How to Make a T-shirt Quilt
Updated: Nov 24, 2019
There's a lot that goes into making a t-shirt quilt, but it ain't rocket science. Anyone can do it.
First, get the pile of t-shirts and go through them one by one to see what parts you want included or excluded.
Here's a typical pile, 43 shirts:
Some items of clothing may have little holes and that's OK. I zig zag stitch over the holes with a similar color thread. Some shirts are old and very thin, so I'll back them with a sheer fusible interfacing, usually Pellon 906F. Sometimes I'll include a pocket or buttons or other parts of the shirt. Sweatshirts work, too.
Actually, any kind of clothing fabric will work.
Once I've got the pile, I rough cut out the graphics on each shirt. I follow the guidelines in "How to Make a Too Cool T-Shirt Quilt" by Andrea T. Funk. It's well worth the investment to buy a copy if you plan to make your own quilt.
After I've rough cut, I spray each shirt with Terrial Magic Fabric Stabilizer, a non-toxic starch that washes out. Terrial Magic is more expensive than, say, Faultless shirt starch, but I haven't been able to get the same results with the cheaper stuff. Terrial makes the shirts much easier to work with, but still leaves a soft and cozy quilt after washing. This is actually my own step and isn't included in the book. There's nothing wrong with backing all of your shirts with interfacing, but it does result in a much stiffer quilt.
After I spray each shirt individually, I hang it up to dry. Here's what that looks like:
Once they're dry, I stack 'em up in all their crinkly gloriousness:
Next up is ironing each piece. Because the graphics can come off on a hot iron, it's important to iron the wrong side of the shirt. Some materials are synthetic, especially sweatshirts, so you may need to use a scrap of muslin between your shirt and the iron so that the synthetics don't goo everything.
After ironing, I precision cut each graphic with my Dritz Omnigrip ruler. Here's a pile o' scraps:
And here's what the shirts look like after cutting:
All nice and tidy.
At this point, it's time to figure out how big to make the quilt. Again, this is where the Andrea T. Funk book comes in handy. She goes over all the things to look for when laying out your shirts, so read it. Also. Math. That's right, baby! Square roots!
Andrea includes a Layout Counting Chart at the back of her book. I photocopy and use it each time I make a quilt. This will give you the height & width of the quilt. Next up is layout.
I do this first on my computer. It's nothing fancy, just Excel. I take my stack of shirts and go through one by one and make a graphic on the computer. It really helps to get an idea of color balance, so that you can spread the color around. I also like it to get an idea of what a border will look like.
Here's the layout for this particular quilt, plus the border, which is made of 4.5" squares of the leftover shirt fabric. The line around the edge is the binding (black for this quilt):
Notice that big question mark in the middle. Steve, my brother-in-law and future owner of this quilt, has a shirt on order and on the way, but he's not sure how big it will be. He said no larger than 16x16 and he wants it in the center. I don't usually proceed unless I have all the shirts, but this is Steve, so I'll do it. STEVE!
My concern about moving ahead without the shirt in hand is probably justified. If the graphic ends of being 8x8 or 12x12, there will be some extra room around the image in the center, which might look weird. But, because he wants it in the center, maybe it's not such a bad thing if it stands out a little. Also, I could make a little border around it if the image is as small as 8x8. We'll see. The unknown is scary.
Next up is taking the actual shirts and laying them out on the floor to make sure my map works. Here's a photo of that:
As it all fits together, sans the center piece, I am going to break it into fourths and start sewing each section. Here's what the map looks like cut roughly into fourths.
Because I'm still waiting on Steve to get me the center, I'm going to go ahead and start working on the border. This requires the same steps as above for each 4.5" square, but the effort is worth the result. So much color! Also, much less waste. Speaking of which, the leftover scraps make great rags. I haven't purchased paper towels in a long time.
Here's the progression of the border squares, from looking at the shirt scrap colors, to rough cutting, treating with Terrial Magic, drying, ironing and then precision cutting:
I'll also go ahead and make the binding. I usually make 2.5" binding and double fold. I don't attach this until much later, but I make it now while I'm still energetic because by the time I'm done with this process the last thing I want to do is make binding. Do it now! How much to make? Here's a good calculator.
Also, here's a good post about how to make binding from The Spruce Crafts.
Since I started this whole process, I've decided to add a 2" black border between the main part of the quilt and the colorful squares. There was just too much color and it needed to be set off by another strip of black. So, here's the binding and the border fabric, made from black Kona cotton, from messy to neat:
So tidy! Yes, I know, I need a new ironing board cover. That muslin is getting gross. It's clean, just stained.
Next up is adding the 2" black border and then the colorful squares. I'm going to miter the corners of the black fabric. Here's a video on how that works. And, here's a close-up of a mitered corner:
Ain't it lovely? For some reason, people are really impressed by mitered corners. I mean, yes, OK, they do look amazing. But really, not that hard.
You can see in the photo above that I've started adding the colorful border squares. First, I lay them out, then stitch them together (and I'm in the basement, so it's cold, which is why I have a heater nearby in the photo below. Also, I use my grandparent's old dining room table top for a sewing table, held up by metal racking from IKEA, but I still have to move my machine to the floor so I can lay stuff out. Someday, this whole basement will be MINE for sewing. Nobody else in my family knows that yet, but it's true):
Notice the corner squares in the top photo. I like those to be full sized squares. The squares almost never line up perfectly, so I use a black square in the middle of the row or column of squares that is slightly smaller than 4.5" to join it all together (between the red and the purple tie dye above, so suave you can't even tell...much).
Here's what the quilt top looks like in real life (with the center shirts added...Steve finally brought those over - that "Always Iconic" graphic in the center was also on the invitations to the retirement party):
Next up is the backing. Endless choices!
Steve wanted to use one of his old gray blankets for the back, but it's not big enough. Also, it's made from a knit fabric on one side and fleece on the other. I try really hard to use everything that people want me to use in their quilts, but I had to say no to this one for a couple of reasons. One, it would make the overall quilt too heavy, as the backing blanket itself is made up of two layers of fabric. Also, because it's too small, I'd need to piece together other fabric around it, but I'm not sure I can get that same knit, so it might be weird. I mean, can I use it? Yes. Do I think it will look good? No. Will it be a pain in the backside? Yes. So, I said no. And, I got the impression Steve didn't really care that much, he was just trying to make use of old YMCA stuff he had.
How much fabric do you need for the backing? Here's a good calculator.
I am going to use a lovely light gray Kona cotton and use a strip of the border colors down the length of the back, off center, like this mock-up:
And here's what the back looks like in real life:
I haven't cut it down to size yet. One thing I learned early in quilting is that the backing and batting need to be at least 2" larger (some people say 4" larger all around, but I always end up cutting too much fabric off with 4" all around) than the front of your quilt. During the quilting process, the stitching pulls the fabric in and ultimately makes the backing smaller than what you started with.
Next up is the quilting. Again, infinite choices.
This is where a longarm quilting machine would be amazing to own. I haven't invested in one yet, so I send them out to local area (Denver) long arm quilters.
But for this one, I straight-line quilted it on my domestic machine. I looked around online and found a few ideas for straight line quilting. The one I like best is called geometric spirals. I clipped the image from Veni Vidi Vicky:
Drew mentioned I should try to sew the geometric spirals and incorporate the Y in YMCA. So, here's my (very rough) sketch idea:
Gotta start somewhere, and for me, oftentimes, that means a sketch.
The quilting process requires a large space to lay out the backing, lay the batting on top (I use Warm & Natural, which you should only ever buy on sale at JoAnn's) and then the quilt top. Here's what that process looks like, first with the backing, then the batting, then the top all layered up:
This should all be nice & straight with no lumps or bumps. I spend a fair amount of time getting it all lined up. Once it's all good, it's time to start marking & pinning. Some people use a spray to get things to stick together, but I've never tried that method because I'm sensitive to fumes from spray cans. I don't know, it freaks me out to think about breathing that stuff.
I use a tool (Clover Hera Marker, but it's not really a marker with ink, just pressure) that creases the lines on the quilt top. Once I've creased some of the lines that I want to sew, I pin a section together and sew the layers together. This process can take awhile, as I try to get the lines straight with no bunching of fabric. As far as how to decide where to place the lines, I make it up each time. There's no right or wrong here, just whatever you think looks good. Mine lines are usually around 2" apart.
Based on my rough sketch above, I ended up making a big Y in the middle and then used echo quilting lines. Didn't really use the geometric spirals idea because the quilt ended up being too big for me to maneuver it around in my machine.
There are some amazing quilters out there, where quilting is the main focus of their craft. The designs they quilt are truly art. Here's a couple of people I follow that just blow my mind: Rachel Dorr and Karlee Porter.
Generally speaking, quilting starts from the center and then you work your way out. I put the main lines of the Y down first, then sew each section.
It's just a bunch of back and forth till it's all done. Very time consuming, but also well worth the effort. I didn't take any photos of it because...I forgot.
Once the lines are all quilted, it's time to square the quilt. I don't technically square the quilt, I just trim it and estimate the squareness. I feel a little defensive about this, but it really doesn't matter if it's perfectly square. I've spent so much time in the above steps making sure everything is so precise that I'm cool with it being square-enough. Here's a corner before binding (note that I baste the edges before trimming the excess. This also helps with keeping things in place when adding the binding. The basting stitches are at about 1/8" from the edge, so they (mostly) get hidden by the binding which is placed at 1/4"):
Once it's trimmed, it's time to bring back that black binding I made way back near the beginning of this post. I machine stitch it to the front, then hand stitch it to the back. Here's a good video for joining the ends of the binding. Here's a photo of what it looks like to add the binding to the front:
After machine stitching the binding to the front, I wrap it around and hold it in place with clips, then hand stitch to the back. Or, if it's a flange binding, I machine stitch it.
One optional step is a label. I sometimes add them and sometimes don't. If you look at any old quilting book, it'll be filled with maker "unkown." Some people think you should always label your work. Sometimes I label and sometimes I don't. This one gets my hand-sewn initials on back, AAH.
Teresa said they will hang it up at their house, so I added a hanging sleeve to the back. Here's a great video for that process from Missouri Star and here's a few photos of that part of the process, which is worked in with the binding:
Oh, the last few stitches on the binding, always the best:
One last note. There are lots of companies and people out there that will make a tshirt quilt for you and there are many, many styles. Look around to find what works best for you. Know that what some people call a quilt is technically a blanket (i.e., there's no batting or actual sewing all the layers together). So, get informed and do what works best for you.
I hope you enjoy this process as much as I do. And if not, I can make it for you. Check out my FAQ page for pricing.
Here's Steve's finished quilt:
And the finished back:
As I was putting this very long post together, one of my all-time favorite quilters put out her own post on how to make a t-shirt quilt. Leah Day is her name and I recommend her to anyone interested in learning about quilting. She has an amazing breadth of knowledge and endless energy. She's open to different ways of doing things and that's why I'm linking to her video on how to make a t-shirt quilt. I value people that know there's always more to learn and different approaches to quilting. Here's her video: