A Texas family heirloom

The month of May saw me performing ‘stealth conservation’ on an interesting quilt from Texas, believed to have been made at least a hundred years ago. It had been handed down to the great granddaughter of the maker, and its conservation was to be a lovely surprise gift  from her husband, to celebrate the birth of their first child.

Texas quilt before conservation

It had an interesting, asymmetrically pieced top, assembled with a mixture of hand sewing and machine stitching. A central area of nine-patch blocks was edged with blocks combining fabrics in diagonal bands of varying size. Many of the fabrics were plaids and checks, with a sprinkling of florals and solids. The backing was a lovely deep pink cotton, and the entire piece had been hand quilted in a pattern of overlapping arcs.

“Inherent vice” damage to black threads


The quilt was in pretty good shape for its age, but had several areas needing attention. A number of  fabrics with black or brown areas had fallen apart, leaving holes, as in the solid black area of the plaid shown at left.

More vice!



In areas where only some of the warp or weft yarns were black, as in the gingham fabric at right, many of the black yarns had disappeared, leaving the white warps and wefts behind. This weakened fabric had, not surprisingly, failed entirely in spots, and some quilt batting had been lost.

What was going on here? If you have old quilts, you are likely to have seen this before – losses and breaks only where fabrics are dark brown or black. This phenomenon is referred to as inherent vice. Something integral to the material is causing it to fail over time. In the case of fabrics like these, the most common cause is the use of iron mordants during the dyeing of yarns or fabrics. Mordants are materials used to help “fix” dyes to textile fibers, and many brown and black colors were achieved using metal salts as mordants. Metal ions remain associated with the dyed fibers, and they oxidize (rust!)over time. The natural aging of cotton fibers generates acidic breakdown products, which  only speeds up this corrosion.

For this quilt, the decision was made to replace only those fabrics whose overall structure had failed, For small areas of loss, as in the pink and black plaid sections, a hair-thin filament thread was used to consolidate weakened areas by anchoring them to an inserted black support fabric. Compare the photo of the plaid above to the same area after consolidation, and the shredded gingham above to the block after fabric replacement:

Missing sections of cotton batting were replaced as repairs were made. Hand quilting was reinstated wherever it had to be removed for repairs, using the original needle holes where possible. After a gentle wet cleaning, this heirloom was ready to be passed on for another generation.

Rebirth of a crib comforter


Work in April was mostly centered around the rescue of a family heirloom that had seen better days. A baby’s crib-sized comforter came to the studio, entirely missing its back and edges, leaving its wool and polyester batt just in its sacking cover. A few remnants of the top perimeter edging remained, faded from light purple to pale pink.

Before treatment

After treatment









Only five of the 12 flower motifs, which had been assembled using “English” paper piecing from small hexagons, were intact.

Flower motif before treatment

Others had lost 10-60% of their fabric, and many had lost some or all of the black buttonhole stitch embroidery on their borders. There were a number of brown and yellow stains, particularly on the white panel supporting the flower motifs. After discussion with the client, the decision was made to separate the motifs from the front panel, allowing them to be treated separately. Stains were reduced on both, using a variety of conservation and spot-cleaning methods, and the majority of disfiguring stains were removed or greatly reduced. To further improve the appearance and strength of the front panel, it was reversed and supported with a layer of ivory cotton batiste.

Hand paper piecing with new fabrics

I made templates to match the individual hexagons used in pieced motifs, and hunted down appropriate restoration fabrics (largely 1930’s reproduction prints). Custom dyeing was used to age some of the new fabrics, to better match the originals. Hand paper piecing was then used to recreate missing and damaged sections, and to incorporate them into restored motifs. Additional hand stitching was used to consolidate and reinforce some areas of original fabric and some piecing seams; weak fabrics were consolidated to additional backing layers of cotton fabric.

Adding back the restored flowers

The completed motifs were attached in their original positions by hidden stitching to the supported top panel, stitching through both the panel and the batiste layer to further strengthen the assembly.(My dining table was pressed into use for this…)The buttonhole stitch embroidery was then reinstated, using three strands of black cotton embroidery floss, and reusing the holes left by the original embroidery threads.

Washing the comforter batt released accumulated soils

The thick batt was gently wet-cleaned and rapidly air-dried on perforated supports. This worked well, removing a lot of dusty soiling that had accumulated while the comforter was stored away.

A light purple 100% cotton fabric was sourced, pre-shrunk, and used to recreate the top borders and comforter back. Six strands of matching embroidery floss were used to replace the original worn yarn ties  passing through all layers, at the center of each of the 12 motifs.  Eight additional tie points were added along the edges of the top panel to reduce shifting over time.

Going home….

The comforter went home clean, stable, and ready for a new life.