Machine Quilt a Vintage/Antique Top on the Long Arm

Tutorials, Vintage Quilt | October 6, 2017 | By

I adore old quilt tops. Antique, vintage, ancient, or old, whatever you like to call them! They are cool! A lot of the attraction for me is the fabrics from the early 1900’s. I can spend hours just looking over ever part of an old quilt. The technique also attracts me. Simply cut with scissors, most likely patterned around a piece of cardboard, then often hand stitched piece by tiny piece to create a WHOLE quilt! I’m astounded by it all!

I stopped at an antique store, Fleas An Tiques, in Independence, KS, last week and found this treasure. It was half price! I absolutely had to have it for $12.50! I’m going to take you through the process from found treasure to a usable quilt. I always feel the maker is smiling down on me when the quilt is finished!

I knew right away from the musty smell that it would need a bath! Most of these old tops I can’t even touch or work on the machine until I have soaked them overnight. I have a terrible mold allergy! I first soaked this one in Retro Clean, which can be found on Amazon or sometimes in quilt or antique shops. It will take out age stains, yellowing, and give the fabrics a general brightening. You notice I said SOAK, not wash! Never agitate a top that hasn’t been quilted, you will have massive amount of fraying and you take the chance that the whole top will fall apart.


Retro Clean will only take out stains, not the mold and mildew. This one had a second day soak in an ammonia water bath. I mix 1 part ammonia to 5 parts water. Except for bleach (which you wouldn’t want to use), ammonia is the only thing I know of to actually remove mold spores. I do this soak for another 24 hours at least. There have been times I’ve had to do a 2 or 3 day ammonia soak because a top is so mildewed. My nose never lies!

After a multiple rinse, I gently squish out all the water I can, then take it to the grass. Yes, smack dab on top of the grass! The ozone rays of the sun and the chlorophyll in the grass will brighten and whiten a fabric. I give that about a day in the sunshine.



This top is a mix of feedsacks, shirt cottons, and just your average bits of clothing. You can almost see the worn blouses, pants, baby blankets, and family wardrobes that are mixed together in a quilt like this. That’s the fun! I swear I even see the fabric from my grandpa’s boxer shorts! Can you imagine not having the fabric resources that we have now? This reminds me that life was certainly different 100 years ago! Women were frugal and used every bit of what they already had. I’m sure my closet alone could make a dozen quilts!

You can see from the back that someone worked diligently on the piecing. Would we even begin to piece a quilt top by hand? I find hand stitching to be mesmerizing and intriguing. Hand piecing does cause a few issues in modern day machine quilting, but nothing that can’t be worked out!

I do give these tops as good a press as possible, always from the top. There really is no way to press as we do nowadays, seams pressed a certain direction. I try to get them as flat as possible, always using a good spray starch.


There are also the random holes. Since these are not collectible, heirloom quilt tops, I am usually looking for a quick fix. I use a piece of fusible interfacing and any piece of cotton to make a patch on the underside.


Once I’ve soaked, shined, fixed and pressed, it’s finally time for the quilting. Let’s go!

I load a backing on my longarm, a Handi Quilter Fusion with Pro-Stitcher computer. On these particularly wavy tops, I usually choose a 100% polyester batting, this one is Hobbs brand. The fluff of the polyester tends to fill in the excess fabric, eliminating any stitched in wrinkles.

The next important tool is my Glide foot by Handi Quilter! I couldn’t quilt so many of the things I quilt if I didn’t have this foot! It’s magic for me! On these lumpy, bumpy, uneven tops, this foot glides over everything. It’s easy on, easy off with a quick flip of my allen wrench. I can pop my regular hopping foot on at any time.

I start by basting a horizontal line across the top of the quilt using the channel locks on my machine. This locks the machine in a horizontal position. I manipulate the top with one hand while moving the machine with the other.

After I have a line across the top, then I do a vertical line down both sides. Once again, I use the option on my machine called a vertical lock. I manipulate the fabric as much as possible to the vertical line. Both of these locks will square the quilt as much as possible while it’s on the frame.

I keep a spray bottle of water at my side, using it to spray the top, keeping it pliable and easily manipulated.

Another tip, when choosing a design for these busy tops, choose an all over design. Custom quilting on anything like this is really not even possible and would be lost. I look for a dense and flowing design, something that will secure a lot of seams and give the quilt strength. On these beauties, I’m looking for some great texture. I chose a digital design by Susan Mallett, called “Paisley”.

While I’m working each row, I often run into excess fabric that can actually be flattened with a good can of spray starch and a steam iron. You can see a quick video here on how I do that, but simply, spray your starch over the fabric, then run a steam iron (mine is a cordless Panasonic) over the area. You will see almost an immediate tightening of the fabrics. FYI, this only works on cottons.



The last row definitely tells the true shape of the quilt. Sometimes, you can try as hard as you might, but you can’t make a wonky quilt, square. I get very close though 😉

I did one more soak in ammonia water after the quilting. I realized when I started to put on the binding that I had used an estate sale fabric for the backing, which meant mold and mildew. I couldn’t work with it again until I soaked that fabric! Dang!!

Finally, I stitched on the binding. I usually don’t tell anyone this, but binding may be my favorite part of the quilt. Honestly, I love to hand stitch.


I hope you were inspired by this post to finish an old quilt. If everyone reading this did just one, think how many quilts we would have!!! Have a wonderful day!


  1. Leave a Reply

    October 6, 2017

    I really admire and love your patience and insight to finishing this old quilt!! And the luck in finding it! I found an old wedding ring quilt years ago in an antique store- brought it home and put it in washer- almost cried when I took it out! Found a local woman to repair and quilt it for me! Turned out great! My question– I have inherited another old quilt from a family member, it’s dingy and smelly- can I use your methods of soaking for this old quilt?

    • Leave a Reply

      October 6, 2017

      Wow, I can see this is a definitely a work of love. Thanks for the info on soaking to remove the mold and mildew. I have allergies and almost always shy away from working with old fabric, but this gives me courage to try. I loved seeing your process. IT CAME OUT ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.

      • Leave a Reply

        [email protected]
        October 6, 2017

        Thanks! I find it ironic that I am drawn to what makes me almost sick! I HAVE to get out that mold or I can’t even touch it!

    • Leave a Reply

      Sherry dean
      June 30, 2019

      Just wondering if it is possible to successfully quilt a vintage double wedding ring top that is generally well made but has some issues with pieces not fitting well, as well as some stretching? Great info and tops – i’ve learned quite a lot – thank you!!

      • Leave a Reply

        August 29, 2019

        I think anything can be quilted. I use lots of starch and steam when needed on an old top. You just have to take your time and deal with each row as it presents itself. Thanks!

  2. Leave a Reply

    Diane Duplissis
    October 6, 2017

    Thanks for the tips about soaking. I’ve passed up some pretty quilt because of smells, rips, etc. Next time, I’ll give your methis a try. Thank you!

  3. Leave a Reply

    October 6, 2017

    Great job, Kelly – as always! This is truly a treasure! I have a question regarding your machine. May I ask what the red is at the end of your take up where the batting is attached? I’m sure it’s a grip of some sort, but I haven’t seen these. If it’s easier than pinning, I want some!! LOL Thanks in advance.

    • Leave a Reply

      [email protected]
      October 6, 2017

      Thanks Brenda!! YES, those are the best ever clamps. They are called Red Snappers, found on Renae Haddadin’s website. They are awesome!! I can load a quilt in about 5 minutes, take it off in 5 seconds 😉

        • Leave a Reply

          [email protected]
          October 6, 2017

          They are tight when you first get them, but a few uses and they’ll be broken in. Don’t give up as they are fabulous!!!

  4. Leave a Reply

    Diane Duplissis
    October 6, 2017

    Thanks for the tips about soaking. I’ve passed up some pretty quilt because of smells, rips, etc. Next time, I’ll give your method a try. Thank you!

  5. Leave a Reply

    October 6, 2017

    This has been so informative! Your information on soaking was great! I’ve learned so much with just this blog. I too adore old quilts but didn’t quite know how to process them!

  6. Leave a Reply

    Ann Lamy
    October 6, 2017

    You know I don’t even LONG ARM QUILT . . . but I sure loved reading this post, Kelly! Great photos, great post. ***smiles***

  7. Leave a Reply

    Roxanne Dear
    October 6, 2017

    I love this! Thanks for all the step by step instructions. Gives me lots of ideas. Well done! I love a rescued quilt!

  8. Leave a Reply

    Janice Holton
    October 6, 2017

    Kelly, I absolutely love seeing posts list this! I love thinking about the people who spent hours and hours putting these together and wonder about their lives. I do have a vintage quilt top possibly made by my husband’s great grandmother (we don’t know for sure) that I’m going to finish someday (as soon as I get through my “to do” list of quilts to make for relatives! I sent pictures of it to a quilt appraiser and she told me that it was made by a quilter with a “deep scrap bag” in other words spanning several decades. I have never seen another one like it as far as the pattern that was used. I would love for you to take a look at it and tell me what you think and also let me know your opinion about my plan for quilting it. Would love to know what you would do. I blogged about it on January 4, 2017.

  9. Leave a Reply

    Lesley Morris
    October 6, 2017

    Your tips and work inspire me. I have a longarm, but am new to it and still end up using my sewing machine (a wonderful Juki) to quilt my tops and projects. Thanks for all the posts, that in itself it timely. Thanks again, Lesley

  10. Leave a Reply

    Sandra Sweeney
    October 6, 2017

    Kelly, I really appreciate the way you go into such detail so that the “rest of us” might be able to replicate your results with our own quilts. Thank you!

    • Leave a Reply

      [email protected]
      October 6, 2017

      Thanks Sandra! I really just want everyone to give it a try! Finishing an old quilt is a challenge, but also brings great results AND a usable finish!!

  11. Leave a Reply

    Phyllis Sisk
    October 6, 2017

    Thank you so very much for all the information. Wish I had waited another month to quilt the one I just finished as I did everything backward from the way you did and the quilt would have looked much better and my allergies would not be nearly as bad. Thank you so much for all the information you give us.

  12. Leave a Reply

    October 6, 2017

    WOW thank you for that post! I like the info on the soaking and laying out in the sun! Good idea for the poylester batting too.

  13. Leave a Reply

    Dianne Schurr
    October 6, 2017

    Kelly….was wondering if you had ever tried Hydrogen peroxide for getting rid of mold.? I am going to try it as I use it for cleaning all the time….many people use it in hot tubs and even internally to slow down cancer..Will let you know after I have tried it.

  14. Leave a Reply

    Yvonne Douglas
    October 6, 2017

    I really appreciate you showing all the steps you use to tame the quilt. These old quilts are my passion I do them all the time. The last one I did was all hand stitched and falling apart. Your patch work on the torn areas is exactly what I did. Do you ever teach at quilt festival in Houston or Paduca? I am taking a class on Houston this year hope I come away with useable information. Would love to sit down with you and share.

    • Leave a Reply

      [email protected]
      October 6, 2017

      Thanks Yvonne and love that you save them too! So sorry, I don’t do most of the big shows. No Houston or Paducah. I will be at UQSM in Sandy, UT, May 2018. I tend to teach at guild workshops or quilt stores. I like small and intimate!

  15. Leave a Reply

    October 6, 2017

    Kelly, you are the best. Thanks so much for sharing all your knowledge and procedures with all of us… What a great quilt. I’m always hesitant to tackle one because they are so wonky, but now maybe I will.

  16. Leave a Reply

    Maryethel Miller
    October 6, 2017

    Are you ever afraid of colors bleeding when you soak these tops and what do you do about it? I have several I’ve been wanting to quilt. What a great article and encouragement to go ahead and finish them.

    • Leave a Reply

      [email protected]
      October 6, 2017

      If I have reds or something I think might bleed, I will add a color catcher to the water. I’ve really not ever had a problem with bleeding. Lucky maybe!! Thanks, glad you were inspired!

  17. Leave a Reply

    October 15, 2017

    Thanks so much for this! I hope you won’t mind if I write about this in our quilt guild newsletter! I managed to buy some Retro Clean and will try it soon!

  18. Leave a Reply

    October 19, 2017

    Thank you so much for sharing! I can’t wait to start my search for old quilt tops! Your quilt is a real treasure. I quilt on my domestic Janome…maybe someday a long arm!

    • Leave a Reply

      [email protected]
      October 24, 2017

      Thanks Connie! Of course it can all be done on a domestic, but agree that longarm makes it a bit easier!

  19. Leave a Reply

    Tammera Beverage
    November 10, 2017

    Thank you for sharing your prep work for these old tops. I recently purchased a few at an antiques store and plan on quilting them soon. I cannot hand stitch very well and the work put into these tops are a true inspiration.

  20. Leave a Reply

    Tami Von Zalez
    January 10, 2018

    Found you through Queen of Fifty Cents and so glad I did. We like the same things! Quilting and vintage textiles *sighs* The only diff is I quilt on a domestic sewing machine and am not a longarmer. If I had the $$ I might consider it.
    Got you on my Feedly now. Pop by for a visit some time –

    • Leave a Reply

      January 10, 2018

      Great to meet you Tami! Also join my site on FB if you are there, Quilting Vintage! It’s a great bunch of quilters, all kinds, working in the vintage textile world!! I’ll pop by!

  21. Leave a Reply

    Pat Adams
    February 11, 2018

    Kelly, I just stumbled across an article about you on FB and was so impressed, that I ordered one of your notched rulers. Then I continued to read and found the HQ interview! I didn’t know anyone else had the same passion for bringing life to vintage quilt tops and linens. I learned a few tips and I’m so glad I found this information today. I’ve long arm quilted four vintage tops in the last couple of months. The tops are currently plentiful in this area.
    I’m ready to start quilting some of my vintage linens, next. You are an inspiration. I wish we still lived in Manhattan!

    • Leave a Reply

      February 11, 2018

      Thanks Pat! Yes, also join Quilting Vintage! on Facebook and you’ll find us 10,000 members strong!! A great place for like minded, vintage loving people. Thanks for finding me!

  22. Leave a Reply

    Kathy Poole
    July 24, 2018

    I’m so glad I happened upon your website. I am repairing and finishing a lone star quilt for a friend that his great grandmother had hand pieced. It’s only the star. I was planning to long arm it, but everywhere I read said to tie it, or quilt very sparingly. I love your way so that the quilt will be more likely to stay intact. Thanks for posting this very informative.

  23. Leave a Reply

    August 14, 2020

    I’m so happy I found your blog! I have found very few blogs that cover as much as you do in the cleaning and repair of vintage quilts. This helps me a lot! I have several vintage tops that I wanted to make into lap quilts and baby quilts and now I know it can be done even with less than perfect pieces. 😄

  24. Leave a Reply

    October 26, 2020

    What size needle do you use? I am afraid that an 18 will tear this fragile fabric.

    • Leave a Reply

      October 29, 2020

      If you’re using a ballpoint needle, any size will be fine. I suggest using an 18 ballpoint. I sell the Schmetz needles. Just go to the tab marked, SHOP NOW.

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