Case File: Quirky Quilts


Cleaning out my grandmother's attic, we discovered what looked like a very old quilt wrapped around a stack of paintings. It looked old and in need of some TLC.
S.R.P., Menomenie, Wisconsin


We were hoping to find some long-lost Rembrandt amongst the paintings, but they turned out to be just a bunch of paint-by-numbers grandpa had done. The treasure we found, however, was the old quilt used to protect the paintings from dust.

Online I discovered numerous quilt sites and quilt museums all around the country.

I soon learned I had two tasks: to find out when and who made this quilt, and how to take care of it.

A close inspection of it revealed tiny initials in ink in the corner of the quilt: RMM. I couldn't believe my great-great grandma Rose Mary Maguire would've written in ink, but at the library I discovered a book called Quilts in America that told me indelible inks were in use for just such purpose since 1830.

The pattern itself was a jumble of irregular patches and different fabrics all pieced together, seemingly randomly, and yet it produced a really beautiful effect. Dating the quilt, I was told, was more educated guesswork than anything else, but useful for care instructions.

One of my online leads took me to the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum. I emailed a photo to the conservator there who reported back that the pattern was a Victorian crazy quilt, which had its popularity in the 1870-80s. It means my great-great grandma would've been in her teens when she sewed it. From my library searches I found out that middle-class girls were expected to sew 13 quilts before they married to bring as dowry. I'm sure they came in handy when she left Tennessee with her new husband to head west as homesteaders in the Dakotas.

I have washed it carefully, after spot-testing the fabric for colorfastness. I used something called Orvus soap, which it turns out isn't even a soap, but a "wetting agent" that allows the water to get into the fibers and float the dirt out. Soaps, it seems, even mild ones, leave a residue that attracts dirt. I rinsed it a number of times in clear water, and then the final time in distilled water so there would be no mineral residue from the hard water in my town. I let it dry in the shade outdoors, covered in a white sheet so the sunlight (and the birds!) wouldn't get to it.

It's too faded and weak to hang-I was warned by conservators at the Michigan State's Quilt Museum that even light from nearby lamps can fade it, so we're rolling it up and storing it. The conservator recommended that I sandwich it between two muslin cloths, then roll it around a tube covered in acid-free tissue. Folding it, it seems, only puts in permanent creases and weakens the fabric even further. I'll be storing the tube in the cool, temperate closet of the TV room. No more attics for it!

Finally, I've sewn a label out of muslin into the upper corner and written in fabric pen the who, what, and where of its origins for future generations of history detectives.

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