Sewing Project Realities: How to Make a T-Shirt Quilt

t-shirt quiltI was watching a project on the DIY show Renovation Realities this afternoon, amused at this couple who were trying to guess whether the wall they were breaking down in the middle of their kitchen was weight-bearing or not. They finally broke down and called in a professional for help when they noticed the ceiling starting to bow. Helllooooo! A message flashes on the bottom of the screen, saying, “If they had just logged on to diy.com, they’d have known what to do.”

As I’m watching, I start cleaning out my computer’s iPhoto collection and come across the pictures I took of MY last DIY project. Now I am laughing at ME because I, too, must have looked like a misfit, and whoever would have been watching my little episode of I would have called my “Sewing Project Realities” probably would have been quite amused, too! No worries, though, because just as the couple eventually figured it all out, so did I (even if it was with a little help from Google). And just like the TV couple, my sense of accomplishment at the end was well worth it!

If you know me, I’d rather pick up a drill than a sewing machine any day of the week, and I definitely would not consider myself a seamstress. But I do love a good project and a good challenge. Combine that with the fact that I’m pretty sentimental, especially when it comes to my kids, and logically, I just had to take this one on. It encompassed cleaning out the closets AND preserving some college memories for my daughter. I made a t-shirt quilt!Image

I need to give the full disclosure here… there are several very, very good instructional videos for how to do this up on YouTube (and they are not mine). In fact, You Tube is where I go for most of my projects before I begin. I’ve learned that it often pays greatly to do the research first, saving precious time and money, and resulting in a better outcome at the end! So please don’t read this and go right out and cut up all your kids’ shirts. Instead, read this and feel INSPIRED that you, too, can tackle a project like this – or any other one you’ve been meaning to take on!

I’ve actually done this t-shirt quilt project before, when my daughter graduated from high school. I took a bunch of her volleyball shirts (she had drawers stuffed to the hills with them) and pieced them together for what came out to be a pretty nice keepsake. It took about a week from start to finish, and I literally did not know what I was doing. Thank you again, You Tube inventor!

t-shirt quilting project

After my You Tube marathon, I felt confident I was ready to tackle this again. As my daughter continued to play volleyball in college, she had once again accumulated an abundance of t-shirts and jerseys. Each one, from a different year or a different tournament, held a special meaning, so I thought carrying out the sports theme would make sense and be a nice gift to her at the end of her senior season. I went to her apartment, ransacked her closet, and selected my treasures.

So here’s how it went.

The project gets underway

Step 1: Selecting the shirts– I chose the shirts and jerseys that were pretty clean and in good condition, keeping in mind the color scheme I had to work with. In our case, this was the Texas Longhorn “burnt orange”, black, white, and some gray… a far cry from the Punahou School “buff and blue,” complemented with Hawaiian flowers I got to work with before. Still, I moved forward, arranging them on the floor and deciding which piece would go where.

t-shirt quilt project step 1

Step 2: Cutting the pieces – During my first attempt at t-shirt quilting it didn’t dawn on me that my job would have been MUCH easier if I had made the pieces the same size. If you notice the high school quilt, I compensated for my oversight by sewing together contrasting fabric pieces to create perfect squares. This time I remembered to think ahead, cutting bigger, same-sized squares. This can be any dimension you want, just plan it out on paper before starting the cuts, and when cutting, stay as centered as possible. I also saved some of the designs on the sleeves that I thought might be useful somewhere. Most of the websites I visited suggested 15” or 17” squares.

TIP: PLAN OUT YOUR QUILT ON PAPER BEFORE BUYING OR CUTTING YOUR FABRIC.

t-shirt quilt project step 2

Step 3: Fabric for the borders (sashing/binding) – Math skills really come in handy at this stage. I drew pictures of my squares, calculated (and re-calculated) the dimensions, and headed out to the store. Some quilting lingo…”sashing” strips are the decorative strips between each T-shirt block. I planned on 2″ strips (1 1/2” when finished because of a ¼” seam allowance on each side) between the blocks, 2 1/2″ strips (2″ when finished) for the border, and additional fabric for the binding (outer edges), but you can choose whatever dimensions you wish. Calculate the amount needed and be sure to wash it before you use it. You want to be sure that the color won’t run and that the fabric won’t shrink after the quilt is finished.

TIP: BUY MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED!

Step 4: Fusible interfacing – Each fabric piece must be backed with non-woven fusible (“iron-on”) interfacing, so it doesn’t stretch all over the place when sewing. The make-a-plan-on-paper tip in Step 2 comes in handy here, so you can gauge how much to buy. I hate extra trips back to the store, but I hate wasting money even more, so my calculations had to be on the money. Turns out I did OK with my estimates. The fusible interfacing should be non-woven, and the glue only on one side. It probably pays to ask the ladies at the fabric store for assistance if you’re not sure what the heck this stuff is. I also picked up this cloth doohickey to place on top of the fabric while I ironed, so as to not scorch the print on the shirt (also a lesson learned from last time).

TIP: BE CAREFUL OF WRINKLING THE SHIRTS DURING THIS STEP.

Once the interfacing is on, it’s pretty permanent and those wrinkles WILL show through.

t-shirt quilt project step 4

Step 5: Cutting the squares – Now that they all have a sturdy backing, it’s time to cut up your squares. I used a rotary cutter with a mat underneath to make this step as quick and accurate as possible. I also bought a plastic measurement guide so I could make sure the pieces were evenly cut and as close to perfectly square as possible.

HUGE TIP: MEASURE TWICE (OR MORE), CUT ONCE!

t-shirt quilt project step 5

Step 6: Arranging – Lay out the squares on the floor, alternating light/dark, busy/not so busy, etc. I used my other quilt as a template to lay out my squares.

t-shirt quilt project step 6

Learning some lessons

Step 7: Add sashing strips – There are different schools of thought on this part. Some people suggest “bordering” one square at a time, and others say it’s better to connect the sashing for a whole row or column, one row at a time, and then connect all the rows. It’s probably a matter of preference. Of course, I’m probably wrong on that one, though, because this step was HARD for me.

Probable causes of my difficulty? A) I didn’t cut perfectly square pieces, B) My cutting of the sashing strips was uneven, or C) Both. In any case, it all came out fine in the end, with some adjustments along the way.

t-shirt quilt project step 7

t-shirt quilt project step 7b

Step 8 – Connecting the squares – Cut enough sashing strips to add to all the rows of t-shirts. Then sew horizontal strips to the bottom of each block. Sew blocks together to form columns. Cut off excess fabric. Press (iron) the seams open across the whole thing when you’re done. For the overall border, cut the strips and add to the four edges. If you need to do a final pressing, make sure you put a cloth over the shirts – the designs may smear if the iron is placed directly onto them.

t-shirt quilt project step 8

Step 10: Finishing – The final step is to layer a backing over the back of the quilt. I used a queen sized flat sheet for this, which I had used at the very beginning in order to plan the finished size of the completed quilt. Knowing the length and width of this backing before I made my plan for the measurement of the squares was a huge time saver. Before I sewed the sheet to the front piece, I “sandwiched” a piece of fleece batting between the two, so the quilt would be warm, soft, and cozy! Baste or safety-pin the 3 layers together. If you have some experience machine quilting (which, needless to say, I do not) you can “quilt” your quilt or you can tie it to hold the layers together. Be sure to add a label and viola, you’re done!

final project

t-shirt quilt project final

Mission accomplished!

So that’s it. My “Sewing Project Realities” quilt is done! I will be the first to admit that it’s not perfect, but my daughter loved it and aside from the pin I sewed right into the batting (and left inside the blanket – I told you I’m an amateur), I think it came out pretty cool!

I’ve already started my t-shirt collection for my son’s graduation quilt in a few years!

next project ready to go!

If I can do this, so can you! Whether it’s a DIY project, taking piano lessons, going back to school, teaching an exercise class, or writing your first chapter of the book you’ve been meaning to start, think about what’s holding you back from something you’ve been meaning to accomplish. Then put your fears and your procrastination aside, and do it!

Question: What’s a project you’ve been pondering lately?

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