You’re going to make a quilt. Wonderful! What quilter doesn’t love the thrill of choosing colors, fabrics, patterns? When you’re in the middle of all that planning, do you ask yourself, “how long do I want this quilt to last?”
For example, you’re making a baby quilt. Do you want that baby’s baby to use it in 2050? Perhaps you hope to this quilt will be loved, washed repeatedly, dragged and snuggled nonstop until only shreds remain. Both answers are right. The choices you make will impact its longevity.
No matter what your time frame, here are some choices to consider as you plan your quilt.
Fabric Choices – These days, quilters often purchase new fabrics instead of piecing with leftover or recycled fabrics (our fabric stashes are witness to that fact!). If using up cycled fabrics, use shirt tails and skirt fronts before snipping up elbow or hem fabrics. Look at the weave and print quality of the fabrics you buy. A tightly woven, high quality print process will stand up to the forces of washing machines and friction.
Hand dyed fabrics are beautiful and a favorite of today’s quilters. Take a moment to ensure that all of the excess dye is removed from the fabric before sewing. Rinse the fabric with a bit of white vinegar or Synthrapol, then press with a damp press cloth to confirm there’s no bleeding.
Hand painted fabrics are just as beautiful, but should be treated differently. The paint adheres to the fabric, rather creating a chemical bond. Using a press cloth to protect the paint, gentle washing and avoiding friction will help maintain the paint’s integrity.
Mixing and matching fibers is a fun way to play in your piecing. I, for one, can’t resist wool or silk fabrics. Remember that an all cotton quilt gets silk quilt care and treatment once there’s a piece of that irresistible fiber in the mix.
Thread – A mind boggling number of threads are for sale today. For piecing, a long staple cotton thread, tightly plied (i.e., more than one length twisted together) is an excellent choice. Cotton threads twisted around a polyester core are sturdy, too.
Hand quilting threads are specifically made to withstand the friction of being pulled through the quilt sandwich repeatedly. Embroidery threads are made for decorative purposes, so keep that in mind when hand quilting a baby or bed quilt. Use shorter lengths to reduce the friction.
Polyester and nylon threads for machine quilting and embellishment have less dust, but may shrink differently than the fabrics in the quilt top. Keep in mind that these threads need cooler temperatures for washing and don’t like a hot iron.
Some quilters are enthusiastic about thread conditioners. Made of silicon or beeswax, traditionally thread conditioners were used for embroidery to reduce the friction of the thread as you worked. For a quilt that will be washed and used everyday, a thread conditioner is your personal choice. Textile conservators have different opinions about thread conditioners and longevity. Some fear that silicon conditioners may prevent the threads from “breathing” over time. Others find that beeswax attracts and holds onto dirt more easily than untreated threads.
Batting – How the batting market has changed in the last 25 years! Historically, cotton or wool filled a quilt, giving it warmth and dimension. Today quilters can find battings that fit the season, desired drape, purpose and amount of quilting in their work. Silk, bamboo, and even recycled plastic bottle battings are available.
Many battings sold for quilts are needle pressed, which creates a consistent height of quilt batting. It also prevents the batting from shrinking as much.
Some battings use a scrim or resin to help hold the batting in place. This helps a quilt keep its shape if being dragged by a toddler, but may interact with other fibers over a longer time line.
If sold in a package or on a roll, look to see the manufacturers suggested minimum space between quilting lines. If you plan to stitch in the ditch around blocks, you can use a batting with larger space rating. Look on the manufacturer’s web site if you can’t find it on the packaging.
That baby quilt you’re planning? Think about the parent’s lifestyles and your goals for the quilt. Choose a cotton batting with a fair amount of shrinkage allowance for a soft, puckered historic look. Choose a polyester batting if you’d like the quilt to lay flat and crisp. Manufacturers often offer blends to obtain the best of both worlds.
Binding – There are many fun ways to finish off your quilt edges. In my opinion, there’s one good long term option for bed or baby quilts: a double layer, sewn separate binding. One of the first places a quilt begins to show wear and tear is the binding. The extra stitching of the binding to the quilt sandwich reinforces not just the edge, but the batting and the border fabric.
If it’s a wall quilt, play with the possibilities! Make a facing, use a decorative edging, paint the edge, add beads or trims, or leave it raw edged.
Beads and Embellishments – Many quilters are expert in embroidery, beading or other textile arts and bring this into their quilts. We’ve created beautiful objects by blending these passions and skills. Keep in mind that patchwork cotton may not be the best long term surface to support these techniques. You could appliqué a section of embroidery to a quilt, or use the embroidery ground in the quilt top itself.
Beading frequently uses nylon or polyester threads which may pull on patchwork cottons. A supporting fabric underneath the quilt top may take the strain off cotton layers. If the quilt will hang on the wall, consider the long-term implications of the weight of your beads on the quilt top.
Interfacing – Interfacing made of non-woven or natural woven fabrics provides support for garments. Since the invention of man made fibers, the world of interfacing changed. Many interfacings are made of polyester or polyamide. They add strength to our quilts, but the long term understanding of the reactions between the fiber and the man made fiber bonds are still being studied. Recently, interfacings made of corn fiber are on the market.
Repair Bundle – After completing your quilt, consider creating a repair package after completing the quilt label. Scraps and strips can become patches or repair any damage that happens during the quilt’s lifetime. You could give this with the quilt, or just keep them in a muslin bag with the quilt name on it for the future.
Back to planning that quilt! You’re the quilt maker. Make the choices that best meet your goals. Whether artistic expression, hopes for a baby’s future, home decoration or a lovely bed covering, I hope that you’ll ask yourself “How long do I want this quilt to last?” as you plan your project.
Here’s to quilts in 30, 50 and 200 years!
Want to learn more about quilt conservation? Then check out Ann Wasserman’s book “Preserving our Quilt Legacy”: Giving our Quilts the Special Care They Deserve