    —Amy Cofer on May 27, 2016
  • I made a door wreath from usable parts of an old quilt my grandmother had made. It had much light blue and red, and my door is blue, so it shows up quite well.

    betty nelson on May 27, 2016
  • I rescued parts of mom’s Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt. I then appliqued several of the "flowers" onto eight different quilts so my sisters, my nieces, and I would have a special piece of the one and only quilt my mother made.

    —Evie H on May 27, 2016
  • I like a mix of old and new quilts. Of course you can make new quilts look old (classic) by just using reproduction fabrics. Besides, the classics never go out of style — remember some of the clothing styles from the 50’s and 60’s made a come back too.

    —Sue F on May 27, 2016
  • My husband comes from a family of 6 children. They had a well-worn quilt that had been made by one of their grandmothers and we cut out Christmas stockings and added trims. They are all different and beautiful.

    —Cheryl Linscheid on May 27, 2016
  • My husband’s great aunt had started putting together Dresden plate blocks into a quilt but never completed it. My sister in law finished the quilt into a lap sized throw and gave the few left over blocks to me and her sisters. I framed mine in a square 12 inch frame and it hangs in my sewing room. A wonderful reminder.

    —Susan on May 27, 2016
  • I’m beginning to learn that ‘anything goes’. I have made a memory quilt out of mums ‘old’ clothes and and old chenille bedspread….as far as unfinished ‘old’ quilts go…..why not incorporate them into a ‘new’ quilt or make them the centre and put other materials around it. I think making other things, such as a toy or cushion cover out of these would be wonderful. Keepsakes with heaps of memories

    —shirl Hair on May 27, 2016
  • I talked my Mom into saving a simple tied patchwork quilt my Great Grandmother had made with small 4-squares of fabric scraps from clothing she had made. The seams were pulling apart. I cut all the ties off, fixed the seams and spent a couple very pleasant evenings at the kitchen table with my Mom retying the quilt, which eventual found a home up at the family cottage.

    Alexia Jandourek on May 27, 2016
  • I don’t collect old quilts, but I do have 2 that my mother made. One is on our bed. The other is folded & stored – but I’m sure it’s not stored properly. I need to take better care if it is to last. The quilts that she made for my sons’ twin beds did not survive their childhood! and eventually became beds for their pets. Well-loved by kids and pets alike!

    —janG on May 27, 2016
  • I love the patchwork bear made from an old quilt. I’d also think of using mine as bed or table runners; placemats or cushion covers. Being very practical – more than one on display would be too much and one on each bed. Studing at present but can’t wait to spend time at my machine again.

    —Jenny Kavanagh on May 27, 2016
  • I have used older quilts as filler in new quilts. It is a surprise for the person who gets the new quilt.

    —Carolyn Decker on May 27, 2016
  • I have used part of a cutter quilt to make a Christmas stocking that sold in a local shop. Another one has been gracing my bedroom. Anything you can do to save at least part of a quilt will assure appreciation of the time and skill of someone whose efforts would otherwise be lost.

    —Linda Towers on May 27, 2016
  • I have a question more than a comment. How do you store your antique quilts? Some commented having about 200; I have that many of my own, that I want to keep…. but storage is becoming a problem.

    —Sandy Cook on May 27, 2016
  • A friend asked me to rescue the Sunbonnet Sue quilt her grandmother made for her when she was born. Well, the quilt was beyond repair as a result of being "loved to death." I found the best block, cut it out and had it framed for her. She says when she looks at it, she can feel the quilt around her!

    —Kay Connors on May 28, 2016
  • While cleaning out my Mother’s basement I discovered 2 pieces of a wooden frame with A quilt wrapped around them, covered in paper. It was an old quilt that had to be made by my Fathers mother. I was a seamstress but had not tried quilting yet.As it was stained I decided to wash it BAD BAD idea the batting was old cotton batting and it fell apart, I gave up on it and still regret not trying to salvage parts, I have a small Dresden plate that she made that needs to be backed and finished and squares of flower baskets backed on very yellow muslin that I hope to make into a quilt but am have a number of UFO’S to take care of 1st.

    —ELIZAJANE on May 28, 2016
  • I too have an old quilt made by both my great-grandmothers. One pieced it, the other quilted it. It is a pastel lemoyne star, probably full or queen sized. I too would like to know about storage because my mom kept it in a cedar chest which I’m sure left some of the stains on it.

    —Linda on May 29, 2016
  • I love the old but have given family part of one or one from my husband side to his son. I really enjoy making my own and giving to others either family or those in need. Time is ending to my quilting world of making and giving. The cost, hands pain and eyes- vision lost have made quilting come to a close.

    —Linda Christianson on May 30, 2016
  • A mix of both, for sure. I am fortunate enough to have one old (though damaged from use) quilt made by a distant great-aunt, but my dearest quilt treasure uses an old quilt in a way not mentioned.

    My grandparents had three quilts made by my grandfather’s mother, who died when he was a young boy. Their house burned, and the quilts were badly damaged, but my stepmom took on the challenge to repair these quilts/make them new again. She salvaged as many original blocks as she could, and set them into a new pattern with new fabrics.

    In the end, she had a single block left over, which she gave to me. I was able to incorporate that single block as the centerpiece of my first quilt; I made 5 identical blocks, and those 6 (with the antique in the center) make the part of the quilt that lays across the pillows at the head of the bed. I had the quilt long-arm quilted, and the quilter used the same motif as the original block, for all the other blocks. A beautiful way to include a piece of a great-grandmother I never met, into my "Diary Quilt" (ala Mimi Dietrich’s book), and to use an old quilt in a new way.

    —Heather V on May 31, 2016
  • I came across my son’s quilt from childhood that my grandmother handmade. It had a couple holes in it but I could not get myself to throw it away. I got creative and re-purposed it. I made reversible potholders and iron skillet handle holders. I gave them to my siblings and my son and his girlfriend for part of their Christmas gift and they loved it! (because it was a part of my grandmother and my son). You could even make placement mats if you wanted to.

    —Diana on February 4, 2017
  • I have about 10 antique quilts that my father gave me from his collection. I am ready to move them on to their next chapter, but know that they are special. I’m not interested in repurposeing them. Any ideas how to get them to someone who will appreciate them? Not sure how to sell or donate old quilts that may have cultural value to those who value quilts and quilting.

    —Anneliese on March 4, 2018

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