If you’re lucky enough to own a handmade or heirloom quilt, the prospect of washing it can be scary at first. What if you damage it by accident? What if the colours run? What if the stitching comes undone?
But with a little care and a few tricks up your sleeve, you can confidently wash your quilts and avoid any damage in the process.
Here at Gathered, we’ve put together this essential guide, filled with practical tips to help you keep irreplaceable quilts in your family for generations and how to get the greatest shelf life out of quality quilts.
Our gentle washing method can also be used for washing everyday, shop-brought quilts too. Hand washing is easier than machine washing, so you can keep quilts fresher for longer.
We’ll also show you how to wash a quilt in the washing machine for maximum convenience and how to wash a quilt in the bath, as well as offering a few additional tips on how to care for old quilts.
This tutorial is part of our series designed to help you develop your quilting techniques. Check out Gathered’s full how to quilt section for essential guides for quality quilt making.
Can you wash a quilt?
Yes, you can wash quilts safely without causing them any harm. However, when washing a handmade quilt, you should ensure that you:
- Make sure the colour of the fabric won’t fade or run
- Use a gentle, unscented detergent
- Handle the quilt with care when wet
- Avoid putting strain on the quilt’s stitching
- Dry the quilt without excess heat.
Use a gentle liquid detergent that isn’t perfumed, and wash your quilts by hand if at all possible to minimise damage. A good detergent to use for this would be Ecover Zero Laundry Detergent or something similar.
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Avoid washing your quilts too often
You don’t need to wash quilts as regularly as bedsheets or pillowcases. If you do, you risk the quilt’s colours fading. If you use your quilt daily, on your sofa or bed, washing it once a season or a year will be more than enough to keep it clean without causing ruinous stress to the fabric and stitching.
Don’t iron your quilt after you wash it
Ironing after washing causes extra strain which can damage quilts. If you do want to try giving it a press, only do so if you know that the quilt has been made with cotton wadding or batting. If it’s been made with a polyester central layer, part of the quilt will likely melt under the heat of the iron.
Essential steps before you start washing your quilt
Check the quilt for wear and tear
Before you start washing, give your quilt a quick spot check for any damage. If you find seams where the stitching is coming undone, or bits of quilting where the threads have worked loose, it’s a good idea to fix these before you begin.
Secure loose threads and sew up gaps using a hand needle and some thread.
Check the colours won’t run
Take a white, clean cloth and dab it in a bowl of water. Now, rub the cloth gently onto a few sections of your quilt. If colour transfers on to the cloth, proceed with caution – washing your quilt at home may cause the quilt to fade.
If this does happen, it’s worth getting some advice from the pros. Contact your local dry cleaner for advice. Be aware though: dry cleaning isn’t always the solution, and can still make your fabrics bleed or fade. We recommend checking with the dry cleaner first to see if they have prior experience of handling old or handmade quilts.
If you find no colour rubs on to the white cloth, then your quilt should be colourfast.
Check for stains
The last check before you start washing your quilt is to see whether your quilt has any stains. If so, treat these with a gentle stain remover before you wash. You can also try using a small amount of baby shampoo, mixed with water and applied with a clean white cloth, to gently rub away the stains.
Now you’re ready to start washing your quilt!
How to wash a handmade quilt
Fill a large sink with cold water and soak
First check that the sink is clean and free of any residue from recent use. Now fill it up with water and add some gentle liquid laundry detergent. Opt for an unscented brand that is free from dyes or added extras and suitable for delicate fabrics.
Wash & leave it for 10 minutes
Hold your quilt under the water until it’s wet all the way through, then gently move it around and rub it together in the soapy water to remove dirt. Don’t handle it too roughly. Leave the quilt to soak for around 10 minutes.
Refill and add the vinegar
Empty the sink and then refill it with clean, cold water and add half a cup of white distilled vinegar. This will help to remove traces of the detergent and keep the quilt colours bright. Gently move the quilt around in the water.
Drain the sink and rinse
Now it’s time to rinse away excess detergent. Empty the sink completely and hold your quilt under running cold water, gently but firmly squeezing it as you do so.
You’ll see bubbles coming out of the quilt as you squeeze. Keep rinsing and squeezing until no more bubbles appear.
Squeeze the quilt gently
Stop the tap running and remove excess water from your quilt by squeezing it throughout. You don’t want to wring it out really thoroughly, as this could cause damage by putting strain on hand-sewn seams. Gentle squeezes throughout should do the trick.
Dry the quilt
Lift your quilt out of the sink. Wet quilts are heavy, so take extra care to handle the quilt gently at this stage to avoid straining those quilt seams!
Avoid pegging your quilt from a washing line outside on a sunny day (tempting as it is) as this can cause the weight of the quilt to add stress on the stitching.
Instead, dry your quilt flat if you can. Sandwich it in between clean bath towels and lay it out on a clear floor. Press the layers together and then roll it so that the towels soak up excess water. Then lay out a bed of fresh, clean towels and lay out your quilt on top to dry in a warm room of your house. You can also do this in the garden on a sunny day.
Don’t dry quilts in a washer-dryer or a tumble dryer, as the heat will cause your quilt to shrink. If your quilt is taking too long to dry, you can also try resting it on a laundry airer once it’s not soaking wet or as heavy as when you first lifted it out of the sink.
How to wash a quilt in the bath
Washing in a bathtub is a great trick for larger items, such as queen size quilts. The method is similar to the steps listed above for washing a quilt by hand in a large sink, with a few variations:
- Repair any loose stitches or damage to the quilt before you begin, and check that the bathtub is clean.
- Fill the bath with cold water, add some gentle liquid detergent, and submerge your quilt in the bath.
- Move the quilt around gently to wash it in the water and leave for 10 minutes to soak.
- Empty the tub and fill it again with cold water. Add half a cup of distilled white vinegar. Submerge the quilt again.
- Empty the bath and rinse the quilt with cold water to remove any excess detergent.
- Gently squeeze the quilt to remove excess water.
- Dry your quilt by sandwiching it in between dry towels, or laying it flat outside (on a laundry rack or flat bed of clean towels).
How to wash a quilt in the washing machine
If you can’t wash your quilt by hand, it is possible to wash your quilt in a washing machine. You’ll need a large load washing machine if your quilt is big, and you should wash it alone – separately from other laundry.
Remember: test your quilt colours won’t run by rubbing the fabric gently with a wet, clean white cloth. If no colour is transferred onto the cloth, it should be safe to wash.
If the colours do transfer to your white cloth slightly, try adding a colour-protecting sheet into your washing machine (like a Dr Beckmann Colour Collector Cloth). This can help to prevent dyes leaking into the water. If you see a lot of colour come away when you test the quilt, ask a dry cleaning professional for advice.
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Put your quilt into the machine and add half a cup of distilled white vinegar (this will help to protect your colours).
Set your washing machine settings to a cold or low temperature, and a gentle cycle for delicates. If you can, turn off the machine’s spin setting (it’s gentler to hand rinse your quilt afterwards in the sink). This may be built into your delicate wash cycle, but check you haven’t got any “extra spin” settings selected to reduce stress on the quilt.
How to wash an old quilt
Washing vintage quilts is very similar to washing handmade quilts, but the older the quilt, the more delicate it’ll be to handle. With antique quilts, there is an increased risk that washing could cause the quilt irreparable.
Consider first whether you need to wash the quilt at all. If you do, then wash it gently by hand using a very mild liquid detergent. Only wash vintage quilts once a year or less and consider speaking to a dry cleaning professional with experience of washing heritage items for advice.
How to care for your handmade quilts
You should have everything you need to feel confident in how to take care of your handmade and heirloom quilts.
Hand washing represents the gentlest method, and generally speaking the gentler you can be the better. Adding half a cup of distilled white vinegar to your washes helps to remove detergent traces and protects your quilt’s colours.
Washing your quilts once a season, or a couple of times a year, will help the most treasured of quilts stay fresh and clean for years to come.
Make a quilt to treasure for generations
Why not make your family’s next heirloom and sew a quilt that wows your family for decades to come?
We’ve got a classic quilt pattern for you which blends reproduction vintage fabrics with expert quilting techniques. It’s a perfect Autumn project to curl up and sew as the seasons change.
Head to our step by step guide to how to make a Jane Austen Heirloom quilt.