This is a dual debate about 1) whether to mend worn places in vintage quilts and 2) whether to keep on using them.
I have this theory about old things: In general, they like to be used. I’m not talking about priceless museum pieces or antique art objects, of course. But that vintage potato masher in the kitchen drawer? Still makes the best mashed potatoes ever. And great-aunt Julia’s ironing board? Heavy as sin, but oh-so-sturdy.
I feel the same way about vintage textiles, specifically two quilts made by long-gone members of my family. These are not great works of q-art, but they’re part of our family’s textile story. They’ve been well loved and well used. One is this lap quilt made by my great-aunt Joanna. It’s a simple Four (or is it Nine?) Patch, probably about 40 years old, with a right-angled tear in one square.
I used it a lot during college and early job years, but lately, it had been resting in a trunk. I recently brought it out of retirement to splash some color on the back of the sofa. (Would you believe the colors are pretty fresh and on trend by today’s palette standards? Bonus!)
The second vintage quilt is a hand-pieced, bed-sized tied comforter in a Tumbling Blocks variation using lots of feed sack fabrics. (A portion is shown at the top of this post. It’s dang big and there were no handy giants hanging out to help with a full shot.) I estimate its age to be closer to 80 years, and I’m told that my grandmother Lucille and great-grandmother Zola both had a hand in making it. Some of my mom’s baby dresses gave up scraps for this quilt, and it’s gotten used, too. It’s the perfect summer-weight topper and a favorite for napping. Both of our girls curled up under this one regularly and well, I just took a nap under it myself earlier today. (Just a short one. Don’t tell.) Stitching on several segments has unraveled and parts of some blocks have come loose from their seams. One fabric in particular is just shredding from age.
Okay, so you don’t think I am a complete quilt idiot, let me just brag about the hand-pieced quilt—vintage Dresden plate blocks with hand embroidery and hand quilting—hanging on an inside wall in my house. From a fabric sleeve on the back. Away from windows. And yes, it gets to rest now and then.
I bet I’m not the only Q-Bie with a quandary like this, though. A lot of us have probably inherited quilts from our needleworking forebears that we would like to carefully use, and that may need a bit of mending.
Which brings me to my dual debate: Should I keep using these? Should I mend them?
Quilt conservation expert Ann Wasserman would probably say “No,” and “It depends.” Ann has 30 years experience in quilt care and restoration, but she is also an art quilter, a professional costumer and lectures on quilt and textile conservation. Oh, and she’s got a B.A. in anthropology, which gives a lot of credibility to her views on quilts being historical records.
Her site has some excellent advice about deciding whether to mend an antique or vintage quilt, and how you go about doing it, if that’s your choice. And you can read about some of her current conservation and repair projects on her blog.
She has a thought-provoking discussion about how to evaluate quilts in need of repair according to their historical and sentimental value, your plans for use and what’s really important to you. She’s even developed an equation for considering this whole tangle.
Here’s what I learned from Ann’s site:
- Restoration always lessens the historical value of a quilt.
- Restoration, aka repair, is different from conservation. The former means fixing; the latter means stabilizing.
- By definition, “repair” may make a quilt useful again…
- BUT putting a quilt back into action that has already damaged it will just mean the wearing-out process will continue. (And then you just won’t have a quilt at all, will you?)
Suddenly, I feel as if I’ve been committing fabri-cide.
Will I repair my ailing vintage quilts? Will I keep using them?
Well, in true cliff-hanging spirit (like all the season finales we’re seeing on TV lately), I’m not gonna answer that. Yet. Tune in a few days from now, for more on this subject.