General Interest

January 2004
Buying Old Quilts: A Guide for New Collectors
Shelly Zegart

As antique quilt prices have climbed, interest in collecting quilts has grown proportionately. The number of collectors increases each year, and often many of the new collectors have questions. What do you look for in an old quilt? What makes a good investment? How do you start a quilt collection? As a longtime quilt collector and quilt dealer, I am well versed in quilt collecting and have an understanding of what makes a quilt valuable. Here are a few guidelines designed to help beginning quilt collectors make smart decisions when purchasing quilts.

Buy condition

Old does not have to mean torn and ragged. You can buy an antique quilt, even a 19th century one, in excellent condition. The same rule applies to quilts that are signed and dated. Unfortunately, a signed and dated ragged quilt is still a ragged quilt.

Quilting counts

I don?t carry a ruler in my pocket to measure the number of quilting stitches to the inch, but, in general, smaller stitches and intricate quilting patterns add visual appeal and increase value. As a quilt dealer for many years, I have learned that well-quilted quilts sell. As a collector, however, I have learned to break this rule. One of my favorite pieces has the following information embroidered on the bottom of the piece, ?Curiosity Bedspread made for the Sears, Roebuck and Company contest in 1935 by Mrs. Avery Burton from Duck Hill, Mississippi age 68 years.? A charming, well-documented barnyard scene made this nontraditional summer spread irresistible.

Think thin

In general, thin quilts are better than thick quilts with heavy batting (these also are called ?fat? quilts). Again, I have ignored this guideline more than once. It depends on the kind of fat quilt. One of my special treasures is a folksy cow quilt on feedsacks. Technically, it is not very good, but it is a one-of-a-kind piece with na?ve appeal, and it makes me smile!

Buy from a reputable dealer

You will have a larger selection of better-quality quilts from a knowledgeable individual. The quilt market is fraught with reports of fraud of every sort. People who have been in the business for many years and have seen thousands of quilts are expected to be able to discern the difference. When you buy from one of them, you should receive a guarantee of authenticity.

Be an informed buyer

Read, visit museums with quilt collections, talk to other collectors, and look at as many quilts as you can before you actually spend your money. You will have a better sense of what you like as well as what is available in terms of both style and quality.

Be realistic

Of course, it is fun to use and display your quilts. However, using a quilt as a bedcover or wall-hanging does shorten its life. If you want to make sure your quilt will be around for future generations to enjoy, save it for special occasions. When in doubt, use only a textile professional for repairs and cleaning.

Buy what you love

This is perhaps the most important advice I can give a beginning collector. Twenty-five years ago, I was a beginning collector. I knew nothing about quilts, but I had studied contemporary art. My interest developed when looking for art for the walls of my new contemporary home.

Understand the marketplace

Aesthetics and form count much more than stitches, pattern name or history when you look at market prices realized for quilts. The Reconciliation Quilt that sold in 1991 at Sotheby?s for $264,000.00 is a prime example of a quilt that didn?t fit the rules. Its subject was reconciliation after the Civil War. It had very little quilting and no known pattern, but it was a unique design of appliqu?d figures and phrases appropriate to the cause. It came from the family of Horace Greeley, the New York publishing family of the era, and was in unwashed, unused condition. To the traditional quilt collector, there would have been, in most instances, no resonance with this quilt. To the collector of American history and objects of this period, it was a stunner, a must-have and fresh to the market as well.

The first quilt I ever bought hung on my family room wall for many years. It was a Carpenter?s Wheel variation, a traditional pattern executed in subdued blues and browns. The quilting was neither fine nor fancy, just parallel lines running the length of the quilt. It was not an exceptional quilt or a best of kind, nor was it like anything else in my collection. Nevertheless, I loved it. That is what collecting is all about.

The Art Institute of Chicago recently acquired 24 of my most significant quilts. They will be exhibited in the Textile Department Galleries beginning in mid-March 2004.


Shelly Zegart was a founding director of The Kentucky Quilt Project Inc. (1981) and The Alliance for American Quilts (1993). She currently serves as Board President for The Alliance for American Quilts and is a member of The Appraisers Association of America. Shelly has curated exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and lectured on all aspects of quilt history and aesthetics. Her book, American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces, was published by Nihon Vogue in Tokyo in 1997. Most recent exhibitions, publications and consulting projects include Kentucky Quilts: Roots and Wings, Morehead College, Kentucky (1998); A Heritage of Genius: American Master Quilts Past and Present, The Durst Corporation, NYC (2001); The Quilts of Gee’s Bend Publications (2002); and Mosaic Textiles: In Search of the Hexagon, Rouen, France (2003). Her private quilt collection was recently acquired by The Art Institute of Chicago. For more information, visit her web site at

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