Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Velveteen Rabbit, Quilters' Edition: A Quilt Becomes Real, and Then Becomes Whole Again

Good morning, Quilty Peeps!  Instead of the "snowstorm" promised by the weatherman, I'm looking out my window at a sloppy mix of ice and sleet.  But at least the sky looks like winter even if the ground looks like a mess!  

On Becoming Real, from The Velveteen Rabbit

One of my favorite books when I was a child was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, first published in 1922.  This year marks its 100th anniversary!  Reading the Skin Horse's description of how toys become Real, I realized that Becoming Real is exactly what happens to a treasured family quilt that has been loved and tattered until it's falling to pieces.  A quilt whose binding is worn through and falling off, with threadbare spots where the batting is coming out and split seams and holes and tears and stains "can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."  Real is what happens to a quilt when someone loves it for a long, long time.  It's the Real quilts, the ones that have been truly loved, that their owners can't bear to part with no matter how shabby they have become.

Although I'm no longer accepting vintage quilts for repair, I still have a couple more waiting in my queue, like this one that I finished last night for a gentleman in Minnesota:  

91 x 87 Vintage Quilt, After Repair/Restoration

I am ashamed to admit that I've had this quilt since AUGUST of last year.  When its owner first contacted me about it, he told me that the quilt had belonged to his late wife and she had this quilt before they were married.  The quilt is precious to him as a connection to his wife, but it was in bad shape and he had been unsuccessful in finding anyone who was willing or able to repair it for him.  He sent me pictures that showed worn-through binding and a few holes in the white background fabric of the quilt, and I agreed to evaluate it for repair and give him an estimate if he would ship it to me.

Quilt Background AND Backing Fabric Disintegrating Along This Edge

Well, when that quilt arrived and I spread it out under bright lights to examine it, my heart sank.  The damage was so much more extensive than what I'd seen in the photos.  The background fabric had been hand pieced in overly large stitches that had popped and separated in several places.  There were many, MANY holes and tears throughout the background fabric, and what wasn't torn outright was worn thin and nearly gauzelike in several places.  Roughly 10" or so along one of the shorter sides of the quilt, likely the edge of the quilt that had been placed at the top of a bed and had been tugged on for many years, was pretty much disintegrating on both the front and back of the quilt with batting exposed.  

87 x 101 Vintage Quilt, Prior to Repair

It's difficult to show how extensive the damage is in photos because it's holes in white fabric exposing white batting beneath.  If the backing fabric had been any color other than white, this quilt would have looked like Swiss cheese from a distance!  I thought about rejecting the quilt, telling its owner that it was too far gone to save, and just shipping it back to Minnesota without touching it.  But then I remembered how he'd told me this quilt was his "most prized possession," and I knew he was telling me the truth when he said that no one he had shown it to was willing to touch it.  I knew it was going to be a LOT of work and very tedious handwork at that, but I also knew I could do it.  So I came up with a drastic plan involving amputation(?!), calculated the time involved, and sent him an estimate, secretly hoping he'd balk and ask for the quilt back.  But of course that didn't happen, so here we are.

The first thing I did was the "amputation," taking a rotary cutter to the quilt and slicing away 10" from the end where the quilt was literally disintegrating.  I can't sew patches onto thin air, and the fabric in that area was extremely weak and threadbare where fabric still existed at all.  You guys, it is a scary thing to slice into someone else's irreplaceable precious heirloom!  That's one of the reasons I've had this quilt for so long without touching it.  I kept turning it around and around in my head, looking for an alternative, wanting to be 100% certain that this was the best and only way to save the quilt before I did it.  Then I sliced off the binding from the remaining three intact edges of the quilt.  (Why did I cut off the binding instead of unpicking it with a seam ripper for hours and hours?  Because the client is paying me by the hour and I still have 10+ hours of hand stitching ahead, and because slicing off the worn binding gives me a straight, stable edge for attaching the new binding).

I had a difficult time finding an appropriate shade of solid green fabric for the new binding, but it was important to me to get that right.  My goal is for my repairs to be as invisible as possible, so you see the quilt in its original glory when I'm done instead of your eye going straight to the "new" fabrics that stand out like a sore thumb.  I finally had to alter a sage green fabric with coffee staining to accomplish that.  Whereas the original binding had been cut on the bias and hand stitched, I cut the new binding on the straight grain and machine stitched it instead.  Next, I repaired and reinforced the splitting horizontal seams in the background fabric by machine stitching a zigzag over those seams through all three layers of the quilt, using Aurifil 50 weight cotton thread so as not to stress the worn fabric.  After that point, all of the remaining repairs were done by hand, with the quilt spread out on the carpeting under the bright lights in my studio.  I started by patching the largest holes, using scraps of original fabric from the good ends of the cutoff piece, working my way down to smaller and smaller holes that I simply stitched closed by hand so they would not catch on anything and rip into larger holes.  Where large patches covered up lines of quilting, I hand quilted through my patch following the original needle holes.  Eleven hours of hand stitching later, I'm really glad that it's finished and I hope my client is pleased with it!

We don't know who made this quilt.  My client says his wife didn't make it, so someone must have made it for her.  The appliquéd leaves were painstakingly satin stitched by machine -- I can tell because there's white bobbin thread visible from the wrong side of the work.  But I don't think she was using a zigzag or satin stitch to do it, the way we do it today.  Based on the stitch angles and the slight irregularity of the stitch length and width, I think she appliquéd these leaves and stitched the veins with her feed dogs lowered, moving the work back and forth with her hands to form the satin stitches manually, as in Thread Painting, darning, or free-motion embroidery.  This is not an easy technique to master, it was a LOT of work, and I hated that I'd had to cut some of her leaves off the quilt!

Applique Rescue: Lost Leaf Relocated to Patch a Hole 

So I carefully cut out the two intact "lost leaves" from the amputated end of the quilt with a turning allowance of background fabric extending beyond the satin stitching, positioned them on the good part of the quilt where they could cover several holes at once and not look out of place, and then I stitched those leaves down like I would any other needle turned appliqué.  I even needleturned the skinny little stems, and ain't NOBODY can tell which ones they are now that I'm finished with them -- not even me!  

Post Repairs: Still Real, Still Fragile, But Saved

I am always clear with vintage repair clients that there is nothing I nor anyone else could do to make an old, well-worn quilt "good as new" again.  Vintage textiles are never going to be as strong as new ones, so a repaired/restored quilt should still be considered fragile and handled carefully.  My objective in repairing them is twofold: restoring the quilt by patching and darning the gaping holes and tears in the quilt enables us to see and appreciate all of the wonderful things we love about the quilt without the damage detracting, and repairing those holes also minimizes the potential for future damage if the holes were to catch on anything and turn into giant rips.

I hesitated to even write this post because, like I said at the beginning, I have realized that I just cannot manage vintage repair work on top of my longarm quilting and personal projects.  Although it's very gratifying work, it's also very stressful and extremely time-consuming.  However, it's not particularly difficult!  Most vintage repairs don't even require a sewing machine. If you can thread a needle and have done any sewing at all, you can probably give your vintage quilt the TLC it requires yourself.  I highly recommend Ann Wasserman's book Preserving Our Quilt Legacy: Giving Antique Quilts the Special Care They Deserve, available here on Amazon (affiliate link).  This book will walk you through evaluating your quilt to determine whether and how to safely clean it as well as step-by-step instructions for handling many different kinds of damage.


And now, with this quilt behind me, I'm shifting gears again from low-tech to high-tech and loading the next quilt on my longarm machine!  I'll be linking up today's post with all the usual suspects listed on my blog sidebar.  


Karen - Quilts...etc. said...

I don't think I would want to work on them either - I have repaired two for family members and I was able to hold the quilt with them and tell them what I could do or not do and they were right there to say ok, do it and if it doesn't work that is ok

Darlene S said...

I also love the "Velveteen Rabbit" book as a child, as well as an adult. Such a heartwarming story. I don't have any expertise with quilt repair, but I am impressed with your ability to save a well loved quilt. It is a skill few have now a days, but such a great skill to have and what a great decision those who decide to save such a quilt make when they have a treasure and hire you. Ultimately, many generations to come will be able to share a piece of family history and treasure the quilt for years to come. said...

I too have "repaired" two "real" quilts. . . mostly because they were precious to the owners. Your repairs are wonderful and the owner is going to be overjoyed with the results!

Pamela Arbour said...

After everything you have said about the quilt, I am anxious to hear how the owner feels about it. I am sure he is glad to have it back home with him. I don't think you said how old it is. I thought it was quite modern looking to appear so old and worn. You did a great job and thank you for all of the details. I have repaired a couple of vintage quilts for family members. It is real nerve wracking to wonder if they will like the outcome of the repairs. They are happy to have their quilts back but it is still an anxious moment when you finally decide what you have to do.I also liked the Velveteen Rabbit Story too.

Julie in GA said...

I've never tried repairing a vintage quilt, and I hope I never need to do so. It would be terrifying to cut off the end of a quilt, but it certainly looks like that was your only choice. The quilt looks great, and I'm sure your client was thrilled with to get this precious quilt restored!

Sandy said...

Wow! I can only imagine how happy your client must be to have his wife's precious quilt restored to him in so much better condition! I don't think I'd ever have the patience to do what you did, no matter the price.

Val said...

The Velveteen Rabbit is my favourite story as well. I also have repaired well loved family quilts and as challenging as it is, it is so rewarding. I have one on my table now waiting for me to find the right solid turquoise colour. Semi lockdown doesn't help but eventually I will get into the city to a quilt shop. I enjoy your posts very much.

Nikki said...

I enjoyed the description of your efforts to save his quilt! Well done!

Lodi said...

I think that I can hear your sigh of relief up here in New York... Congratulations on a job well done!

Carole @ From My Carolina Home said...

Those are certainly a challenge. Quilter's who are interested in picking up some client work in repairing quilts are invited to take my Well Loved Quilt Repair course, and get on my referral list. I am contacted regularly by people who do not sew and need help, and I need more quilters to refer to. Thanks for taking the clients I sent your way as I too have more than I can handle.

JustGail said...

I have a couple of old quilts, one I've totally disasembled and saved only the blocks. The other is still in a bag waiting for good weather and courage to disassemble it. In both cases, batting and backing were beyond saving. Right? Wrong? I have no idea but otherwise they'd both have been sent to the landfill.

You did a great save on this quilt.

Jenny K. Lyon said...

What a blessing you are to him, lovingly restoring his precious quilt!

Quilter Kathy said...

The link lead to a different thing, but I appreciate the book reference and will search for it.
I loved reading this blog post and I think you did a marvellous job of restoring this treasure! Marvellous! Thanks for linking up to Slow Sunday Stitching!

Jenny said...

So interesting to read how you approached this repair, thanks for sharing. Such a wonderful thing to do for a bereaved husband, giving his most precious possession such tender living care.

dq said...

Wow Rebecca, I am just amazed that you would even attempt to fix vintage quilts for strangers. They must be little bit close to your heart and obviously to theirs as well. What a job!!

Mary said...

What an amazing and time-consuming endeavor. Thanks for sharing such valuable information that could also come in handy if one of our more modern quilts gets damaged. I hate to think of that happening, but unfortunately accidents happen. Thanks for taking the time to explain the process and to share about Preserving Our Quilt Legacy.

Preeti said...

A true labor of love!!!

Rajani Rehana said...

Beautiful blog

Anonymous said...

Connie Steadman
I appreciate your description of the steps. Restoring vintage quilts is my passion and they truly bring a challenge. Over the last 20 years there have been some doozies that most would have thrown away. But the look on the face of the owner is well worth it. Also, the history these quilts hold can’t be found in books and ensures a family’s heritage will carry forward.
I wish there were more of us to do this work. It’s priceless.

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