T-shirt Quilt- what not to do next time

  Back at the end of January, I went to my friend Jenn’s house and she greeted me with a massive stack of t-shirts and sweatshirts.

Jenn: “I have all these t-shirts I don’t wear but want to keep.  Can you make me a t-shirt quilt out of these?”

Me: “Uh, well, I’ve never made a quilt.  I have barely started sewing again.”

Jenn: “I think you’ll figure it out.”

I did have a vague idea how to make a quilt as I had started looking into making one for my sister’s bridal shower last year.  That never happened.  I got as far as cutting out some rectangles to sew together, but that’s it.  I did make dish towels for each the girls to decorate to give to my sister.  Which, are just a bunch of rectangles with the edges hemmed with the corners nicely folded.  Still a feat for me that required some how-to research and refreshing of my sewing machine knowledge.  It was slightly cheaper than buying a pack of similar towels from the store and seemed more fitting of my sister since she often sews gifts for other people and their bridal showers and such.

This is no tutorial on how to make a quilt or a t-shirt quilt.  There are many websites that offer that information and that is how I figured out how to make mine.  Still, I have a lot of notes on how I made the quilt and pointers I want to record for next time.

  • I measured the maximum width of each shirt logo and then put them in piles by size.  I found that most were about the same or could look just fine if cut to a width of 15″.  With a 1/2″ stitich on either side when connecting to the next piece, this gives me rectangles 14″ wide.  The length of each varied by what suited the image and avoiding cutting into the collar.  Having them all the same width made it easy to put them into columns and arrange into a pleasing display rather than having to keep shifting them around to see how odd sizes would fit together.  The length of the shirts naturally arranged themselves into columns that fit the twin batting landscape wise, rather than portrait wise.  I also just liked how it looked better having more columns.  6 columns X 14″ = 80″   A twin batting is 93″ x 72″ which leaves me with 6.5″ for a border on either side.
  • Sewing with t-shirts and sweatshirts is a bit harder for the novice than using the quilting fabric sold at the big stores since t-shirt and sweatshirt material stretch while the quilting fabric is a stiff cotton.  Also, the print on t-shirts grips to the pressure foot, so you have to push it through rather than think it will just glide through.
  • I washed the batting in the washing machine and it turned out just fine.  I also washed the fabric for the back and borders of the quilt in the machine.  All the t-shirts and such were used and washed, so I did not want it the new fabric to shrink and then pull on the front.  Fail.  My big mistake was that I did not crimp cut the edges of the fabric so that it would not fray.  Lesson learned.
  • Pinning every inch of the way makes a huge difference. As the fabric goes under the pressure foot, the t-shirt fabric stretches and builds up until the next seam, if there is one.  Pinning like crazy keeps this from happening.

  • At least for me, using clear thread on top was awesome since I had big expanses of solid color to go through and any one color would have shown up awkwardly.  The downside of clear thread is that it is more of a plastic then soft thread.  Once the end of thread was released from its locked position on the spool, the thread just sprung away and started unwinding.  Even though it did that, when the machine was going, the thread would not always unwind from the spool evenly and then get very taunt like there was a fish at the end of a fishing line and really pull at the needle.  I think this may be why my needle broke 2x during this process.  I found that unwinding it some helped keep that from happening.
  • The other issue with clear thread is that it did not seem like it would take well to being on the bobbin.  This was a problem for when I wanted to sew down the border on the back and the bobbin thread would show on the top.  I ended up sewing the back using colors of thread I didn’t like (and then I just used whatever was left from other bobbins) so that I could flip it over and resew over the lines with the clear thread in my top thread holder.  While sewing right on the line for some reason did not automatically have the thread on the back side of the quilt to line up right, it still worked and the ugly thread was easy to pick out at the end.

  • My desire to waste nothing should have been curbed because if made life much more difficult later on.  After I had pinned the front and back of the quilt to the batting (next time, use safety pins!  ouch!) the batting that stuck out around the edges was all uneven.  I thought to myself, why waste this extra bit of warmth? and proceeded to fold it into the border.  This made it SUPER thick and was impossible at a few points to get it through the sewing machine.  Also, I spent a lot of time measuring and trying to finagle the border to get around the uneven batting edges.  Had I just trimmed the excess batting to be the same all the way around, I would have saved myself a lot of time and frustration.  (If you make quilts, this is probably a DUH! point)

Despite all these learning as I go mistakes, I am VERY proud and happy with how it came out, as was my friend who ordered it.  Only had to buy the fabric for the back and border (I used blue flannel, nice and soft!), the thread, and sewing machine needles to replace the ones I broke.  And then it just takes time.  I mistakenly thought I’d only need a weekend to make this thing, but I was wrong!  It took many evenings over several months, but it was a fun project and learning adventure.  A good challenge.  And I did send it through the wash before I handed it over, and it held together just fine (phew!) and was super cuddly.  My friend and her husband were thrilled and excitedly pointed out where all the t-shirts came from and the memories they held.  My friend especially loved that I did my first “machine embroidery” attempt (in quotes cause I don’t know if its nice enough to really be considered embroidery) to personalize it with their initials.  I even added a shirt of my own from where we worked together, mainly to give it another pop of pink, but it felt neat to have another piece of me added in.


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