10 Tips for Evaluating Vintage Quilts

“A quilt is a treasure that follows its owner everywhere.” This extraordinary mid 19th century Baltimore Album Quilt sold for $28,750 in September 2012.

There is an old saying that asserts: “A quilt is a treasure that follows its owner everywhere.” We know that’s true, don’t we? I suspect that most families have a vintage quilt or two lingering about. It may be on a bed, stored in a closet, or displayed on a wall or quilt rack. Perhaps it was made by a grandmother or an aunt. It was likely passed down through generations, and we are too sentimental to give it up. Indeed, a quilt “follows its owner everywhere.”

Quilting is woven into our folklore and social fabric. It has become a respected art form, whose best practitioners are honored for their craftsmanship and imagination. Quilt shows abound; museums offer exhibits of historic and regional quilts; collectors flock to auctions and shops to buy them. Dozens of quilting books have been written, and instruction is offered in classrooms from coast-to-coast. The large variety of quilt styles and patterns has spawned a specialty in quilt appraisal.

Knowledge of styles, patterns, fabrics, techniques, and points of connoisseurship must be acquired, which can take years; maybe decades. This American, ca.1850, cotton, “Carolina Lily” quilt sold for $7,920 in March 2015.  The backing is a repeated print of General Taylor at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma during the Mexican War.

Quilt lovers are often overwhelmed by what one must know in order to confidently collect quilts. Knowledge of styles, patterns, fabrics, techniques, and points of connoisseurship must be acquired, which can take years; maybe decades. Is there a “shortcut to knowledge” that beginners can take to avoid making purchasing mistakes? No, there’s not. There is no substitute for experience; mistakes are part of the learning process. So, for inexperienced vintage quilt buyers, I suggest a cautious approach. Arm yourself with a few inspection tools, a basic knowledge of fabrics and sewing techniques, and a good field guide or online reference. With these assets, you’ll still make mistakes, but if you do, at least you should be able to use your purchase as a bed cover.

Regardless of a quilt’s style, pattern, or rarity, it still must be in reasonable condition before someone will buy it. This vintage hand stitched 6 point star quilt sold for %57.99 in December 2017.

An antique’s value markers are rarity, provenance, demand, and condition. In this article I will focus on just one of these: condition. Regardless of a quilt’s style, pattern, or rarity, it still must be in reasonable condition before someone will buy it. As a customer once said to me: “I don’t collect anything that’s worn and damaged, no matter how old it is.” If I’m interested in a quilt, I begin by evaluating its condition (physical attributes). I don’t look up pattern or price information until I answer the question “Would I put this on my bed and sleep under it?”

Here is my method for evaluating a quilt’s condition: 

Inspection Tools

You should take the following with you on your buying trip:

  • magnifying glass
  • measuring tape
  • reference book or smartphone

10-Step Inspection Method

  1. Pick up the quilt and smell it. Vintage quilts are made using natural materials that absorb odors. Tobacco, perfume, cooking odors, mildew, moth balls, and other contaminants are tough odors to get out of fabrics. If a quilt stinks, don’t buy it.
  2. Spread the quilt out and give it a general look-over from a few feet way. Are there any obvious flaws? Stains? Are some sections more faded than others? Does it appear that repairs have been made? Are there “fold lines” from improper storage? Do some squares appear to have been replaced with newer fabric?
  3. While you have it spread out, measure the length and width (I’ll discuss why below).
  4. Rub your hand across the fabric. Does it feel stiff? If so, the fabric likely still has sizing in it and is an indication that it’s a newer quilt. The fabric in vintage quilts feels soft and pliable, indicating that it has been used and washed.
  5. Using the magnifying glass, inspect the fabrics for pilling (little round balls of fiber on the surface). Pilling occurs often in polyester fabrics. If a quilt is made from polyester, it’s not vintage (yet).
  6. Flip the quilt over and inspect the back side. Does the backing fabric appear to be authentic (from the same period as the top)? Often, vintage tops are sold online, then finished (batting and back added) and sold as vintage quilts.
  7. Again, use the magnifying glass to inspect the stitching between the pattern pieces on the top. In hand stitching (even when well executed) the stitches appear random in length and spacing. Perfectly even and spaced stitching was done with a machine. Machine stitching alone doesn’t necessarily reduce the value of a quilt compared to hand stitching. After all, sewing machines have been commercially available since the latter 19th Century.
  8. If you find loose or broken stitches, take a thread end and roll it between your fingers. If it disintegrates, the thread is dry rotted, and all the quilt pieces will eventually come apart.
  9. If the thread is fine but the squares are coming apart, inspect the edges of the squares in the damaged areas. Does the thread appear to have pulled-through the fabric? If so, the fabric may have dry rot.
  10. Is the maker’s name on the quilt? In recent decades, placing a tag (or embroidery) displaying the creator’s name, date, and city has become a common practice.

The most common sizes of beds were the child’s bed (or crib), singles (today’s “twin”) and doubles (today’s “full”). This 1870’s president’s wreath crib quilt sold for $682.50 in June 2014.

The size measurements you took earlier may help you to date the quilt. Prior to the Industrial Revolution (early 19th Century), residential beds were made-to-order and sized to fit the user. Mass production in factories required that bed parts become standardized. The most common sizes were the child’s bed (or crib), singles (today’s “twin”) and doubles (today’s “full”). After World War Two, manufacturers introduced Queen and King sized beds. As bed sizes changed, mattress and bedding sizes did also.

If your measurements show that a quilt was clearly made to fit a Queen bed, and the seller insists that the quilt was made around World War One, he (she) is either misinformed or trying to con you.

Identification and Valuation Methods

Setting forth identification and valuation methods is beyond the scope of this article, but I can offer some resources for you.

Books:

Warman’s Vintage Quilts: Identification and Price Guide”, 2008 edition.

Dating Quilts: From 1600 to the Present”, 1995 edition.

WorthPoint members may access the above Warman’s plus the ebook “Vintage Quilts” published by The American Quilter’s Society through the WorthPoint Library.

Online:

SuzyQuilts.com offers a nice quilt sizing chart for modern quilt sizes. 

The WorthPoint Worthopedia provides the most in-depth and up-to-date pricing information on vintage quilts.

Once you’ve established that a quilt is in acceptable condition, and have determined a quilt’s style and pattern using the reference book, you can look up the price history of similar quilts in the Worthopedia to determine how much you are willing to pay for a particular quilt.


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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