The following is a Historic American Quilts' preferred methods of cleaning quilts. Note, there are other methods that some debate as being more effective. But we have found this to work about 97% of the time, which we think is a good statistic. In general, dry cleaners do a poor job cleaning either quilts or coverlets. There are always traces of chemicals left in the fabrics. First, and sensibly, if your item has a musty or smoky odor, try hanging it outdoors on a clothesline or railing on a breezy day. Sometimes that gets rid of the odor. If not, follow the directions for a smoke-odored-item below.
Washing Cotton Quilts
Use your washing machine--with care and time.First, test your quilt. If there is a bright color that shows signs of previous running, or you suspect a piece will run, test it with a clean white wet rag. If color comes off, you may have problems, but the use of Color Catcher in your wash water usually prevents further running of the color. If your quilt is brown from cigarette smoke or has been stored in a dirty room, soak it overnight in cold water and keep changing the water until the water loses the brown color. If the quilt is very dusty, you can vacuum it using the plastic material with holes that gardeners use as a filter. It may take several runs over both sides.
Now to wash: Fill the tub with lukewarm water and a small amount of Orvis, Lux or another gentle soap. Dunk the quilt into the tub and keep dunking with your hand. We use a plastic baseball bat; it is perfect. Continue to dunk, dunk, and dunk with changes of water, etc., until the suds are reduced. Next, rinse. Go through the same motions until the water gets clear. On the last rinse, put in a half cup of vinegar. Then spin the quilt on the gentle spin.
Carefully remove the quilt without pulling on any section of fabric. Carry it like a baby to where you are going to dry it. In the winter I put several old mattress pads on a bed and lay the quilt flat on them. I set a fan to blow horizontally on the quilt. It dries within a day. If the weather is warm and sunny, I lay a mattress pad on a deck and flatten the quilt on that, smoothing it out. If I think the birds are a problem, I put another mattress pad on top. When the top is almost dry, I turn the quilt over to the back. What a great feeling to have a beautified clean quilt!
Washing A Wool and Cotton or Linen Woven Coverlet
Contrary to what you might believe, using water washing to clean wool and cotton coverlets is highly effective. First, if you have a lot of holes in the coverlet, those may get worse unless you stabilize them with a tacked-on fabric first. As with quilts, a good vacuuming is especially important with woven coverlets because they are so porous. If your coverlet is very yellow or smells of smoke, rinse it in cold water overnight. I do this in the machine by filling the tub, dunking the item several times by hand and soaking overnight. When that process seems to have produced dirty water and it finally clears, I put the machine on the early part of the spin cycle---no spinning, just water swishing out. It is especially important with coverlets not to put a lot of stress on the threads. As with quilts, then go to the wash just as above. Wash, rinse till clear, several times, use a little vinegar, spin on delicate, carry like a baby and take to your drying spot. The coverlets take a little while longer to dry but not much. You can turn them over when one side is almost dry. Be sure to smooth them out and smooth the fringe if there is any. The fan is important. Maybe use two. When the coverlet is dry, you can remove the tacked pieces over the holes, so that the piece is as it was originally. Except clean!!