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?”

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