Creating a T-Shirt Quilt: Part 1

There is a ton of information on the web about t-shirt quilts. Some is fairly accurate, some is not. I’ve been making t-shirt quilts for about 2 years now. I started out not knowing a thing about it really, but ended up making a fairly nice quilt with just a few issues. Along the way I’ve learned a lot and have narrowed my process down pretty good. After about 18-20 quilts, I do finally have a process! So I thought I’d share my process with you.

Part 1: Prep Work

It’s all about the prep work! The actual sewing is fairly quick and the quilting is similar to any other with a few exceptions. But the prep work is what makes or breaks your t-shirt quilt. Yes, you CAN just cut them into squares and sew them together. The problem with doing it this way is that you will not end up with similarly sized squares. T-shirts are made to stretch. This is rule #1 in t-shirt quilting. I reiterate: T-SHIRTS ARE MADE TO STRETCH.

The stretching is what causes a majority of problems. When I first started out making my quilts, I didn’t know about interfacing. I just did the cut and sew technique. Big mistake. I had bumps, lumps, stretches, and all kinds of other things that I had to work out in the quilting part. The customer liked it and still raves about it, but I know that it could have been better.

I used flannel for the sashing and backing, which was actually a good choice. 
However, after that quilt I had more orders because everyone loved it. So I figured maybe I should look into how they were made. I found some Amazon eBooks that had good information in them and a lot of online tutorials. Most of them said, “Use lightweight interfacing to reduce the stretch.” So that’s what I did. Time and time again I put at least $10-15 in each quilt using iron-on interfacing. Not to mention cutting it, ironing it on, and spending at least 1 day getting all of the shirts interfaced. Afterward, they would be kind of stiff to the touch and not really what one would expect from a t-shirt material. So I changed my process. 
It is mentioned in a few circles, on blogs here and there, about using liquid starch for temporary interfacing. And see here where I say “temporary?” That’s because when the quilt is all finished, you wash it out and ta-da! you have a soft, comfy feels-like-a-t-shirt-quilt. I posted more info on this technique here
With that all said, here are the first few prep steps to get you started: 
Step 1: Cut 
 I cut off the sleeves inside the seam, cut off the collar below the seam, cut across both shoulders and up both sides. Make sure your tee is flat and if need be, ironed, so that you get accurate cuts. 
Step 2: Soaking
Once the tees are cut, use the liquid starch method to soak the tees. Be careful here, because even though some of the tees are probably many years old, they can and will bleed into the water. I soak whites first, then grays, moving toward brights, then reds, and blacks. If any of your tees bleed into the water, take note of them. Also, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR TEES SITTING TOGETHER WHILE WET. They will bleed into each other. I know this from experience. 😦 
Step 3: Drying
Lay out your tees to dry. My husband and I devised a special ceiling mounted drying rack to do this because it allows air flow through the top and bottom. It is also up and out of my way and is adjustable. You can use any type of a flat surface, but again be aware of damage to wooden tops and bleeding. Surfaces can bleed onto your tees, too! 
Step 4: Iron
Once your tees are dried they will be stiff and wrinkled. You will need to iron them. 
Using a warm steam setting (between wool and cotton on my iron) carefully press out the tees from the back. The fronts of your tees often have a plastic-type overlay for the image, which can melt. This is also from experience. Lay a press cloth over the image if you must iron over it. I have found that ironing from the back doesn’t seem to cause damage. You can also spritz with water on particularly wrinkled areas. Just don’t saturate them and rinse out your starch! 
Starch spots on the tees after ironing
When you are ironing you will probably see spots of starch on your tees. This is okay and doesn’t affect the tees in any way. It washes out and is quilted over very easily. Just ignore them. Please. 
Step 5: Cut again 

Now it is finally time to cut your tees to size. I have a makeshift template that I use to cut my tees. 
template. zebra stripes are cool.

I used cardboard from a corrugated box and wrapped it with zebra striped duck tape. It is not 100% accurate, but it gives me a good way to view the image, center if at all possible (not on the shirt above), and draw a chalk line around the edge to give me a general idea of where to cut. I then cut about 1/2″ beyond my chalk line and even it all up using my ruler. 

Tees all cut even in nice little piles

If there are tees that don’t fit the template because they are too small, I will lay them to the side and add sashing, bits of other tees, or if I have enough make a column or row that is a little smaller than the rest. In the image above you can see where I cut 5.5″ squares from the fronts to make a 9 patch square, evening out the number of tees. 

Okay, this post has turned out long enough and by the time you’ve gotten this far your prep work is finished. I can’t stress enough though that t-shirts are made to stretch. This is their nature. It can help you or hinder you. Prep work is everything. In my next post I’ll take you through sewing them together, what feet to use and machine settings, and how to get those stretchy suckers all lined up right. Until then, if you have any prep work questions, feel free to ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anne glencer
    Aug 13, 2013 @ 14:45:00

    I never knew about the soaking step. Thanks for the tip.

    Reply

  2. Tammy Lyons
    Aug 13, 2013 @ 20:20:25

    You're very welcome!

    Reply

  3. Beansieleigh
    Aug 15, 2013 @ 23:38:31

    AWESOME tutorial!!! I have TWO that I want to make for my kids, and most sincerely I THANK YOU for sharing all the wonderful tips and advice! Getting started doesn't seem so scary at all anymore, now that I have some sense of direction to go by!… Thank you again and again… And someday when I get my kids' quilts all done, I'll let you know (0; And then I'll thank you AGAIN! ~tina

    Reply

  4. Tammy Lyons
    Aug 16, 2013 @ 02:03:20

    Wow I'm so happy I could help! I would love to see your quilts when you get them done. I'm getting ready to post part 2 in a couple of days, so you might want to check back in or make sure you're subscribed by email so you get the updates. It will cover lining up seams, manipulating the stretch to work FOR you, and squaring up your strips.

    Reply

  5. Amanda Rose
    Aug 17, 2013 @ 03:42:46

    Thank you for sharing. I have one that I got as a gift and loved it.

    Amanda Rose
    http://sewmuchtosay.blogspot.com

    Reply

  6. lottasvintage
    Aug 18, 2013 @ 09:21:38

    This is great and just in time! I am collecting old tees of my daughter and will do a quilt out of them! Thanks Lotta

    Reply

  7. Tammy Lyons
    Aug 18, 2013 @ 11:19:04

    You're welcome!

    Reply

  8. Tammy Lyons
    Aug 18, 2013 @ 11:19:27

    Glad I could help. 🙂

    Reply

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