top of page

To wash or not to wash?

Summer has arrived in Britain, so who is making the most of this glorious weather by washing curtains and hand washing winter woollies? I certainly am….just done all the loose covers from our cream sofas…who buys cream sofas with a family and a dog?!

I’m often asked how to wash patchwork quilts and my answer is always the same… “It depends”.

Now I’m not trying to be difficult, it really does depend on:

  • * The fabrics, wadding (the filling in the quilt sandwich) and threads used

  • * How it was made

  • * And what it is being used for

Just to be clear we’re not talking about duvets here but quilts that have been created by hand with a variety of fabrics and a permanent layer of wadding which is stitched in place.

Before you start dunking your heirloom quilt you need to question a few things. Have a read below and then hopefully you’ll be able to decide the best course of action for your quilt.

Some quilts are created for display, others are meant to be used so both have very different lives. Dust will be the main issue for quilts that hang on a wall, whereas one that is used on a bed may face the contents of the morning coffee mug and a gym bag being dumped on it to say the least.

All quilts will benefit from a vacuum to remove dust but especially so those that are hung on display. Use the upholstery/curtain tool and the lowest (least sucky) setting. Gently vacuum the surface taking care not to rub or snag the fabric.

You can ‘air’ your quilt to freshen it up but avoid doing so in direct sunlight as the UV light can damage the fibres, fade colours and damage photos. Either lay it flat on top of your rotary line or carefully hang from your line using lots of pegs to support the weight. Alternately hang over clean, dry furniture to air. 

To wash or not to washm that is the question

Many quilters advocate never washing an heirloom quilt and here's why:

Wear & Tear: Textile or fabric fibres become very fragile when they are wet. The movement created during the washing process can distort the fabric and wadding and cause the thread to wear. This wear and tear could shorten the life of your quilt; awful for a piece that has precious fabrics and many, long hours stitched into it, especially if you wished to hand it down the generations.

Shrinkage: Natural fibre wadding will always shrink to different degrees. This works against the topper and backing fabric which is pre-washed. The combination creates a wrinkled effect after laundering. For some this isn’t an issue as they love the antiqued look of a quilt that has been washed.

Colour Bleed: Historically we’ve sorted laundry into lights and darks to avoid colours bleeding when wet and ruining our clothes. However, nowadays most fabrics are pretty colourfast so don’t tend to bleed, unless they are very dark colours, hand dyed or batik etc. With a quilt many different fabrics are placed next to one another so very noticeable if some bleeding does occur.

So what to do with that coffee stain or paw print?

Well in a perfect world keep food, drink, pets, children, bags away from your quilt….that’s going to happen, right?!

Stain removal advice is always to try the simplest solution first and build up if that doesn’t work.

* Begin with a spot clean as soon as humanly possible, before the stain dries.

* Use distilled or bottled water if possible (tap water contains minerals like calcium which can cause staining).

* Just dab the stain, be careful not to rub as this will damage the fibres of the fabric.

* If this doesn’t budge the stain then progress to using a mild hand washing detergent. Just dilute a small amount with water and use this to dab on the stain.

However, in reality a well used quilt is going to need washing at some point.  

Therefore, you have to get to know your quilt to care for it effectively. That will mean knowing what all the fabrics are and treating for the most delicate like wool or silk and those likely to bleed such as hand inked writing, hand dyed fabrics or batiks.

Most ‘dry clean’ items will actually be ok hand washed with a mild detergent but if your quilt contains particularly fine fabrics then do seek professional advice (note: I would never advocate getting a bedding quilt dry cleaned due to the chemicals used, particularly important for children’s quilts).

When making quilts I ensure that quality materials are used so washing is possible. The fabrics I supply are high standard cottons which I always pre-wash beforehand to avoid shrinkage and check for colour bleed. The wadding used is cotton too and is usually quilted 15cm apart for stability using machine quilting which is the most durable form.

Having said all that I would still try to keep washing to a minimum for the reasons previously explained.

Hand wash your quilt in the bath as this causes the least movement (& mess) and therefore less risk of damaging the quilt fibres.

  • * Use cool water and a mild, hand washing detergent.

  • * Don’t agitate the quilt. Remove the plug and drain the water, press down on it gently with the palms of your hands to squeeze out dirty water. Rinse, pressing down again, until the water runs clear.

  • * Don’t try to lift the quilt as it will distort it **warning it will be heavy** Use both arms or a towel to lift it from the bath to maintain its shape

  • * Roll the quilt tightly in a clean bath sheet to soak up as much water as possible.

Modern washing machines have gentle cycles which create minimal agitation, sometimes called the handwash or wool cycle.

  • * Make sure the drum is large enough for your quilt to fit in comfortably (you run the risk of damaging your machine if you overload it and the quilt won’t wash properly).

  • * Set at 30 degrees and use a mild detergent (avoid biological, all-in-one and detergents with optical whiteners and don’t add washing balls either).

  • * I never use fabric softener but do add colour catchers (and/or a small light coloured towel) to soak up any colour that may bleed from dark fabrics.  

  • * Get the quilt out as soon as the programme is finished, this will keep creasing to a minimum.

Dry naturally and flat.

  • * Place clean dry towels on a flat, non-porous surface and lay out to dry (the quilt, not you, however, by now you may feel like you need to!)

  • * Don’t be tempted to hang the wet quilt on your washing line, as I previously mentioned it will be very heavy and the weight will distort it and put strain on the stitches.

  • * Due to the variety of fabrics within the quilt you may need to ‘reshape’ it whilst it’s damp and flat.

Iron symbol
Iron symbol


bottom of page