T-shirt quilts, like those made from old baby clothes, hold the power of memory and nostalgia with the added benefit of cleaning out the closet.
I've been attempting a proper T-shirt quilt for years. When I first attempted this project, I was in high school. I didn't really understand how quilts are made and basically just made a very large flat pillow with the shirts cut in very different sizes and shapes. It was a hot mess. Years later, I decided to do it right. I cut up the old quilt to reuse the shirts and added plenty of new ones. I cut large even squares this time, but still hadn't used the proper tools, so the edges were jagged and not quite straight. It might have made a better quilt, but would have been pretty boring. I never sewed it together. This time, I was finally going to take the time to make it both correctly and beautifully.
This was my first proper quilt, so I'm sure a beginner can pull it off. However, I have a fair amount of experience with sewing in general, so this instructable will presume the reader does as well. If you're a beginning sewer or have never made a quilt, I recommend perusing Jessyratfink's Quilting 101 instructable. It certainly helped me with the basics though I decided to use the information she provided for something a bit more complex.
Step 1: Materials
Lots of T-shirts! - I can't say how many I used because the pieces are from three attempts to complete this quilt over roughly 10 years and the size of the shirt depends on how many pieces you can get from each. However, most of my shirts were adult medium and usually rendered 8 pieces.
Rotary Cutter with extra blade - You want to ensure it stays nice and sharp throughout the whole project.
Self healing quilters cutting mat (24×36 works nicely for medium sized shirts)
Single side fusible interfacing - (I used Pellon 950F) You need to choose an interfacing that won't stretch, but isn't so thick that it makes your pieces stiff as a board. I recommend buying an entire bolt by the yard at Joann Fabrics, Hobby Lobby, or some other craft store where you can use a coupon. The amount you need depends on the size of your quilt, but I used a whole bolt and then a few yards more.
108" Wide Quilt Backing Fabric
Cotton Binders Tape - the amount depends on the size of your quilt. I used 5 packages with 3 yards in each.
Clear Nylon Thread
Curved Quilting Pins
Standard Sewing Machine
Rit Dye (Optional) - I had a lot of white shirts and wanted to have a larger color range and to disguise some stains on the older shirts, so I dyed them.
Step 2: Optional: Dye
The shirts I cut out of my first attempt at a quilt had some stains from soda spills and from being in storage. I also had a lot of white shirts and wanted to add a few colors that I didn't have much of. To remedy these issues, you can use some Rit dye to color these fabrics. It hid the stains reasonably well while still keeping the imagery and successfully added some much needed color variation. Simply follow the directions on the package.
Make sure to do this before doing any cutting! The pieces I had previously cut out of my old quilt were much more challenging to reuse after dying because washing them caused them to change shape. You have much more flexibility cutting these afterward.
Step 3: Cut
In this following steps you will cut all your pieces for the front of your quilt. Because T-shirts are stretchy, you'll be applying a fusible interfacing to the back of each shirt. This will help keep your lines cut and sewn straight.
Lay a shirt onto your cutting mat so there are no large wrinkles. You don't need to iron it first, you just want to ensure relatively straight cuts on both the front and back.
Use the rotary cutter or scissors to cut off the sleeves.
Cut up each side.
Cut off the shoulder seams.
At this point you should have two separate pieces, a front and back.
Step 4: Iron
Lay the back of the shirt onto the ironing board with the inside/label facing up. Iron smooth on hottest setting . This is when it is important that there be no wrinkles at all.
Lay a piece of the interfacing onto the center of the shirt and press according to the instructions on the interfacing. Ensure a solid bond over the entire piece or you'll be re-ironing constantly.
Step 5: Cut Again
Lay the shirt back onto the cutting mat with interfacing up and make sure you can see both the top and bottom of the mat. You need to be able to line up the cutting guide with the measurements on the mat. If you can't see both sides of the mat, you either need to rotate your mat, cut off excess shirt, or buy a larger mat.
Lay the shirt so the right side of the interfacing is reasonably straight along one of the vertical lines on the mat. At this point, it doesn't matter which one as long as you can see the top and bottom of the mat.
Lay the quilter's ruler over the right side of the shirt so that the edge of the guide is perfectly aligned with the chosen line on the mat at both top and bottom. Also, ensure that when you cut on this line, the interfacing will be trimmed off only slightly and reasonably straight.
Cut along the edge of the guide with the rotary cutter.
Rotate the shirt 90° clockwise and line up the freshly cut edge with a horizontal line on the mat. Use the guide and rotary cutter to cut off the top of the shirt in the same way as before.
Rotate again, but this time, instead of just shaving off the edge, cut the width to 12".
Rotate one last time and cut the, now 12 in, strip into 4" pieces. You should now have a stack 4"x12" pieces. If your shirts are larger, you may want to apply interfacing to remaining pieces of shirt and cut them down to 4x12" as well.
Repeat these steps on the front piece of the shirt and all other shirts remembering to always iron the interfacing on from the back. Many shirts are printed with ink that will melt onto your iron if applied directly to heat.
Note: if a shirt had a logo or design that you want to cut more strategically, you can flip the shirt from back to front after cutting two sides of the interfacing. You may have to reduce the number of pieces the shirt yields, but it may be worth it to keep a date or signature visible.
Keep in mind however that the designs will not all be kept intact and that you don't need the entire design to recall the memories associated with it.
Step 6: Repeat
Repeat steps 2-4 until you have enough pieces for your quilt. To determine this, you'll need to do some math (or just cut how many I did as described below).
Determine the length and width of your desired blanket. I used the dimensions of the batting I bought to decide this. I bought king size batting (120"x120"), but ultimately decided to use it for two twin sized quilts, so I determined the number for the king size and then divided it in half.
Divide the desired length in inches by 4" to determine the number of pieces per vertical stripe. (120"/4" = 30 pieces) Always round down on the number of pieces if necessary. You need to have a bit of extra batting beyond the edge of your stripes.
Divide the desired width in inches by 10" to determine the number of stripes. (120"/10" = 12 stripes for king, 12 stripes/2 twin quilts = 6 stripes per twin quilt) Yes, the pieces are 12" wide, but when cutting them at an angle to create the chevron pattern, the width of each stripe will be 10"
Multiply the number of stripes by the number of pieces in the length. (6 stripes x 30 pieces = 180 pieces total) With 8 pieces per shirt, that's 23 shirts.
You will lose a 1/4" at each seam, and this will be enough to provide space for your binding on the outside edge.
Step 7: Shuffle Up and Deal
I wanted to ensure that there was an even mixture of colors in each stripe to keep it looking random, so I made a stack of pieces in each color.
Once they were stacked I proceeded to deal them into 12 stacks, one for each of the stripes determined in the previous step. Remember, I'm ultimately making two twin quilts. One twin would require only 6 stacks.
Double check your counting at this point. Each stack should have 30 pieces or whatever number you determined in the last step.
Step 8: Sew Right Staggered Pieces
At this point, I pulled out two long card tables to lay out the order of one stack of pieces that will make a vertical stripe. You could also do this on the floor, but I have a particularly hairy dog that likes to track mud around the house. Don't obsess too much about the order unless you want to create a pattern. For a more random look, like mine, simply do your best to separate the most common colors and pieces with prints vs those with a solid color. I also didn't attempt to ensure that any prints were right side up.
Once your order is determined, stack the pieces back up in order.
Place your first piece on your cutting mat face up, ensuring it is lined up flush with the lines on the mat.
Place your second piece face down on top of the first, staggered 1" to the right.
Set your machine to sew a straight stitch 1/4" from the bottom edge of the first piece with cotton thread.
Press the seam. See more specific instructions for this in Step 9: Ironing Stripes
Lay these two pieces back onto the mat while lining up the bottom piece with the lines.
Lay your next piece face down onto the second in the same way as the first, sew, press and repeat until you have sewn 6 pieces together. (If your mat is smaller than mine, you may need to reduce this number. See step 10 to determine this.)
Continue to sew 6 pieces together at a time until you've run out of pieces in your stack. Progress to Step 10.
Step 9: Sew Left Staggered Pieces
Every other stripe will need to change directions. You'll need half your stripes to stagger to the right like in Step 7 and the other half to stagger to the left.
Sew the next stack together in groups of 6 like the pieces in Step 7, only this time, stagger your pieces to the left instead of to the right. Proceed to Step 10.
Step 10: Ironing Stripes
When pressing the seams on your stripes, you'll need to be careful to keep your iron clean. Many of the prints on T-shirts are created with inks that will melt under the heat of the iron. Use a thin paper to protect your iron. I used the paper lining from the fusible interfacing, but I imagine parchment paper may work just as well.
Step 11: Cutting Stripes
It's time to trim the edges from your 6 piece sections. I sewed them into sections of 6 because it was the largest amount I could fit on my mat and still see the lines at the top and bottom. If your mat is smaller, only sew as many pieces together as will allow you to still see the lines on the mat at both the top and bottom. I used a diagonal line on my mat to accommodate a longer section.
Lay a section onto your mat and line up the inside corners of the seams with a line that you can see at both the top and bottom of your section. Lay your quilter's ruler over the line and cut off the corners of each piece with your rotary cutter.
Flip the section over, and do the same on the other side.
Step 12: Completing Stripes
Once you've cut all the sections in a stripe, sew each section together as pictured and press the seam. You should have one vertical stripe with 30 pieces.
Step 13: Repeat and Prepare to Sew Stripes
Repeat Steps 7-11 until you have three stripes that are staggered to the left and 3 staggered to the right, each with 30 pieces.
At this point, I recommend laying your stripes out on the floor and decided which direction and what order you want them to go.
Stack your stripes in the order you've chosen.
Step 14: Sewing Stripes
Lay your second stripe over your first with their front sides together and pin the edge.
Take special care to line up as many of the seams as possible. They may not all line up perfectly, but they should come close.
At this point, I changed my sewing machine setting to allow for a bit more seam allowance to make it easier to press the seams. I set it to more like a 1/3".
Sew along the edge while removing pins as you go.
Once you've sewn this edge, lay your stripe out and press the seam. This will be challenging with a traditional ironing board. I recommend using a long table like I did, or doing this on the floor as well.
Repeat with each stripe.
Step 15: Quilt Top Done
Congratulations your quilt top is done! Now, it's time to move on to sewing on the batting, backing, and binding.
Step 16: Quilt Top, Batting, and Backing
At this point, you have no choice but to put the quilt on the floor. Vacuum, vacuum, and vacuum some more. Sweep and mop if you're on hardwood or tile. It would be a shame to get the quilt dirty at this stage. Lock the family pet(s) in a room or outdoors.
Iron your backing fabric. You need to be able to get this as smooth as possible on the floor and ironing it beforehand will help.
Lay the backing onto the floor as smoothly as possible, face down if there is a front/back.
Lay your batting on top of the backing as smoothly as possible.
Lay your quilt top (face up) onto the batting as smoothly and straight as possible.
You should have batting and backing sticking out beyond the edges of the quilt top.
Now, if you feel confident you got each layer nice and flat and smooth, you can progress to the next step. However, if you're paranoid like me, you can follow these additional steps.
Keep the quilt top in its current position, but roll it up while taking care to roll it straight and without wrinkles.
Do the same for the batting.
Now, you have just the backing on the floor with the batting and quilt top rolled up on one end.
You can now smooth the backing a bit at a time as you unroll the batting onto it.
Once the batting is unrolled smoothly, unroll the quilt top.
Step 17: Pinning
Pull out your curved quilting safety pins and start pinning. Pin as much as you can stand. I pinned one every couple squares and felt like more would have made it easier. I would recommend one every couple pieces near the vertical seams since your first stitches will be along the edge of the stripes.
Tip: Try to avoid heavily printed areas. The pin can leave an obvious hole in the heavy ink that you can't easily iron out.
Step 18: Stitch in the Ditch
Load your machine with transparent thread, and make sure you can see where your needle will fall as opposed to how far it will be from the edge. I set mine back to the middle.
Roll up one side of the quilt to the point that you can see only one vertical seam in the top of the quilt. This will help keep the longer side of the quilt manageable as you work your way across.
Set your machine on the right side of a table so that the rest of the quilt (the rolled up side) is at least somewhat supported while you run it through.
Your first stitches are going to be along the edges of the stripes. Do your best to "stitch in the ditch" along the seams where the stripes were initially sewn together.
As you work your way across the quilt, you'll need to roll up what you've already sewn to allow it to fit through the machine on the right side of the needle. If the roll becomes too big, or you've reached the middle, pull the quilt out and start again from the other side.
Step 19: Stitching the Width
Now, it becomes a bit more tricky, though it turned out to be far easier than I expected.
Roll up the top or bottom of the quilt to make it more manageable.
Stitch in the ditch along the vertical seams this time. I chose to only sew along every other seam.
Tip: When you come to a point on these seams, use the hand wheel to plunge the needle into the point. Then, lift the foot and twist the quilt so the seam is lined up with the next section of the seam. This will help keep the stitches in the ditch on the sharp turns.
Step 20: Stitch and Cut the Edges
Now, stitch around the edge of the top of the quilt and cut the excess batting and backing from the edge.
Step 21: Joining Binding
You need one large strip of binding before beginning to stitch it to the quilt.
To joint the pieces, place the first strip face up and lined up vertically on your cutting mat.
Lay the second face down and lined up horizontally over the first.
Lay your quilter's ruler diagonally across the two pieces as shown and mark the line with a pencil.
Pin the corner.
Sew along the line and cut off the excess.
Iron along the pre-established folds.
Repeat until all the necessary binding is in one piece.
Step 22: Stitching the Binding: Back
Unfold the binding and pin one edge, face down, onto the edge of the quilt.
When you get to a corner, continue lining up the edge of the binding with the edge of the quilt. This will create a triangle of binging that sticks up from the quilt.
Stitch just to the right of the first fold line on the binding.
When you get to a corner, fold the triangle down and pin where you can feel it overlapping with the other side.
Sew until you reach the pin, backstitch, and cut your thread.
Fold the triangle the other direction and re-pin in the same way.
Continue sewing from the pin.
When you reach a dip/downward point, simply continue to stitch the binding along the edge of the quilt. You'll fold up this excess binding when sewing the other side.
Step 23: Stitching the Binding: Joining the Start and End
When you get back to where you started, fold up a small hem of fabric on the binding where you started and overlap it with the end of the binding.
Step 24: Stitching the Binding: Front
Turn the first corner inside out and it will create a nice fold.
Stitch the edge of the binding to the front of the quilt.
When you reach corners, fold them in the same way as the first (somewhat like wrapping a present).
Step 25: Stitching the Binding: Dips
When you reach a dip, pinch the binding at the center of the dip.
Fold over the pinched fabric.
Then, fold down the top of the binding.
Continue to stitch along the edge.
Step 26: Enjoy!
Place your new T-shirt quilt in a place of honor and keep those memories alive.