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Monday, September 4, 2023

How to Make a T-shirt Quilt


Hi, friends! I’m sorry we’ve been absent for the last few weeks. All three of us have had some major things going on in our lives, and like good little goal-setters, we know that there is no use beating ourselves up for not being perfect. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day, and something had to give. But we are trying to pop a few blog posts in the queue once in a while, if we have time, and today’s topic was one I promised on the podcast that I would address, so here it is.

This week we are talking about quilts and sewing things as gifts. As I mentioned in the podcast, I’m not quite sure how we settled on this topic because quilts are definitely a visual art, and it was a bit challenging to talk about them on the podcast. I have made several quilts, which I usually give away as gifts, and I do get a lot of questions about my t-shirt quilts – mostly people asking if I will make one for them (no!). And even though I am no expert, I thought it might be nice to share how I do mine and to demonstrate that anyone with a little bit of sewing skills can make one, too. Here’s my process, step by step:

  1. Gather all your shirts. Depending on the size and the style of quilt you make, you could need as many as 20-25 shirts or more. If you only have a few, you might consider adding other fabrics to the shirts in the way of sashing or fabric blocks.

  2. Gather your supplies. You will need iron-on interfacing (I like Pellon SF101*), a rotary trimmer*, an acrylic ruler, a cutting mat, an iron or t-shirt press, pins, a sewing machine, thread, a seam ripper (because you know…), plus your choice of batting, backing, binding, and any other fabric you want to add.

  3. With sharp scissors or a rotary trimmer and mat, cut away the sleeves and collar of each shirt and split the shirt up both sides. You should wind up with two pieces: the front of the shirt and the back. 

  4. Depending on how big your shirts are and how much interfacing you have, you can opt to add the interfacing before you cut the t-shirts down to the desired-sized blocks. Since I usually work with the Pellon in bolts, this is the way I prefer to do it as it stabilizes that stretchy, knit fabric and makes it easier to get a good square/rectangular cut without too much finagling. However, if you want to be thrifty, you can cut the t-shirts to the desired-sized blocks and then stabilize them with the interfacing. You’ll have less waste of the Pellon, but you might find that the shirt has pulled in one direction or another so that it’s not exactly square. I’ve done it both ways, but I find adding the biggest piece of interfacing I can to cover as much of the t-shirt as possible is best. 

  5. Follow the instructions on the Pellon to press the interfacing to the inside of the t-shirt, which is now the back side of your “fabric”. The instructions are for using a regular steam iron (turn off the steam), but I like to use my Cricut T-shirt Press because I can fuse the interfacing in two or three presses, whereas the iron doesn’t cover as much area and will take longer.  Remember, you are pressing the interfacing, not ironing it. Whatever method you use, be sure to get that interfacing fused to that t-shirt, and be sure to do it with the printed part of the shirt facing down, otherwise, the screenprinting on the shirt will melt to your iron. (Don’t ask how I know this.)

  6. If you have shirt pieces that don’t have any printing or images, you should set these aside. You may find you want to use them later, but they don’t need interfacing unless you’re sure you’re going to use them.

  7. Once all your shirt pieces are backed with interfacing, you can use the rotary trimmer and ruler again to cut the pieces down to the desired-size rectangles. I usually determine the size of the squares based on the measurements of the tallest and widest designs. When measuring, be sure to add seam allowances (¼” on each side) and a little elbow room to the sides of the block so that the design is not right up against the seam, or worse yet, running off into it. I like at least an inch of that elbow room to each side and enough to make the block square if possible. Whatever size you decide to use, be sure to cut all of the blocks to roughly the same size if possible for the simplest layout. However, if you have a lot of odd-sized pieces like a small pocket-sized image or something on a sleeve, you can choose to make several smaller blocks and puzzle-piece them together with the larger blocks – just make sure all the block sizes you use are consistent.

  8. Once my pieces are cut, I like to lay them out on a design wall, large bed, or table. This is where the fun of designing comes in. Lay the blocks out in your desired grid, moving them around as necessary to get the desired effect. This is where you might also consider the addition of sashing or supplemental blocks to fill out the design.

  9. When you are satisfied with your layout, begin stacking the rows or columns in the order you wish to sew them. It doesn’t matter whether you stack the rows or the columns, but remember that is the order in which you will sew them. If you are adding sashing (a border) around your t-shirt blocks, remember that it counts as a row or column, too, so stack it accordingly. 

  10. Now start assembling.  If you stacked the blocks by rows, you will attach each of the blocks (or sashing) on the row in the order that you stacked it. If you stacked by columns, you will attach the blocks and sashing together in a column exactly as you had it laid out. 

  11. Once all your rows or columns are assembled, you can attach them to each other. There you have your completed quilt top.

  12. If you plan to add any additional sashing or borders around the quilt and you didn’t already add it as one of your rows or columns, now is the time to do it .

  13. Be sure to press any long seams. Some people press them open, but you can also choose to press them towards the sashing.

  14. Next, you’ll want to pin-baste your t-shirt top to the batting and backing. I usually do this on a big, sturdy table like in my dining room or a craft table at a retreat. Find the middle of your quilt top and put a quilting safety pin through it from front to back, then lay the top so that the pin is about the center of the table with the t-shirt side down. 

  15. Next, lay your batting over the quilt top so that it covers the entire top. If your batting is not big enough to cover the entire quilt top, you will need to piece it. You can find instructions to do that here.

  16. The last piece of your quilt sandwich is the backing, which you will center over the quilt top (you should be able to feel the pin through the batting). Smooth it out as much as possible, and make sure that it is big enough to cover the entire quilt top. If not, you will need to piece the backing fabric to make it large enough.

  17. With the backing centered on the quilt sandwich, use quilting safety pins to pin-baste through all the layers. Work from the center out to the edges in rows, smoothing the layers as you go to get out any wrinkles or folds. Pin-baste the entire quilt.

  18. You are now ready to quilt!

  19. I do recommend using a walking foot on your sewing machine if you have one. They are inexpensive and will save you hours of anguish trying to get heavy layers of a t-shirt quilt through a domestic sewing machine.

  20. There are two fairly simple ways to quilt a jelly roll. 

    1. Straight lines: Starting on one side of the quilt near the middle, simply sew a straight line on either side of a seam. Let the seam be your guide. When you finish a row of sewing, sew another straight line near the next seam, working your way toward the top or the bottom of the quilt. When you finish the first half of the quilt, you can turn it and start sewing the other rows until they’re done.

    2. Organic wavy lines:  This is the easiest way to quilt if you can’t sew really straight lines and it looks really nice. Starting at the top of the quilt, near the center, start sewing in nice, flowing curves, guiding the fabric slowly back and forth so that it drifts across the middle several times. At the end of the row, move over a few inches and sew another flowing wave of stitches down the length of the quilt. Continue in this manner until you’ve completed one half of the quilt, then turn it and work from the middle outward to the other side. Once you have gone across the whole quilt, start in the middle again and sew a soft wavy line of stitching between the first two rows of stitching, continuing across between each line of stitches to the edge, turning and doing the same on the other side. You can do this as many times as you want to add as many lines of stitching as you like… Simply go between the previous set of stitches, filling any gaps you think need to be filled.

  21. For nice, 90° corners on your quilt, you will want to square it off using a quilter’s square ruler and a rotary trimmer. Start in one corner and trim off any excess fabric aligning the quilter’s square with the corner (it’s best to do this with the t-shirt side up!). Then, using the straight edge you just cut, slide the square ruler or a longer ruler down the edge, trimming as you go. When you get close to the next corner, use the square to make sure the next corner is also square, and continue around the quilt. For a good video on squaring fabric, go here. The start of the process is the same. She also has good tips for cutting strips, which you will need for the binding.

  22. The last step of quilting is the binding. Here is a great video on how to create and sew your binding. You do not need the special cutting and sewing templates that she uses, but they do look very handy, don’t they? Oh, and you might note the tip she gives toward the end – when she sewed the binding, she had already squared the quilt and trimmed the layers so the edges matched. However, she showed another method where she left the overhanging fabric and batting until after sewing on the binding. I have not tried this method, but I just might do it on my next quilt!

That’s it for my t-shirt quilt tutorial. Here are a few photos of some of my quilts, and you should do a Google search for “t shirt quilt” to see more ideas – there are as many ways to sew one as there are t-shirts to make them with!


* I try to find the Pellon at JoAnn when it is on sale or with a coupon. I’ve bought an entire bolt for as much as 70% off. As for the rotary trimmer, this is the best way to get a clean-edged cut, but you could use good fabric scissors. Just don’t use the ones your kids make posters with – paper dulls scissors with even one use and dull scissors won’t cut fabric right.

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