Tutorial: How to make a T-shirt quilt

T-shirt quilts are popular in the USA but less common in the UK as far as I am aware.

The idea is you find a collection of t-shirts, such as for your favourite football team, or collected on holidays or at music festivals, and cut them up to make a quilt. I tend not to wear t-shirts much, but in my work overseas in the humanitarian world, branded t-shirts are common to identify yourself as a staff of an NGO and make it easier to work with communities and government officials etc, as well as showing off your donor’s logo as required!

As a natural-born hoarder, I have kept all of my response t-shirts from all my overseas aid work, as well as various t-shirts collected from other events here and there, and I recently discovered them gathering dust and mould in my attic and decided my maternity leave was the ideal time to get started doing something useful with them.

It is also 10 years since my first deployment as a humanitarian to South Sudan in 2009, the beginning of my career as an aid worker, so a quilt to mark 10 years of my humanitarian career seems fitting! However I must admit that over the years some of the NGOs I have worked for have significantly more t-shirts than others, and one NGO I have worked with for around 3 years only ever had 1 t-shirt (once you settle into HQ you tend not to get so much of the branded stuff) so the quilt appears rather skewed towards one particular NGO which is not necessarily reflective of my career but nevermind – I’ll let you guess which one!

So, here is a step-by-step guide to making your own t-shirt quilt.

First, wash all your t-shirts! If you cut them up first and then wash them it’s a lot more work (I did this without thinking and kicked myself afterwards). It’s also worth ironing them either before or after cutting them up.

To cut them, cut up the side seams and around the arm seams, so you are left with a front, back and two sleeve pieces, all flat. You’ll see the sleeve pieces here on the left:

Then you need to work out your design, and the size of pieces you need. You could do this by cutting out either a square or a rectangle from the largest logo or picture, and working back from that, or drawing out some ideas on a piece of paper. The pieces could either be all squares of the same size, which is much easier, or if you want a mixture of squares and rectangles (which is more visually interesting) you’ll need to make sure they tessellate.

Some people make squares or pieces that are simply stitched together directly and some people prefer to use a border or plain colour around each piece – I recommend searching Google images or Pinterest to see some different designs and ideas before choosing what suits you best.

Once you know the size and shape of your pieces, use a cutting mat and rotary cutter with a ruler or straight edge to measure and cut your squares or rectangles. Make sure they are even and as close to the same size as possible. This is where having them ironed makes it easier to see that they are nice and straight. You can lay them out or stack them up to check they are the right sizes.

Once you have finished cutting, you can then lay out all your pieces and decide on which colours and shapes go best together and re-arrange them until you have a layout you like the look of.

I recommend taking pictures as you go, so you can refer to it later when sewing without having to leave it all laid out on the floor. If you change your mind later on, you can also annotate your picture to remind yourself to swap things around.

Then you can start to sew the pieces together. Instead of just randomly stitching. I recommend starting with columns which you can then stitch together laterally – it will give you some nice long straight lines to work with, which is easier later on in terms of joining them together. as you can see here, I have used a purple stretchy jersey fabric to join my pieces together.

It’s worth noting that t-shirt fabric (jersey) is stretchy and can sometimes be hard to pin and stitch flat. It takes a bit of practice and trial and error, so I recommend using some of the discarded sleeves or backs of t-shirts to practice on and help you adjust the tension of your sewing machine before you start sewing.

Once you have all of your vertical columns, you can start joining them together.

Using a border fabric means that if you have miscalculated some of your measurements or cutting you can add extra space to make it up (see the bottom two smaller squares with a larger piece of purple fabric connecting them). This is less obvious and helps to hide mistakes! You can also see that the bottom row is a little uneven so I will trim this later once all the pieces are joined.

If possible it’s worth leaving yourself some extra leeway on the top, bottom and side pieces so you can trim any uneven edges without making it look lopsided.

Finally, once the top piece is complete, you’ll need to stitch it onto your wadding and backing fabric to make a sandwich, and stitch some edging around it to tidy it up. Sadly the edge is always my worst bit and I can never stitch it straight! You’ll also notice the right side of mine has been trimmed a bit too close to the logos, as I was trying to retroactively fit it to a piece of backing material I already had – would have been better to plan that at an earlier stage!

Once all the pieces are connected, stitch over the top in any pattern you like to ensure the three layers are well-joined (I’ve gone with diagonal lines). You don’t have to do this last part, but over time you may find the wadding bunches up if they are not well-stitched together.

And voila! A t-shirt quilt to celebrate 10 years as a humanitarian aid worker!

If you are someone with a large collection of t-shirts from your favourite band, favourite team, festivals you have attended, or t-shirts you love but no longer fit into this is a great project to keep those special memories in something other than a box in the attic!

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