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Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to Make a T-shirt Quilt (in 38 Easy-ish Steps)

I recently completed my very first (and last?) t-shirt quilt. For the enrichment of all my dear readers, below is documentation of the steps involved in completing this one-of-a-kind nostalgic masterpiece!

Supplies you will need:
  • Friend(s) (If you're low on these, I'd be happy to fill in.)
  • Old t-shirts
  • Large cardboard box (to cut pattern square)
  • Fusible interfacing
  • Iron (and ironing board—duh)
  • Large, sharp scissors
  • Fabric marker (or permanent marker)
  • Queen size sheet (flannel preferred)
  • Sewing machine
  • Yarn scraps (for tassles)
  • Giant needle (for threading tassles)
  • Lots of time
  • Even more patience

1. Make friends with someone who has made a t-shirt quilt before. This will be important, since it's really hard to follow written instructions for a hands-on project. It's like trying to teach a kid how to tie his shoes by showing him diagrams of knots. Not gonna get you far. But set the kid down for five minutes and show him, and voila—mission accomplished. So, invest in a friendship with a t-shirt quilt veteran. (Special thanks go to my fantabulous friend Cristy for filling this vital role for me!)

2. Gather your old t-shirts. Rummage through those piles stuffed in the back of your wardrobe, abandoned in the dark corners of your closet, and tucked away in your "old clothes" box in the basement or attic.
  1. Which ones? Ah, yes, how to decide... Here's a shortcut: Pick t-shirts that are colorful, meaningful, and tasteful. (Remember, these will appear on a nice, soft quilt and perhaps be used as an extra blanket for guests and/or small children. So, as cool as that shirt with the crude innuendo/beer catchphrase/profanity was back in college, now it's just dumb. And not something you want on a cuddly blanket.) So be like Indiana Jones: Choose wisely. Wise choices include: sports t-shirts, college alumni t-shirts, quirky/cartoon t-shirts, musical artist t-shirts, etc. Pick a variety that will represent your many life interests. And the more colors/patterns, the better. 
  2. How many? That depends. You can make your quilt as big or as small as you want. My quilt was queen-sized and used 20 t-shirt squares. What's that you say? Some of your t-shirts are double-sided? Two for one deal! You can use both front and back of the same shirt to fill 2 squares in your quilt.
3. But I don't want to cut up my favorite shirt! Ok, this was an objection I had myself. If you share my emotional distress at hacking up my beloved cotton-fiber tees, you have two choices: 1) Save the special shirts for later. You can always change your mind and cut them up for your next quilt. But if you cut them up and regret it, you're screwed. 2) Ask yourself, Will I ever wear this shirt again? Probably not. Wouldn't it be better to preserve this shirt on a quilt, instead of leaving it buried in the back of my closet? Yes. Take the plunge and cut!

4. Put on a movie to watch while you work. Trust me, it makes the whole process less boring if you have a fun movie to listen to in the background whilst quilting.

5. Cut your pattern square. You'll need a piece of cardboard that measures exactly (yes, it matters) 15 inches x 15 inches. It's essentially the size of a pizza box. But don't use an actual pizza box, unless you want grease all over your quilt. Nasty.

6. Trace your pattern.
  1. Lay your t-shirt on the floor and slide the cardboard pattern square inside. 
  2. Center the pattern under the design. Make sure the pattern doesn't overlap on the shoulder or neck seams on the t-shirt.
  3. Flatten out the t-shirt so it's tight against the pattern.
  4. Using your fabric marker (Sharpie will work too), trace the edge of the pattern onto the t-shirt. Basically you're drawing a square onto the t-shirt. This will be your guide when cutting.
7. Cut out the t-shirt square.
  1. Grab the biggest, sharpest scissors you can find. Hey, hey, stop running with them! What would your kindergarten teacher say?
  2. Cut out the t-shirt square, following the pattern you traced with the marker.

8. Rinse and repeat. Ok, don't actually rinse. That was a joke. (I'm sneaky that way.) Just repeat steps #6-7 for each t-shirt square. In my case, I repeated until I had 20 t-shirt squares of 15" x 15" each.

9. Take a break. Seriously, if you did all that in one sitting, take a breather! Go grab a drink and some munchies. But remember to wash your hands before you get back to work. Don't want any Doritos dust on your quilt, now do you?

10. Go to Joanne Fabrics and buy a big ole wad of fusible interfacing. Fusible whaaaa?? Just ask someone who works there. And no, you don't need the super-fancy-high-grade-nuclear-industrial-strength interfacing. Just plain ole "fusible interfacing," that's perfect. It should be cheap, too. I think mine cost 99 cents a yard.

11. Cut 20 squares of fusible interfacing. These should measure about 16" x 16" to be slightly larger than your t-shirt squares.

12. Iron away!
  1. Before you proceed, iron the t-shirt squares until they're nice and smooth (like jazz, baby). Yup, break out that iron and use it to smooth out any ugly wrinkles in the t-shirt material. This is a preventative measure to keep the next steps from giving you a migraine.
  2. Lay that nice, flat t-shirt square on the ironing board.
  3. On top of the t-shirt, lay the fusible interfacing. 
  4. *IMPORTANT* Make sure the interfacing is bumpy-side down. Those bumps are actually little glue beads that will (you guessed it) fuse to the fabric! Thus the name, fusible interfacing. Purpose: to keep the t-shirts stiffer and stronger when they become part of your awesome quilt.
  5. Over both the t-shirt and the fusible interfacing, lay a dishcloth or towel on top. This prevents the glue from sticking to your iron. (Not pretty.) 
  6. Iron the fusible interfacing onto the t-shirt squares. Spend about 5 min. ironing each square. Make sure the interfacing is stuck tight to the t-shirt material.  
13. Let the squares cool. Because ironing things makes them HOT! Ay carumba!

14. Trim the excess interfacing.

15. Repeat. Repeat steps #12-14 for each t-shirt square.

16. Take another break. You totally deserve one! Look how hard you've been working. Whew! Quilting ain't for pansies.

17. Arrange your quilt pattern. Lay all your t-shirt squares on the floor in an aesthetically pleasing pattern. Try to spread out the colors so that you don't have two similar shirts next to each other. Alternate whites, greys (British spelling, yo), and other colors. Alternate audacious with subdued. Alternate words with images. Varying your shirts like this will give your quilt a balanced, visually interesting look.

18. Rearrange your quilt pattern. I probably changed my mind about 7 times and kept moving t-shirts around until I was sure I liked the way it looked. Perfectionistic? Yeah. But these shirts are gonna be stuck in this configuration forever. You might as well take an extra 10 minutes now to make sure they're in a pattern that shows them all off well and maintains a sense of harmony. Not to sound all artsy-fartsy, but quilting really can be a work of art, if you take the time to do it right.

19. Put in another DVD. Because the movie probably ended a while ago, leaving you stuck on the menu screen for the past 35 minutes. (Confession: This project took me about 3 full Saturdays, meaning 6-8 hours each, for a total time investment of over 20 hours. So, don't feel bad if it takes you several weeks to complete your quilt. It will be worth it!)

20. Sew the first horizontal row. 
  1. Pick a corner of your quilt pattern. Take the corner piece and the piece next to it. 
  2. Sew them together, being careful to stay about 1/4" from the edge. Keep the stitches as straight as possible. 
  3. Add the next square.
  4. Repeat until you have the first row (4 shirts) all sewn together.
21. Repeat for each subsequent row. Warning: This part takes for-e-ever. But when you're done, you'll have 5 rows of 4 shirts each. Yay!

22. Sew rows 1 and 2 together. Sew along the bottom of row 1 and the top of row 2.

23. Repeat until your t-shirts are all sewn together in one, big, colorful blob!
  1. Sew rows 2 and 3 together.
  2. Fix the jammed/broken bobbin in the sewing machine. (At least, that's what I had to do.... about six times)
  3. Sew rows 3 and 4 together.
  4. Sew rows 4 and 5 together.  
24. Relish the completed quilt pattern! Oooh-aahhh... so pretty! And, you're 2/3 of the way done!

25. Break out the flannel. 
  1. Flannel sheets? Like my grandma's? Oh yeah... This will become the cozy backing of your splendiferous t-shirt quilt. I recommend flannel, preferably in some neutral pattern that will complement your t-shirts without competing with them visually. I chose a nice creamy-white plaid with blue-and-red accents. Sort of woodsy, muted, and a perfect backdrop to my 20 eccentric t-shirts.
  2. What size? Depends on the size of your quilt. In my case, 20 t-shirts (4 x 5) required a queen size sheet.
26. *IMPORTANT* Wash your flannel sheet! If you don't wash it before sewing it to your t-shirts, the sheet willshrink and pull away from the t-shirts over time. Oh noes! Avoid this tragedy by washing and drying your sheet first. 

27. Lay out the flannel and the quilt.
  1. Lay your flannel sheet flat on the floor. Doesn't fit? Get a bigger floor. Or go somewhere you can lay it completely flat. 
  2. Lay your t-shirt pattern over the sheet.
  3. Center the pattern on the sheet. Adjust as necessary. You want it to be as close to exact-center as possible. I actually broke out a measuring tape and adjusted the quilt until it was perfectly centered. I'm a little OCD about that, but even for you non-perfectionists, I'd recommend it. Your future quilt will thank you for its beautiful symmetry.
  4. Fold over the edges. The sheet will be a lot bigger than the t-shirt quilt pattern, but that's okay. Just fold over the edges on all sides.
28. Flatter than a pancake. That's what you want. Smooth it out, and then smooth it out again. You don't want any awkward folds under there to trip you up when you're sewing.

29. Pin like a super-seamstress. That is to say, don't skimp on the pins. Grab a bunch, and pin every seam edge on all 4 sides, plus extra at the corners. Those tricksy corners, they need extra pinnage.

30. Sew like a banshee. Warning: the quilt will be heavy and rather unwieldy at this point. You'll probably want to recruit a friend (or two) to hold the ends of the quilt and help you feed it through the sewing machine one side a time. You can do it by yourself, but then there's the danger of the pins falling out, and then you have to lay it back on the floor to re-pin it, and then you get all frustrated and angsty and... *sigh* Just get a friend to help you.

31. Make sure you sew the corners really well. These are the areas that will be handled most when folding the quilt, so you want them to be good and sturdy. Like a lumberjack. In quilt form.

32. Trim any stray threads.

33. Add yarn tassles to the interior corners.

Wherever 4 of your t-shirt corners meet, add a short yarn tassle. (This is optional, but it makes a cute accent and helps pull the whole thing together.) In my case, with 20 shirts total, I tied a total of 12 tassles.
  1. Pick a yarn color that coordinates well with your t-shirt colors.
  2. Cut yarn into 6" pieces.
  3. With a heavy duty needle (the bigger, the better), thread the yarn through the quilt from front to back, and then back up to a spot about 1/2" away diagonally. This sounds complicated, but it's supereasy. The worst part is pushing the thread through your milkshake-thick quilt!
  4. You should now have two ends of yarn sticking up like antennae on the front of the quilt. Tie a double knot with the two ends.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 for each of the interior corners (wherever 4 t-shirt corners meet).
  6. Cut off the excess yarn, leaving about an inch (or however much you want) for each tassle.
34. C'est fini. Crack open a celebratory Diet Pepsi. Because you're ALL DONE!!

35. Profusely thank your friends for their help. 

36. Lay down on the couch and cuddle up with your brand new, awesome t-shirt quilt! 

37. Show it off. Show off your quilt to family, friends, and strangers. Because, hey, who doesn't love a quilt made of t-shirts? The best part is that this quilt represents you... and a lot of hard work! Oh, and those mistakes you made that you thought were super-obvious? Nobody will notice, I promise. Consider the mishaps part of your quilt's authentic homemade charm.

38. Help somebody else make a t-shirt quilt of their very own. Now that you're an ole veteran quilter, share your skills with someone who hasn't done it before. And feel free to share this blog post as a resource!


  1. Did you take French, or has "c'est fini" penetrated into American lingo? I usually get blank stares when I try it on students, followed by a confused "what?".

  2. @david: I never took French, so I'm guessing I picked up "c'est fini" from a movie somewhere.... I did have to verify the spelling online before posting this. :) Also, you should be proud of teaching your students little cultural tidbits, in addition to physics.

  3. I recently made my own t-shirt quilt! I posted my own tutorial and referenced your post in it as well! Here it is if you want to check it out:

    1. Kylie, I'm so glad my post was helpful for you! I enjoyed reading your post as well. Your t-shirt quilt looks lovely. Nicely done!