1. Consider what damages
Yes, light, pests, dirt, but also the whole climate, and pets and people. Don’t forget the stress of storage or display. Whether to be “used and enjoyed” or “saved and preserved” – you must decide. There is no quick or simple answer. I was given this, but how should I make sure it is safe? That it does not begin to decay, then all but disappear. There are basic measures that anyone can take. Preserving fibers will prolong life.
Ultraviolet light from the sun and fluorescent lights cause permanent damage. Be alert to how the sunlight might be reflecting off a wall or mirror.
Cats and dogs love sleeping as much as people do. When they do, they leave behind fur, fleas, dirty footprints, and other potentially damaging “gifts.” Illness and sharp claws may cause more serious damage. This inevitably leads to a shortened life.
Of course rodents will nest and chew holes. Then there are the insects eating protein; tiny, clinging remains of food soil attract hungry bugs, including silverfish and crickets. Regular cleaning, periodic airing, and careful vacuuming of the storage area are first and best defense. If insects and rodents are a problem, consult an exterminator to eliminate the pests. Paradichlorobenzene will discourage some, but will also release gases, which can also damage. The most satisfactory method is to use little bags of dried lavender flowers.
The experts say they like the same climate that feels comfortable to people. Extremes in heat and humidity are hard. Frequent fluctuations too. It’s best when humidity is 55% and the temperature is 65° F. Don’t put in a hot attic, a damp, cold cellar, or a sunny window. Basements and garages are no good. Dampness creates conditions ideal for the growth of mold and mildew.
Do not store in plastic; it seals in moisture (dampness). Some plastics also give off harmful chemical fumes. Don’t set on unprotected wood or in department store boxes or in corrugated cardboard boxes. Cardboard and unsealed wood shelves, bureaus and chests are very acidic; this causes an eventual breakdown. Metal shelving should be rustproof.
Avoid stacking since this causes crushing and compacting. Take out to air every six months to avoid deepening marks. Leaving in one position for long periods of time places a great deal of stress on an individual, which will cause eventual breakage and tears. Support as much as possible. The ideal is, spread it all out on a flat surface with nothing on it. But this is impractical. Careful compromise is the solution.
If breaking, as some do with age, do nothing. To clean or not to clean? When in doubt, don’t. Cleaning will only further damage. The rule of thumb is, if older than 1900 do not wash or clean at all. If after 1900, possible, but consult an expert before you do anything. Chemicals can cause permanent damage. Airing will improve odor. Dirt and air pollutants are a particular problem. If dusty, carefully vacuum, but use low suction. Leave washing to the professionals. If you feel the urge to wash it, take a nap.
Caution is key. All should be reversible. Leave old damage in place. Minor damage may be stabilized with illusion. Repair leaves the present state stabilized to reduce further deterioration. Use a very fine needle. Make no knots; begin and end long. Leave the old – and the new – or illusion over it.
Restoration is more than repair; it’s reproduction for the sake of preservation, the choice dependent upon historical significance and personal preference.
2. The project
Since its establishment in 1994, The Massachusetts Documentation Project has documented over 6,000, conveying important insights while encouraging study and preservation. In nearly two decades, dozens of societies and hundreds of private owners have been served.
There are a few basic criteria for inclusion: all specimens must date from pre-1950, all must originate or currently reside in the Commonwealth. This is an elastic location-based requirement. Some have origins here. Outsiders may enter the rolls as residents, post-migration. Certainly some have since moved on to spread across other lands.
In Eastern Massachusetts, documentation days are held the third Friday of each month at the museum in historic downtown Lowell, in what was once the Lowell Institute for Savings. Appointments by reservation only. Owners receive acopy of the Documentation Report, a photograph, a special label to attach, and instructions on care.
3. The record is created
Volunteers handle each with careful coordination. On the second floor, under bright fluorescent lights, they clip one to a bar and hoist it high, ID number affixed at its side. Now the photo documentation, then down it comes with quick folds. They carry it to the large white plastic tables, lay it out flat for examination.
ID 6844: c. 1935, originally form Hanna, Indiana, three layers, made by hand, by machine, by both. White, nile green, yellow, red, pink, by square grid, with flowers in-the-ditch. The leaf has extra lines. There are feathers in the border. Though structurally sound, in fair condition, it is damaged, soiled, stained. It’s very worn, and thin. It is Bud and Blossom (no. 11.45) with double centers.
It was my great-grandma Hazel’s, made for her by her mother, Wilhelmina, given to me by my father, Hazel’s grandson.
ID 6845: c. 1940, origins and maker: unknown. Green, gray, white, three shades of pink, three layers by hand, three pieces, by kit – flowers and stem, follow-the-dots. There’s a very deep scalloped border. As with 6844, though structurally sound, it is damaged, soiled, stained. It is faded too.
Purchased by my father in Wilmette, Illinois, as a gift to my mother on the occasion of my impending birth, given to me by my father on the occasion of nothing in particular.
Inch by inch the record is created. Look how she did. One comes to my side to repeat, to confirm, to contradict what another has said. In thirds, never in half. Crumple and roll acid-free paper in logs, tuck in to the folds. The murmur of classifications and diagnoses pass among them. First one, then the other, the process is over in about forty minutes.
No value is assigned. Unknowns remain, further research required. There are other experts we can contact, stabilizations to implement, illusion to apply, use to enjoy. Remember, it is an effort to return to an origin.
Precautions and instructions adapted from “How Should I Care for My Quilt?” MassQuilts: The Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project. 2011.
For further information: nequiltmuseum.org and massquilts.org.
Elizabeth Witte is Assistant Editor of The Common.