After my post about our quilt show challenge I got several questions about how I wash vintage blocks. The easiest answer is very, very carefully!
OK, kidding aside...here goes my thought process. As each block is individual there is no guarantee that this would work for you and your block. Washing blocks is a bit like playing blackjack...you can memorize all the tables with the odds and play by the book but there is always an element of chance...so if you are one who likes to live dangerously (but like to follow the odds) here goes.
First and foremost - what are you going to use the blocks for? I collect blocks for the pattern or the fabric. In a way they are just study pieces. However I have worked on blocks that belonged to a friends great grandmother and the family wanted to make into a quilt. Knowing what I want to do with the block before I dunk it in the sink(or not!) is important. Waiting a day or two isn't going to make a huge difference to the block...unless of course you just spilled a glass or red wine on it (in which case you are on your own!)
It is highly doubtful that washed blocks are "worth" more than unwashed blocks just as vintage blocks sewn together my not be any more valuable than as blocks. (And according to many quilt historians you can devalue an antique quilt top by quilting it.) This isn't something you do to get rich - you do it because you love vintage quilt blocks.
Supplies I use when working on blocks:
1. a magnifying glass (even young eyes can use the help!)
2. gloves (not to protect the blocks as much to protect my hands. As a quilter I always have little cuts or needle pricks on my fingers. A few years ago I got a really bad infection in my Thumb after rummaging through a few bags of blocks from the 1930's that had spent years in a plastic box in a neighbors garage. (Note to self...if they don't smell good there may be something there that isn't good for you...wear gloves!)
3. q-tips or cotton balls
4. old towels
So you have block and a plan...do not go to the water yet...now take a really close look at the block.
o What age are the fabrics? There are lots of good resources out there to date fabric. I still use my well worn copy of Barbara Brackman's Clues in Calico. If the blocks are prior to 1900 or have writing or stampling (any ink) on them I do not wash the block. The likelihood of damaging the fabric is too great. Also, my primary reason (read plan) for having the blocks is to have samples of old fabric...the less they have been washed the better sample I have. Only if the block is in really bad shape (like mildewed - in which case it is on fabri-life-support anyways) will I wash it. I try and take a do no harm approach.
(This is an example of a block that will remain a bock in my collection. I think I would do more damage to it by even the most gentle of washings...dye is starting to migrate from the darker brown.)
o How strong are the fabrics? This is where the magnifying glass comes in handy.
If there are holes in the fabric either from tears, heat, or dye rot then washing is going to be a challenge. Generally a reason to not wash. Heat or dye rot makes the fabric so fragile that it may almost disappear when you put it in water. Too much heartbreak. If it is a "good and natural" tear then get out your darning egg (remember those!) and fix any holes before washing! Any action in the water will only pull at the loose thread and make the hole or tear larger.
Loose weave fabrics purchase off the shelf today can be difficult to work with and I hate to tell you they don't get better with age. (who does! except maybe George Clooney and Harrison Ford...sigh..Ok back to blocks) Generally I see the loose weave on quilt blocks made from sugar sack (not feedsacks) and from some dress materials in the 1940's. I have sewn a loosely woven block to another muslin block before washing to give it some extra strength. I then separate them afterwords (or not...it can help with storing or handling the block)(The background fabric in this block is weak...the fabric is fraying and there are little to no seams on the edges. It will only ever stay a block that sits in my someday stack. I don't wash it because I love the original colors in the red fabric.)
o How strong is the construction? Let's face facts - there are some good reasons for blocks to remain blocks and one of these is they weren't the best in the basket! Check the stitching - will it hold up to even a light wash? If points are important to you this is a good time to check seam allowance within and around the block. Go back to "what is the plan for this block." If it a sample only I don't worry to much. but if I want to use it I may have to seriously consider if it is possible or if I am going to be adding a lot of new fabric. In that case it may be easier to just make a replica...(This block was washed however the rust stain in the upper right hand corner goes right through the fabric. The background fabric is very thin so I don't want to go any further with washing. I can live with a bit of rust...call it character...)
o Stains? "Most often asked question: Will this stain come out? Best answer: It depends." that is how Camille Cognac address the issue in her book Quilt Restoration: A Practical Guide. I also like the sign in my dry cleaners that says "If you can't tell us how you stained it we can't guarantee we can clean it." Sounds like a lot of waffling but there you go. So we enter the netherworld of stain identification...sounds like a CSI program? Here are some common ones:
Dye Migration: I see this a lot down here in the south were some fabrics spends their summers baking in attics. This is almost impossible to take out without damaging the fabric more. It looks like rust or brown stains that generally are not consistent across the fabric. According to Cognac brown, red, black, yellow and orange fabrics are the culprits most often. If you really want to try to clear it up a Vintage Soak product found in some LQS may have a shot. Just understand that the dye that has migrated is likely to run again and your block is not going to look remotely the same after its wash.
Age Spots: I've also heard them called fabric freckles...so much nicer than age spots. These are the light small dots usually on the lighter fabrics. If they are light they will come out easily with a wash in either Orvus paste, Woolite, or Ivory Snow. If they are a bit darker or there are more of them then Vintage Soak may help.
Mildew: Again, here down south I see a lot of this. Often you smell it and maybe even sneeze it before you even see it! In it's mildest form you have a chance to save the block however if the mildew has taken hold then it is almost impossible to get rid of it without damaging the fabric. So how do you tell if it is mild or deep? If the grey scrapes off and leave only a small shadow you may have a chance. If however, it refuses to budge or leaves a skid mark in its wake...not so good. I have tried some crazy things (putting the fabric in the freezer!) but the basics seem to work best. I separate any fabric/blocks with mildew immediately from other blocks. Than I take the block outside and spray with Lysol. After the block is dry I hand wash the block in medium warm water with Ivory Snow and a bit of Borax. I rinse, rinse, rinse. If there is still a stain I may try some lemon juice on the stain using a q-tip and put the wet block in the sun for a few minutes then rinse, rinse, rinse. My rule is if the mildew is bad I am not going to use the block for anything but a sample...can you tell I really hate mildew?
Dirt/Smoke/Yucky stuff: Some seemingly not so bad looking blocks can make the water in your sink turn the color of weak coffee. Just remember that is why you are washing it. (and that is why I wear gloves.....) These blocks may have had a tough life. They may have been tossed into old cardboard boxes then lived in the attic for a few years before someone stored it in their garage for months until they hauled it to the Goodwill where you rescued it. Or maybe they were found at a garage sale by an e-bayer who put that "as is" line on their post which you didn't see because you were so excited by the great aqua color in those Sun Bonnet Sue dresses. Little did you know Sue was living in a trailer with a half-dozen three pack a day cousins...it takes a toll on a girl even if she is made of cotton.
These are my favorite blocks though. A short bath in some soapy water, a gentle hand rise, then blocked on some clean towels and allowed to dry. They come out looking (ah, and smelling) like new!
Finally some notes on pressing and storing:
Press all blocks as if every edge was a bias edge...they very well could be. Remember there were "bad" quilters back then too and just maybe it was those wonky edges that sent this block into the cardboard box to start with.
The optimal way to store vintage fabric is to layer it with acid free tissue in an acid free box. Now for the reality check. You are not going out to buy all of this for your thrift store finds. So how about washing some inexpensive muslin and cutting it into squares to put in between your blocks and storing them on a shelf in your sewing room closet. If you are feeling really flush hit a yard sale for some cotton pillowcases (got 4 nice ones today for only a dollar!) As long as the blocks are flat, dry, getting some air, and protected from sun and dust they should be ok until you are ready to use them...whatever your plan.