Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The How and Why of T-Shirt Quilts

After I posted the following status on Facebook, I got several requests for some how-tos of making a quilt out of t-shirts:
I have all the t-shirt emblems for the next t-shirt quilt stabilized and ready for piecing into quilt squares. Given that this is the 6th t-shirt quilt I've done in the last 2.5 years, I'm starting to get a rhythm down.
This post is my attempt at an answer, which is the "how" part of the post. But first, the "why."

A much more experienced quilter, upon hearing that I was making my first t-shirt quilt, informed me that it would also be my last, that no one makes more than one. So what am I doing making my sixth one (none of which have been for me)? I think (and hope) that I'm helping preserve some memories that might otherwise be lost. Someday I do hope to make a couple for the sons from the boxes of old t-shirts I have packed away for just that purpose. If they're not interested in having a quilt made of some of the very special childhood t-shirts, well, their mom the maker of it would appreciate it.

So, on to the "how." Since I didn't start on this post until after I'd done a bit on the latest quilt and I don't want to put the post out bit by bit as I make the latest quilt, the photos will be from several different quilt efforts. Step one should be obvious. Find the t-shirts you want to use. Make sure you notice if there are designs in more than one place.


This shirt, a duplicate of one in the current quilt, has designs on both the back and front. Sometimes there's a design on a sleeve. Wash and dry the shirts without using any form of fabric softener. Yes, there will be some static cling, but that's better than the invisible coating the softener will leave that will complicate a later step.

After assembling or being given the shirts to be used, I measure the designs, noting the height and width of each design.


Use this information to help determine the size of the blocks. I like to leave at least one inch around each side of the design. I also don't mind having blocks of different sizes, though your mileage may vary. Besides doodling designs on graph paper, there's always the cereal box design tool.


You may already know the size the finished quilt will be, or you may be playing it by ear. The measurements of the designs will help determine the size of your blocks. The current quilt (a commission) will be approximately double or full sized or 54 by 75 inches. For the current quilt, I decided to consider large blocks for the large designs as shown above and smaller blocks for the small designs. The large blocks will be 15 by 15 inches finished (as they will appear in the quilt; there will be 1/4 inch on each side that will be sewn into the seam); the small ones will be half that or 7.5 by 7.5 inches finished. If you have too many shirts, you may have to cull them or make more than one quilt. For the current quilt, I had nine shirts, and ended up with the following arrangement.


Using the 15 and 7.5 inch blocks will give a final size of 60 by 75 inches, which is close enough to double size.

While I'm using blocks of two sizes for this quilt, it's certainly possible to have all the blocks the same size as in the most recent quilt made of music festival t-shirts.


It's also possible to have blocks of more than two or even three sizes.



For these two quilts, I wanted to use something from every shirt I had been given. In order to accommodate all the varying sizes of designs, I had to have several different sizes. To keep things a bit simple, each size was a multiple of three in one direction.

You might notice in the above two quilts and the festival quilt, the blocks are oriented differently. I expected that the two quilts above would be used to sit under when reading or thrown on the back of a couch, rather than displayed as in hung on a wall. I oriented the designs so that no matter what side is the "bottom," there's always at least one design that is right-side-up. The person commissioning the festival shirt asked that all the designs be oriented in the same direction.

Once you've figured out how large the blocks will be, it's time to start prepping the t-shirt designs. I start by carefully cutting the t-shirt apart, leaving plenty of plain shirt around the design. Remember the shirt with large and small designs shown above? Here are the pieces I cut from its duplicate.


I left several inches around each design meaning that I can easily cut a one-inch border around the printed design. I can even cut a bit more should I decide that would look better.

The next step is to stabilize the designs. T-shirts are stretchy, and stretchy does not work well in a quilt. Medium-weight fusible interfacing works well for stabilizing the stretch. For the current quilt, I'm using Pellon SF101 Shape-Flex All-Purpose Woven Fusible Interfacing. Just follow the directions in terms of fusing. And remember way back when I mentioned laundering the shirts without using any fabric softener? The fusible interfacing won't fuse as well if there's a coating on fabric softener on the shirts.


With the designs flipped over, it's easy to see just how close to the edges I went with the fusible interfacing.

I am now at the point where I no longer have photos either of the current quilt or past ones in terms of the construction process, so I'll see if I can explain it in words. If you have not yet decided on a fabric to go around the t-shirt designs, you need to choose one now. Whatever you choose, pre-wash it, a step I normally do not do but will for t-shirt quilts. Since the shirts have all been pre-washed, they will no longer shrink when washed. If they're not going to shrink, I don't want the fabric around them to shrink.

Next, I cut each design into what will appear in the quilt. For me, this means cutting a rectangle one inch larger on each side than the shirt design is. I then add borders of a size that will let me cut a square of the size needed. For the current quilt, I will be cutting large squares to 15.5 inches and small ones to 8 inches. If I'm not sure I have enough of the surrounding fabric, I will get compulsive and measure each design piece and then carefully figuring how wide the border strips need to be and leave just a smidgen to be trimmed off when I cut the blocks square. If I know I have plenty of the fabric, I take the easy way out and sew on borders that I know will be too large but that will make it easy to square things up and cut the piece that will be sewn into the quilt top.

Note: When pressing seams or anything else on the quilt, be very careful not to run your iron over the front of a design. You risk gumming up your iron but worse, ruining that block of the quilt.

Once all the designs have been incorporated into blocks, sew those blocks together. Add a border or borders as desired in terms of the final size of the quilt. Small blocks can be incorporated into the border.


I'm going to assume that if you asked me for something resembling directions for a t-shirt quilt, it's the t-shirt part that's of interest. Layer your t-shirt top with a backing fabric and batting. Pin or baste together as you prefer. (If you need an explanation of this, let me know, and I'll send one privately.)

I have read directions for and seen t-shirt quilts that are tied at the corners of each block. I have also seen t-shirt quilts with quilting only on the fabric that lies between and around the t-shirt pieces. I do much more; I machine quilt my t-shirt quilts in between and all over the t-shirt pieces. First, I stabilize things by quilting in the ditch on all the seams holding rows of shirt pieces together. Then I stabilize things further by quilting in the ditch around the outside of each t-shirt piece within each block. The next part is what I find the most fun--making each t-shirt design stand out by how it's quilted. Sometimes I just follow the lines in the t-shirt design.


Here, besides quilting 1/4 on an inch in from the border fabric, I've also sewn on all the lines in the figure's pants and shirt not to mention the detail in his shoes, hands, and head. Sometimes I also quilt around the figure in the design.




Once I've quilted all the t-shirt pieces, I add whatever quilting I like in the borders around each piece and the borders of the quilt itself. Bind the layers together, and you have a treasury of memories to keep you or someone special warm or just to warm your or their heart.

I hope this gives those who asked for more information enough to get started. If you do, I'm open to questions along the way. I am by no means an expert at quilting in general or t-shirt quilts in particular, but I've also only gotten one complaint about one of my quilts and since it was not from the recipient of that quilt, I don't think it matters. What matters is what the recipient thinks. If they love it, well, that's good enough for me.

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