How Quilt-making Material Choices Lengthen Quilt Life

split seam

The borders of my first quilted pillow were not properly quilted and with use, the strong polyester thread sawed through the cotton fabric, cutting off the seam allowance. The green fabric is a polyester blend. Photo by Barb Gorges.

How to Help Your Quilt Live to 100, Part 3

By Barb Gorges

In the previous post I discussed how antique quilts show us the benefits of choosing good quality fabrics in helping our quilts survive more than one generation, and how you can decide if a fabric is qualified to be in your quilt.

But quilt longevity genetics depends on more than quality fabric and a quilt care label (see previous blog postings). I found out the hard way that thread and fabric should be compatible.

Years ago I pieced cotton fabric with polyester thread when I made a quilted couch pillow that got a lot of hard use. The polyester thread, much stronger than the cotton fabric, sawed right through along the seam lines. With the seam allowances cut off, there was no way to repair the patchwork.

A few years later, I brought home tied patchwork quilts my mother had made for my sister and me when we were little. All of the diagonal seams had popped open because the thread used for piecing had broken. I was able to re-stitch the seams because the seam allowances were still intact. And then I added a lot more yarn ties so that the quilt top had more support from the backing and the diagonal seams wouldn’t be under so much stress.

Back when I started quilting in the 1970s, everything was tied or quilted by hand and we were always trying to get away with the least amount of quilting so we could start new projects. Remembering my mom’s tied quilts, I told students to always use cotton thread for piecing cotton fabrics.

But now, with the advent of copious machine quilting, there is very little chance that patchwork seams will ever flex enough to come undone, so it might not matter if your thread and fabric are of the same substance, or the piecing thread is stronger than the fabric.

However, I do have reservations about using plastic in quilts. Polyester and all its cousins are everywhere in quilting: thread, trims, batting. The woman I learned to hand quilt from made lots of polyester double-knit quilts because everyone kept giving her fabric they found to be not very comfortable to wear—it didn’t breathe. We joked that her quilts would never disintegrate like cotton and in the distant future, archeologists will find only her quilts.

But I’m not so sure plastic materials will age that well. Some get brittle. Some turn yellow. Some get sticky. And that’s before being subjected to attic temperatures. I already know that polyester batting in a quilt used nightly for a number of years completely loses its loft. And I’m not sure the pilling problem—little polyester batting fibers poking through to the quilt surface and then tying themselves together in knotty pills—has been solved, though copious quilting might keep the batting from rubbing against the fabrics and poking through as much.

The biggest reason for using natural fibers for quilt batting—silk, wool and cotton (I don’t count bamboo because it is more like polyester) is breathability. In these discussions on what will help your bed quilt live to be 100 years old, comfort—as well as appearance—matter a lot. You want the next owners to keep your quilt for themselves instead of giving it to the dog if they don’t like it.

I’m also concerned about quilt-making aids that add chemicals to your quilt that are not washed out when the quilt is finished. Fusibles come to mind. I think they are great for fun wall hangings that you don’t expect to live that long. Fabric paints and markers fall in the same category, as do most non-fabric embellishments. There’s just no telling yet how some of these things will age.

I’m reminded of the time I was able to see some of Grandma Moses’s original artwork when it was on exhibit in Washington, D.C. She had decided to embellish her snow scenes with salt to make them sparkle. Except over the years all the added “snow” turned black.

Don’t hesitate to experiment with all the latest quilt-making aids. But when it comes to your heirloom-worthy quilt, ask yourself, “What did Great-Grandma do? How do her quilts look 100 years later?”

How Quilt Fabric Choices Lengthen Quilt Life

Quilt detail

Gold-printed stars tarnished on a well-loved quilt, leaving smudges. Quilt and photo by Barb Gorges.


How to Help Your Quilt Live to 100, Part 2

By Barb Gorges

The longevity of a quilt depends not only on the care it receives, partly remedied by having a quilt care label on it, but also the quality of its materials. Spend some time with old bed quilts and you will see how a quilter’s choices play out.

My mother found and gave me an old, well-worn double nine-patch scrap quilt that was made with a collection of all kinds of fabrics, everything from a little bit of terrycloth to filmy chiffon. Many of the less hardy weaves (and knits) had disintegrated and the batting was fluffing out in many places. But the plain “quilting” cottons were wearing their age well.

If you are going to make an important bed quilt, you’ll want to buy best quality fabric so that it does age well and whoever owns it in the future will want to take care of it and not use it as a dog bed.

How do you find good fabric? As a general rule, we figure the big box stores have seconds and quilt shops have top quality. But once in a great while I’ve been lucky at Wal-Mart and unlucky at a quilt shop.
There are two ways I judge fabric quality: the fabric itself, and the color.

Spend a lot of time at quilt shops and feel the expensive fabric. It has a good thread count—but not so much that the fabric feels like sail cloth, though batiks have a much tighter weave than regular quilting cottons. Good fabric isn’t too thin, but not as thick as broadcloth. Thick or high thread count fabric is difficult to hand quilt (does anyone hand quilt anymore?). Thin fabric won’t wear as well.

Too much finish can be added to fabric. I’ve bought nice, crisp fabric—great for piecing. But it never relaxed in the wash. Sometimes a stiff finish washes out and has been hiding a light-weight fabric you would not have bought.

Quality of color is the other aspect I look at. In a multi-colored print, colors are printed separately and need to register, or line up, correctly. Are those flower centers supposed to be set in some abstract design a quarter-inch away from the center of the circle of petals? Look at those dots on the selvedge. Each little circle (some companies use more creative shapes) in the row should be filled perfectly with each color. There may be some extra circle outlines if a print doesn’t have a lot of different colors.

Watch out for prints that feel like they are painted on. I ordered a red nightgown with white polka dots and when I received it, I realized I could feel each dot, as if I could pick them off with my fingernail. Over time, color applied this way, instead of with dye, will crack.

All those luscious prints sparkling with gold highlights have a similar problem. I used a navy blue fabric printed with gold stars for a quilt for a son who used it every night for more than 10 years. The stars tarnished. Otherwise, the quilt has a wonderful patina of wear and love.

Another quality of fabric is color fastness. It’s foolhardy to put a lot of work into a quilt without testing for bleeding. I make up a little potholder-sized quilt, alternating squares of dark and light colored fabrics I plan to use, layer them with my preferred batting and backing and machine quilt through each square. Then I wash the quiltlet in hot water and detergent and let it air dry slowly.

That’s how I catch reds that creep into whites, or colored backing dyes that migrate to the front along quilting lines. Also check for print motifs sliding sideways. Any fabric that doesn’t make the cut should be returned to the store. If it’s been in your stash a long time, make dog beds with it.

Light-fastness is something else you can check if you aren’t in a big hurry to start your project. Cut a 2-inch square of each fabric and tape them to a south-facing window for a couple weeks, then compare with the original yardage. Navy blue is the unstable color I’ve seen most often, turning lavender. OK, so I have a wall hanging with a block that’s now lavender and green instead of blue and green. But in another block in the same quilt, a different navy blue is still strong.

Unless you truly only need to make a quick, disposable quilt, use the best fabric available. You and your quilt deserve it.

How Labels can Lengthen Quilt Life

Gorges Quilt Labels Quilt Care Label

A GQL Quilt Care Label sewn to a back corner of this quilt, plus the identification label, may help it be valued and taken care of by future owners. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

We quilters are regularly reminded to label our quilts or to at least embroider our name and the date in a corner. We’re more likely to do it if we are giving the quilt away. It seems silly if the quilt is the one I’m using every night or that hangs on my wall.

But seriously, it’s hard to know when you and your quilt may be parted. It’s better to make signing your quilt a regular step in your finishing process.

Labels are nice because you can add more information about you and the quilt using fine point permanent ink. Or use a computer and printer to print on fabric.

Some of the information you may want to include is: your name, the date, your location, name of the quilt, size, pattern, inspiration, and the occasion for making the quilt (wedding, baby, graduation, etc.). Maybe add a note about fiber content, especially that of the batting. Don’t forget to add the name of the quilter if it wasn’t you. On quilts that will be exhibited, I also put my address and phone number.

If you’ve ever had a vintage quilt appraised, you know it is more valuable if there is information about the quilter and the quilt, so label your quilts for the sake of your heirs—and to impress them with the value. Perhaps it will help them treasure your quilts more.

In addition to quilt and maker information, it’s good to have quilt care instructions. Thirty years ago, I was making lots of quilted pillows and placemat sets (hand quilted!) for friends and relatives getting married or graduating and I was pretty sure they didn’t know how to wash quilted things safely.

I made “hang tags” out of cardstock, writing out washing directions and pinning them to the gifts. You can imagine as soon as the recipient unpinned them, the directions were not filed by the washing machine. So I started printing brief care directions at the bottom of each label.

Printing with permanent ink on fabric, no matter how fine the point, takes a lot of room. But one day I said “Eureka!” when I realized a solution had already been invented. Care labels are in all of our clothes and linens. Why not make the same kind for home-made quilts?

My realization and subsequent research took place in 1998. Using a directory of manufacturers, I was able to find a company that could weave a 3 x 3-inch taffeta label with the basic quilt care information I thought was necessary: cleaning, display and storage. I was going to make some just for me, but there was a good price break at 10,000 and I thought I might sell some to other quilters.

I have since sold more than 60,000 Gorges Quilt Care Labels—in all 50 states and a few other countries. I have loyal customers who buy a package of a dozen at a time.

But I am surprised the labels don’t sell better. Part of it is I can’t afford glossy ads in magazines for an item that sells for so little. Part of it is that I’m selling something quilters don’t need until they finish a quilt. And you know how many unfinished quilts we all have!

Part of it might be that a quilter has read the care information on the label, but doesn’t agree it is the best information.

But actually, I think quilters have faith that the person receiving the quilt will know how to take care of it. Really?! I just heard another horror story during Quilt Wyoming 2014 about another handmade quilt inadvertently ruined by the recipient.

Most of my customers are putting the quilt care labels on quilts they give away. But why not put them on quilts at your own house? Remember, some day you may not be there to protect your quilts. Even if you are still alive.