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How to Make a T-Shirt Quilt

How often do you have t-shirts you don't wear that you keep because of sentimental attachment? Do you desperately want to do something with them but you can't bear to throw them away? I have the project for you!!!

I made my first t-shirt blanket at the beginning of quarantine. I had heard about the idea from a friend of mine but until I had way too much time on my hands and nothing to do with it, the idea of turning all those leftover, unworn t-shirts into a quilt seemed too difficult and time-consuming for me.

As soon as I took the time to put that first blanket together though (a lot of time, granted because my dog, a puppy at the time, kept getting in the way and peeing on the unfinished blanket) the quilt became my absolute favorite blanket.

Since then, I have begun to accumulate yet more unworn t-shirts with sentimental value. They sat in the back of my closet with the idea that they would be turned into another t-shirt quilt the second I had the time to do so. The minute I was on break from school, I took that time.

What do you need for a t-shirt quilt?

T-shirts of course. Both of my t-shirt quilts are four t-shirts wide and five t-shirts long. Your quilt's width and length will depend both on the number of t-shirts you use and the size of the cut-outs you include. I have seen some people (probably those more adept at quilting than I am) make t-shirt quilts with blocks of all shapes and sizes. That is, the pieces of t-shirt don't match up with one another. And though mine don't match up perfectly as you can see in the photo below, they match up closely enough to make the sewing incredibly easy.

If you want a quilt about the size of mine, you will need the following items:

  • 20 t-shirts (Or an assortment of t-shirts, fabric, bandanas, t-shirt backs, or whatever else you want to use for the squares)

  • about 2 yards of fleece (This is what I used for the "batting" as well as the backing of the quilt)

  • plenty of thread

  • a sewing machine (Trust me, you don't want to do this project by hand).

  • pins

  • sewing scissors (You cannot cut your fabric neatly enough with regular scissors. Please don't try.)

  • iron (If you must, you could do it without an iron but it is best to iron seams in between sewing)

Since I had a number of squares that were blank, I decided to embroider and paint a number of them to add interest to the blanket. For this, I needed my handy dandy embroidery hoop, some embroidery floss, and needles. I have used this embroidery hoop for years and it has served me well as has the package of white and black thread that I used a lot of for this project (bonus: it comes with the needles you'll need as well!). I like to make some lines thinner than others which means separating out the threads. Though this can be a pain in the butt, it does make the thread go further and make some designs look better.

I also used a fabric painting medium which I found at Michaels for about $5 to paint some designs (like the bubbles and boy in the lightbulb and the flowers on the face). The medium allows you to turn any color of acrylic into fabric paint.

Step One: The first thing you'll need to do is cut out your squares. I actually laid my squares out first before cutting them. This means I gathered together the t-shirts I wanted to use and laid them out in the pattern I was thinking of putting them in. This gave me an idea of how many t-shirts I would need, how many bandanas I would need to add and how many blank t-shirt backs I had to fill. It also let me know which t-shirts needed the front and back cut out. I changed the layout later once I had the squares cut out but this gave me a preliminary idea.

Before going to town on your t-shirts with the sewing scissors, create a pattern for yourself. Just because you are making something square in shape doesn't mean you don't want a pattern just like you would need for a dress or pants (something more intricate). To do this, you'll want to decide how big you want your squares to be. I believe mine are 12" by 13" (so not actually squares). Ensure that this size will fit all of the squares you'll be cutting out. For example, if you have a particularly large design, make sure your square's size won't cut off anything important. If you have an incredibly small t-shirt, make sure the size is small enough to fit on the shirt with room for seam allowance. In the picture below, you can see a t-shirt that didn't quite fit my pattern size (I knew this ahead of time). The design was too close to the top so the square cut into the neckline. Since there was still enough material to sew, I decided to go ahead with the t-shirt anyway.

Once you have decided on a size, measure out the size on a piece of paper or parchment paper. This will be your pattern piece.

With your pattern piece, you can now cut out each of your t-shirt squares. This. is actually one of the lengthiest processes within the t-shirt quilting DIY so settle in for a time. For each shirt, carefully lay out the fabric, flatten out any wrinkles, and pin the pattern to the fabric. Then cut around the pattern leaving extra for the seams (you could also include seam allowance in the pattern). The more careful you are with this part of the process, the closer your squares will be in size to one another meaning you will end up with a more even quilt.

Step Two: Now you can start pinning the t-shirt squares together. Before you put any work into this, ensure that you have a plan for the layout of the entire t-shirt quilt. You want to know where you want to have each of the pieces so that you don't end up with squares in places you don't want them. When you like the layout, beginning pinning, You could do this a number of ways but the way I found easiest was to start by pinning the top two and bottom two squares of each column together (leaving the middle aside for later). make sure you pin the right sides together!

Step Three: Now you are ready to sew! Sew each of the squares you have pinned together, making sure not to pull on the fabric. T-shirt material is incredibly stretchy so if you pull it through the machine, it will stretch while being sewn and then look wrong in the end. The good news is you can always seam pick any messes you make but it is better to get it right the first time so try your best not to pull.

Once you have sewn the first set of squares together, you can iron the seams out and repeat steps two and three. Pin the middle squares both to the top pair and bottom pair (right sides together) and sew.

You should now have four columns of five squares each.

Step Four: Pinning and sewing the columns is a little bit harder and requires more patience. Pin the columns in the same way you pinned everything else: by laying the fabric out flat, pressing out any creases, laying right sides together, and finally pinning. This time, however, instead of matching the ends of the fabric together, try to match the seams between the squares. This will make the process of top-sewing the squares down later much easier and your quilt more even and neat. Once you have the columns pinned, you can sew them together.

I suggest doing this in the same way you did the other squares: pin the two left-most columns together and the two rightmost columns together (sew and iron) and finally pin them together in the middle (sew and iron). Make sure you keep the right sides together and refrain from pulling the fabric through the sewing machine.

Step Five: You now have all your t-shirts sewn together. This is the front of your t-shirt quilt congratulations on making it this far. There are a lot of ways to do the next step.

You could put batting in between the t-shirts and the back of the quilt. I have no idea how to do this as I have never done it. You could also do a fleece backing without a trim. This was what my first blanket was like. This method is actually simpler and to do this, all you need to do is cut the fabric down to the same size as the t-shirts (plus seam allowance) and then pin (right sides together) and sew.

For my blanket this time, I wanted my fleece to trim the t-shirts on the front as well as serve as the backing. In order to do this, I bought a piece big enough to cover the back with extra. It happened to be the exact size I needed (no cutting needed) which was awesome.

Once I had the fleece, I laid it down out on the floor of my room and smoothed out any wrinkles (there wasn't really a "right side" that I needed to worry about but if there is, you'll want the right side facing up). I then placed the t-shirts, right-side down, onto the fleece (also smoothing out wrinkles).

My fleece was four inches longer and wider than my t-shirts. So on each side, I measured four inches in and marked the measurement with a pin. Then I began my pinning (with my little "helper").

I pulled the t-shirts over to the first side of the fleece, lined them up so they matched up with the four-inch marks and the edge of the fleece, and pinned them. I then dragged the t-shirts over to the next side and did the same thing (and twice more). The result would be the fleece being folded over to create a two-inch border around the entire blanket. When I sewed, I left holes on each corner and I used one of these holes to flip the blanket right-side-out.

I can't really tell you how I close up the holes in the corners because I winged it. I folded the fabric left over inside of the holes, pinned it to the best of my ability, and sewed. My blanket was less for looks and more for sentimentality but if yours is for the looks, I suggest coming up with a better way to finish these corners off.

Finishing Off: You may think you are done but you are not...not yet. Finishing off the blanket is actually a really important step or else you'll have an awkward shaped thing that will definitely not lie flat on your legs. To do this, lie the blanket out flat and press out any wrinkles. You will want to make sure the t-shirts are lined up with where they naturally sit on the fleece or you will end up with funky-looking bits. Once everything is lined up right, start pinning, and don't stop. You'll want to pin every natural line on the blanket. That means the following:

  • the border you just created with the fleece

  • the rows

  • the columns

  • any easy-to-trace lines on the t-shirts

You will be top-sewing these (sewing them on the right side where the line will be visible) so that the t-shirts become fully attached to the fleece. The more you sew, the more personality you add to your quilt, and the more it is likely to look like a "quilt" and not just a blanket. You also ensure the shirts are attached well and there aren't weird gaps between the shirt and fleece. Sew until you feel the project is done. Then cut off any remaining threads and hold up your completed blanket with a smile of accomplishment!

My Suggestions: Unless you are an accomplished sewer, don't do this project for its looks. I have some experience but both times I have done the project, there are plenty of mistakes within the blanket. I don't make these blankets because they look good to others (although I think they look amazing and I love them with my heart and soul), I make them because they take the t-shirts I love but don't wear and make them something I use and see again. I love my t-shirt blankets whether others do or not. Make it for that reason.

I also don't suggest using bandanas in your project. Both times I have made the blankets, I have used bandanas to fill in empty squares. This time, I really struggled with the bandanas I used and I may need to go back and fix a few spots. Bandanas fray much easier than t-shirts and have very different textures. I top-sewed with a zig-zag stitch to try to make up for some of the problems with the bandanas but still faced issues. I wish I had cut the bandanas into larger squares to give more seam allowance for these fabrics.

Enjoy the project. This time through, I took a lot more chances with the project as mentioned above. I made art pieces on the empty squares and I love those squares as much as the ones with sentimental tees on them. I also took chance on the border for the fleece which I had never done before (and totally winged). Figuring out how to do the project is half the fun for me. If there is something you want to do beyond the simple project, go for it!

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