Care and Conservation

This museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. We follow their recommendations for collection care. You can follow many of these guidelines at home, for your antique treasures and for your stash of fabrics and new projects. Quilts can last for generations if they are cared for properly.

Our collection of quilts and textiles are cared for by a skilled team of staff members and volunteers in our Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Conservation Work Room.

Accessioning New Quilts and Related Textiles

Accessioning New Quilts and Related Textiles
Accessioning New Quilts and Related Textiles

We assign each new quilt and related textile a unique number. Volunteers attach a cloth label with the number to the bottom right corner on the back of each quilt. The labels are 100 percent unbleached cotton and hand-sewn with large stitches.

We perform object surveys on all new items. In an object survey, we note the quilt’s length and width, and whether it was made by hand, by machine or both. We note how the binding was applied and the number of quilting stitches per inch. We determine the fiber in the quilt and what fabrics were used. We also make notes of any inscriptions, which are later researched by our genealogical task force.

Information about each quilt goes into our database, along with any history or genealogical information we have on the quilt.

Volunteers vacuum all new quilts, and any quilts that have been exhibited, using a museum quality vacuum before being stored. To vacuum a quilt, we place a soft, flexible screen over it. This prevents the vacuum's suction from pulling on the quilt and damaging it. We slowly move the vacuum over both the front and back of the quilt.

We store quilts in our state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility. This includes a series of movable shelves, rolls and flat units. Our collection and exhibition spaces are kept at a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity.

Our team takes pest control seriously. Under a microscope each month, we identify any pests caught in our bug traps. We look carefully for any pests that could harm textiles, like carpet beetles or moths.

Re-folding the Collection

Re-folding the Collection
Re-folding the Collection

To prevent creases and fold lines from permanently damaging the quilts, we re-fold them every two years. We consciously fold along different lines each time, layering tissue paper on the top of the quilt and supporting the last folds with rolls of tissue paper. Most quilts are stored in archival boxes, but some are stored flat in drawers or rolled around acid-free tubes. Staff and volunteers wear white cotton gloves to prevent body oils from transferring to the quilts.

Preparing Quilts for Exhibition

Preparing Quilts for Exhibition
Preparing Quilts for Exhibition

For their own protection, quilts are displayed for a maximum of one year out of every 10 years. This minimizes the amount of light exposure and reduces the wear and tear from hanging on display.

Volunteers attach 100 percent cotton sleeves to the back of the quilts that will be displayed in exhibitions. The sleeves are sewn by hand, with large stitches. The sleeves distribute the weight evenly across the width of the quilt, reducing stress to the fibers.

Most quilts are hung using a cord suspension system. We slide an adjustable aluminum slat through the quilt's sleeve. The slats are attached to nylon cords, which are suspended from a hanging rail on the walls. Quilts are hung so the center of the quilt falls roughly at eye level, giving you an optimal viewing opportunity.

Also in the Dillow Conservation Work Room

Also in the Dillow Conservation Work Room
Also in the Dillow Conservation Work Room

Whether quilts are new or returning from display outside the museum, we isolate them for two weeks, to be certain that no pests are present on the quilts. If we have any concerns, we might decide to freeze the quilts, which kills any bugs or larvae that could infect the rest of the collection. Our freezer is at a temperature 40 degrees below zero!

We have our own photo studio on the first floor with a camera mounted on an arm on the second floor. This enables us to photograph even the largest quilts in our collection – sometimes as big as ten feet square.

Traveling Exhibitions
Quilts from our collection have traveled around the world.  We have had exhibitions in China, India, Japan, South Korea, France and the United Kingdom.

At-Home Care

At-Home Care
At-Home Care

Quilts and other textile heirlooms and keepsakes are fragile pieces of history that link generations, inspiring and educating us about our shared past. Because textiles are subject to deterioration from environmental conditions, they require special care. There is little we can do to make them last forever, but taking simple preventive measures such as controlling the home environment (temperature, humidity, pests, and light) is the most important way to ensure that family quilts and other heirloom textiles last for generations.

Deter Pests
Deter pests by keeping storage areas clean with frequent vacuuming, by making sure items are clean when placed in storage, and by maintaining proper temperature and humidity. Then inspect the storage area regularly, so that evidence of pests is discovered early and corrective action can be taken. The major insects that attack textiles are webbing clothes moths and carpet beetles. These insects are especially attracted to wool, silk, hair and feathers.

Cedar chests and closets may have almost no value as moth or carpet beetle repellents. The value of a cedar chest is that the chest is tightly closed, thus preventing entry of moths or beetles. Furthermore, woods of any type release volatile, acidic oils that yellow and weaken textiles if items are placed in direct contact with them. Therefore, line wooden shelves and cedar chests with a barrier of washed cotton sheeting or muslin or acid-free tissue paper. The active ingredient in mothballs is harmful to humans and should be avoided.

Dim the Lights
All light fades and weakens textiles. Sunlight and fluorescent light are especially damaging because they emit high levels of ultraviolet radiation. Damage caused by light is cumulative and irreversible.

Therefore, store textiles in darkness and dim the lights in areas where quilts and textile keepsakes are displayed. Keep the shades drawn on windows, reduce the number of lights and/or reduce the wattage of light bulbs, and turn off any artificial lights when not in a room.

To Clean or Not to Clean?
Generally the answer to this question is a resounding “no!”

Washing a quilt has too many risks involved to recommend it. Colors can bleed and the agitation and abrasion of washing—even a gentle hand washing—can damage fragile textiles. It is best to consult a textile conservator before washing a quilt or heirloom textile.

A musty smelling quilt can be aired by placing it outside on a sunny day (sandwiched between two sheets) and monitoring it closely. If it appears dusty, the quilt may be vacuumed by putting a piece of tulle (a soft, sheer netting) over the nozzle, setting the vacuum cleaner at its lowest suction level, and gently passing the nozzle over the surface.

Proper Storage
When storing folded textiles in ordinary cardboard boxes, wooden drawers or on closet shelves, protect them from direct contact with the cardboard or wood by lining the shelves, drawers or boxes with layers of archival (acid-free) tissue or washed unbleached cotton muslin or sheeting. Why? Ordinary cardboard and wood emit volatile acids that deteriorate and yellow textiles over time.

Archival boxes and tissue are available from museum suppliers, as well as some local dry cleaners.

Plastic containers made of new (not recycled) High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or Polypropylene (PP) may be used for storage of textiles if they are lined with layers of archival tissue or washed cotton muslin or sheeting. To identify containers made of new plastic, select clear or milky white translucent (not colored) containers, then check for the No. 2 and 5 symbols on the bottom.

Why do you need to line the container? Because this will protect your quilts and keepsakes from coming in direct contact with the plastic, where damaging volatile gases may be present in higher concentrations and where moisture may condense, possibly leading to mold and mildew growth.

Stop the Rot
A stable environment is essential for the long-term preservation of heirloom textiles. Avoid attics and basements where fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels may be extreme.

The recommended temperature is 62°F to 72°F and the humidity should be 45 to 55 percent RH (relative humidity). It is best to store quilts and family keepsakes in areas of the home that are cool and dry year round—generally the areas where the family lives.

Warm and moist air coupled with a lack of air circulation encourage mold and mildew growth that can stain fibers and cause deterioration.

Doing Your Part
Store quilts and family keepsakes in areas of the home where the environment is most stable. Avoid attics, basements, kitchens, laundry rooms and unheated spaces.

Store textile items flat if possible, such as on a spare bed that is rarely used. If items must be folded, use acid-free tissue or muslin to cushion folds.

Refold periodically to minimize the chance of permanent creases and fold lines.

You can also read this free publication on cleaning and caring your textiles from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Office.

'Care & Conservation: Behind the Scenes at the IQM' Lecture

'Care & Conservation: Behind the Scenes at the IQM' Lecture
'Care & Conservation: Behind the Scenes at the IQM' Lecture