FAQ: Care of Victorian Silk Quilts and Slumber Throws

Many elaborately embroidered and painted parlor throws and bed covers of velvet, satin, and other fancy silks that were so popular in the late Victorian era have been treasured and preserved. Because a wide variety of fabrics, embroidery yarns, and other decorative materials were used in making them, their preservation presents special problems.

Many of the silk fabrics used in "crazy" quilts are weighted with mineral salts and other substances. This means the fabrics have been coated with, or have actually absorbed, these substances to give them more weight and a stiffer texture. Unfortunately, weighting substances also speed up the fabric's deterioration.

Silk is extremely susceptible to light damage, which can be seen in brittleness, splits, and the eventual powdering of the yarns. Sometimes, even though a piece of silk may appear in perfect condition, it can be extremely fragile. Unfortunately, we know of no way to stop this deterioration or reverse it. We can, however, slow it down by keeping the textile out of sunlight and bright household lighting -- especially fluorescent. If a quilt is to be displayed, it should be protected by keeping the room's draperies drawn, the light level low, and the lighting fixtures placed at a distance from the quilt.

Dust and dirt can do a great deal of harm to silk quilts, as can wet cleaning and dry cleaning. Dust, and especially dirt, can actually cut fibers as they expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. If the dust or dirt present becomes wet, it could act as a dye and penetrate and stain the fabric. It can then become impossible to remove.

Dry cleaning has a drying effect on textile fibers and puts a great deal of physical stress on the fabric. In addition, since very little research has been done on the long-range effects of dry cleaning, it is not recommended for an antique textile whose long-term preservation is at stake.

Wet cleaning can be damaging to silk quilts because quite often the dyes and paints used are not fast to water and will run and redeposit on adjoining sections. The salts, and other substances used in weighting the fabric, are not waterfast either and little research has been done on the long-range effects of removing these salts. These factors, combined with the many layers of fabric present, make the wet cleaning of a silk quilt so complex that it is not recommended.

The only completely safe method of cleaning that is possible on a silk quilt is vacuuming. This will remove a great deal of airborne dust and dirt that can cut and stain the fibers. Cover the quilt with a piece of screening, preferably fiberglass-coated window screening, and run a very low-power hand vacuum cleaner over the surface. If a quilt is extremely fragile, it may be necessary to hold the vacuum cleaner a half-inch or more above the surface. The vacuum cleaner will draw out the dust and dirt while the screen will prevent the fabric from being sucked upward and damaged. Some quilts, however, may be too fragile to withstand even this type of cleaning.

Frayed, split, and torn patches may be covered with fine silk organza or crepeline (a fabric made especially for textile conservation work). Using a very fine needle and silk thread, or the warp yarn from the silk organza, attach the fabric to the quilt over the damaged patch. Use as few stitches as possible, making them no less than a quarter of an inch long, remembering that each time the needle is passed through the quilt, a permanent hole is made. It is best to use seams as attachment points as they are usually the strongest parts in the quilt.

A silk quilt should be stored in a clean, dry, dark area. It should have no direct contact with wood, ordinary paper, or paper products. Depending upon its construction and condition, a silk quilt may be folded and placed in undyed muslin. The folds should be padded with muslin or buffered paper to avoid permanent creasing and splitting. The folds should be changed several times a year to minimize further damage. Nothing heavy should be placed on top of the quilt. Another piece of buffered paper or muslin should be used to cover the quilt to protect it from the elements. Never seal silk quilts, or any other antique textile, in a plastic bag as there is a danger of moisture condensation as well as acid damage from the fumes given off by some types of plastic. If some type of plastic cover is necessary to prevent water damage, cover the textile with muslin first and then wrap it with polyethylene plastic, leaving a small area unsealed to assure proper air circulation.

  • NOTE: Remember that your object may provide evidence of value to future scholars. You are strongly recommended to show it to a professional conservator and seek his or her advice rather than treat it yourself. The Smithsonian Institution disclaims responsibility for any possible ill-effects of applying these recommendations to an object.

Prepared by the Division of Textiles in cooperation with the Smithsonian's Public Inquiry Services