Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The T-shirt Quilt Adventure!

In October our pastor asked our small quilting group if we would consider making a T-shirt quilt for his daughter from t-shirts collected from various United Methodist youth gatherings.  The group agreed and we were given 13 t-shirts with 36 images!  None of us, as far as I know, had made a t-shirt quilt before.  The shirts sat, gathering dust, for a month before I finally bit the bullet and volunteered to take on the project.  If nothing else, I figured it would be good practice - my daughter has been saving t-shirts for several years!

The good part!

I'll get to the good part first... I finished it!  It turned out so much better than I expected.  Here's what it looks like.  I'll post close-ups too.

Kelsey's T-shirt Quilt

And now, for the rest of the story...

Since I hadn't made a t-shirt quilt before, I started searching the internet for instructions.  I knew people that had made them, and understood the basics of cutting them into squares and putting sashing around them so they'd all be the same size.  I had heard how I would have to stabilize them with iron-on interfacing before sewing them together.

But then I found Too Cool T-shirt Quilts.  They had a unique setting that really gave the quilt pizzaz!  And I didn't have to use the interfacing, which I've never liked even in my regular clothes sewing (I use the sew in kind).  I ordered their book and I was off on my adventure!

The first thing I did was make a sample quilt from my husbands old t-shirts and several different types of batting.  The batting was scraps from my friend, Millie's, longarm quilting business.  

Top to bottom - fluffy poly, flat poly, cotton blend, cotton.  Right side spray basted, left size pinned

I also tried June Tailor Quilt Basting Spray and pin basting.  And then I tried my hand at some free motion quilting, which I had never done before either!  Leah Day inspired me with her designs, her clear instructions, and her encouragement, all from her website!  It didn't turn out half bad.  I decided I could actually do this!

I also put this sample through the wash on laundry day.  I wanted to see if the basting spray washed out, and how much those battings would shrink.  Well, the glue stuff was still a bit sticky, and made the finished product more stiff than I liked.  And the cotton definitely shrunk up too much for what I had in mind, so I decided to go with a polyester batting and pin basting.

The first question I'm asked when I show the quilt is "You didn't use interfacing?  How'd you keep it from stretching?"  Well, I spray starched the bejeezus out of each shirt before I cut it!  And I moved my squares as little as possible before sewing.  Instead, in order to lay out the quilt, I took pictures of each shirt and imported them into Microsoft Publisher, where I re-sized the images to the exact size, cropped them, and moved them around.  I managed to use all 36 images (only had to trim one down) and had to add one blank block.  My friend Joan, embroidered Kelsey's name on it for me. 

puzzle pieces
Next up, batting.  I had it all picked out, I just had to find it at the store.  Remember, my sample was a cast off from Millie... and Millie had flown south for the winter...  Two quilt stores and three trips to Joann Fabrics later and I couldn't find it anywhere!  On one of the trips to Joann's, I purchased a batting, but when I got it home I decided it was too thin and not an even thickness. So back I went.  I finally settled on a wonderful 50% rayon (from bamboo), 50% cotton batting by Fairfield.  This stuff is soft and cuddly and drapes really nicely, and can be quilted up to 8" apart.  I must have been at the store for an hour and a half going "should I or shouldn't I..."  I did get sticker shock when I checked out.  Original price for a queen-sized batting was $57.00!!! Thank goodness for the half-off sale plus a 30% coupon on top of that. :-)

Michelangelo - Creation of Adam

I was still worried about the cotton shrinkage though.  So, I filled my bathtub with really hot water and let the batting soak for a half hour.  Unfortunately, when I drained the water I found that there was no way I could get the water all squeezed out of it.  It would take a year to dry!!  I took a chance and put it into my front-loading washer to spin out... Oh no!! My washer doesn't have a spin only cycle!!  It has a rinse and spin, but no spin only.  Praying (appropriate for this quilt!) I sent it through the rinse cycle on the comforter setting, and then sent it through the dryer.  Thankfully, it came out fine!

Methodist Cross and Flame symbol


My new found free motion quilting skills!   

Some of the squares lent themselves naturally to tracing the design.  

For the others, I looked for simple clip art of Christian symbols.

Once again, I took them to Publisher to enlarge them to the correct size, and I printed them on regular computer paper.  Then I “sewed” on the lines with no thread, to perforate the paper, and “pounced” baby powder through the holes to mark the pattern on the quilt.

"pouncing" the pattern
baby powder pattern

I found that the powder brushed off too quickly though, so I traced the powdery designs with a marking pencil or water soluble pen.  About halfway through quilting I started worrying that all the powder, chalk marks, and marking pencils and pens might not wash out completely.

pattern traced with a chalk pencil
one border all marked!


the finished flame

The border is actually the Methodist flame with a mirror image of it.  It looked really neat as a single flame chain, but that left too large of an area without quilting.  Some people thought that the pattern was a weird flower.  Others saw uplifting hands, and still others saw a dove coming down.


For quilting I used Coats and Clarck 40 wt. tri-lobal polyester because I really wanted the sheen of the thread.  I tried several different types of sewing machine needles from embroidery ones to jeans needles to ball point needles specifically for knit fabrics.  The thread just kept shredding.


winds of change

I settled on the size 16 jeans needle because it seemed to work the best.I started with a variegated rainbow color but decided it really didn't look as good as I thought it would, so I switched to gray on top and red on the bottom (to match the backing). 

Add caption

 I used the "people" on this block as a pattern to fill in the large, unprinted area.  My daughter thinks this little guy is "creepy."

 And that brings me to the end of my saga with the t-shirt quilt.  I love the way it turned out. The quilting isn't as good as I would like, mostly due to thread problems, but it's great for my first try!

Hope you enjoyed my adventure!

~ Kathy

Even more pictures!


freehand squiggly lines


pitcher, basin and cloth

bread and cup

I know I already have a shot of this square, but I liked how this picture turned out.


  1. Interesting process. I'll have to take a look at the link. I use the lightest weight fusible available and have loved the results. Your quilt is wonderful!

  2. Good job Kathy, your t-shirt quilt is beautiful. I very much like the way you quilted it. Thanks for sharing the whole process with us. Genius idea to starch your blocks instead of using interfacing to prevent them from stretching.