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I purchased an antique sun bonnet sue quilt top, 49 blocks, with sashing and corner stones. I custom quilted it on my longarm. It had stains and I wanted to show it in the fair. I took it to a commercial washing center, used a large front loading washer, added 4 color catchers, washed on gentle and prayed. Came out fine, lots of color on the catchers but no fading on the quilt. Then I machine dried it in the large dryers. It came out so pretty and soft and clean. I did take second prize at the fair on it in the antique quilt section.
I wash two quilts from the 50s all the time. Fill the washer with your detergent in it. Put in the quilt and let it soak a few minutes, then agitate, spin and rinse on gentle for the short wash cycle. I switch my washer to the regular cycle for the last spin to remove as much water as possible to cut down on dryer time. Dry in a large dryer until almost dry and spread it out to dry - a sheet protecting the back of the couch works for me. One of the quilts looks new and the one I used heavily looks used, but not from washing.
It is a personal belief of mine that using a quilt is honoring a quilt. I would machine wash gentle.
I would either have it dry cleaned or take it to a laundrymat and use one of the big washers...then take it home and line dry it. I hang my things out on the line all the way up to freezing weather. If the sun shines, my sheets are on the line! But seriously, dry cleaning would be the best way to go, I think.
I asked a well known quilt historian/restorer this question.
She suggested using Synthropol and my bathtub so there wouldn't be damage from agitation.
Have fun quilting! If it isn't fun, you will miss a lot.
I'd wash it. What use is a quilt you can't wash? If you can never wash it, even just hanging up it is going to get awfully dusty some day.
Listen to the 'bathtub advocates'. (Hadn't heard of the sheet beneath for lifting...great idea.)
I would recommend not dry cleaning. As many board members have said, the chemicals used in that process can destroy a quilt. I advised my MIL not to dry clean a quilt I gave to her and Dad. She gave it back to me five years later to repair, and said that I told her it must be dry cleaned. She was confused I guess, but it was too far gone for repairs.
Thanks for all your advise and help!! Here are the pics of the quilt. Thanks again!