Quilt Rescue

Quilt Rescue

If you haven’t been hanging out at the local animal shelter lately, there is some terminology that you need to know to understand this post.

Rescue: when the shelter takes in an animal and someone adopts it, the animal has been rescued.

Forever Home: this term reminds us that the shelter is not a home, it is temporary housing. When the animal is adopted, it moves into a forever home.

Foster: people who aren’t ready to commit to an adoption sometimes try out the pet for a limited time at home. Alternatively, foster caregivers sometimes care for kittens and pups or for sick or elderly pets who are too nervous, too ill or too young to stay at the shelter.

Foster Fail: the foster fail is actually a success story. When foster caregivers fall in love with the pet in their care and decide to go ahead and adopt it, then it is considered a foster fail, but it is also an adoption success.

This quilt top was rescued from a secondhand store in Indiana.

This quilt top was rescued from a secondhand store in Indiana.


So what is a quilt rescue? In the same way that shelter animals are given a second chance, I collect abandoned quilt tops, complete them and find them forever homes.

I have had to accept that I will never really know the story behind the unfinished quilts that I find. I imagine that the maker’s heirs found them stored in trunks in the attic or maybe the maker tired of a project before it was quite done and packed it away. Perhaps the quilt top was passed on to someone who had no knowledge of or interest in how to finish it.

The most that I usually know is a location where the quilt was found and maybe an estimate of the age of the fabrics or the era in which that type of quilt was popular. Only once did I find a note pinned to a quilt, “Your mother pieced this quilt in 1939, just before she died.”  How did this quilt ever get separated from its family? How did any of these quilt tops end up in secondhand stores, antique shops, yard sales or on eBay?

Each quilt does have an unwritten story, though, and this is usually a challenge that I have to overcome in order to finish the quilt. For example, one beautiful quilt had been marked for quilting with nice, dark pencil lines – on an off-white background. Since I can’t remove the marks, I will have to follow them very carefully when I quilt the top. Another white and yellow quilt was sewn with purple thread that would show through unless all the ends were carefully trimmed on the back. A gorgeous appliqued quilt was stained with ink and I had to cover the stains with additional appliques. Fortunately, many of these challenges can be overcome to an extent that the beauty of the maker’s craftsmanship still shows through.

While some would argue that finishing the quilt removes a portion of its value, I ask myself: how much value is there to a quilt left to languish in the attic when it could be completed, used and appreciated? I have heard it said that no one leaves behind an empty inbox and I know that someday I will leave behind unfinished projects of my own. I can’t imagine a better show of kindness than for someone to come along and finish my work.

These are the steps that I take to rescue a quilt: I clean the quilt top and try to remove any stains. Once it has air-dried, I check the integrity of the stitching and reinforce any seams that might have failed. Sometimes I add a border of coordinating fabric to align with more modern bedding sizes. Then I add cotton batting and cotton backing fabric and sandwich all the layers together with free-motion quilting. Finally, I bind the quilt with a double-folded binding for durability. I then wash and dry the quilt, as there is an expected 5% shrinkage of the cotton batting on the first washing and drying. The cotton batting is what gives my quilts the crinkly, vintage texture that I love.

Some very pretty quilts end up on my sewing table, and I consider myself their temporary guardian or foster parent until they are finished, sold and shipped off to their forever homes.

Then there is the quilt top that I purchased from an online shop in Indiana. When I opened the box, dust literally flew out of it and the pale pink quilt was so dirty that it looked gray. After a nice soaking in the bathtub (for three days), it emerged as a beautiful glorified nine-patch quilt that was hand sewn out of feed sack material. It was love and a complete foster fail. The finished quilt found a really nice new home, with me.