How to Make a T-Shirt Quilt

Back in the 1970’s  when country style and quilts had a resurgence in popularity, looking in one’s closet for handmade quilts that Grandma or an elderly aunt had sewn was really “big” and in fashion. Quilts have been stitched by hand only since time immemorial and later were machine and hand-stitched when treadle sewing machines became available to the public from the late 1800’s onward. Throughout the Depression Era and into the 1940’s, sewing quilts out of bits of leftover fabric and worn out clothing was an essential skill of women and young girls in most households ~ reuse and recycling fabrics was what everyone did!

Here is the beginning of the t-shirt layout. First I just randomly cut each
t-shirt then later I went in and squared up each front and back to the correct size.

In the spirit of all the seamstresses before me who recycled their clothing into lovely log cabin, May basket and flower quilts, I am sharing a display quilt I began during the 2019 summer and finished at Christmas-time.  Using t-shirts my son either won or we bought for him while he was pole vaulting and running cross-country during his high school years, this was a gift he asked me to make and I was happy to finish it over six months. Let’s get quilting, friends!…

The Time Travelers sewing group meets at our local library once a month.
It all began with a request from my son Peter for a t-shirt quilt made from his old track and field t-shirts. His mother-in-law had made one for Justine, his then girlfriend, while she was still in college; I remember it hanging in her college bedroom in a flat she, Peter and another girlfriend shared their junior year at the University of South Dakota.

So how do you plan a t-shirt quilt like this?

Begin with a drawing as you lay out your shirt pieces of how you think you’d like your quilt to look when finished. Decide where you’d like certain colors, shirts for different school years or events, etc.

Use a quilting square and cutting mat to make each t-shirt the size you need ~ here most of these shirts were cut to 12″ – 15″ square.

This is the back of part of the quilt with interfacing ironed and sewn on and into top, bottom and side seams. This is also where I added 4″ finished cowboy fabric strips to have a place for “extra” t-shirt memorabilia to be sewn ~ i.e. signatures of Olympians and semi-famous pole vaulters from sports camps.
Iron on stabilizing Pellon interfacing to give support to each t-shirt then begin seaming shirts together and also seaming to support fabric pieces.

I used 10 yards of a 1940’s style cowboy barkcloth fabric which was originally supposed to be four curtains in our son’s room as he was growing up (that obviously never happened!). The barkcloth was perfect for its overall thickness when each t-shirt was fused to its interfacing as both fabrics had the same weight. I used the cowboy barkcloth to create quilting strips and for the quilt back. There was just enough!

Keep “tweaking” your pieces and add in extra additional fabric to make all the t-shirts fit. In this quilt I began with all the most important events centered in the very middle of the quilt. From there I added Peter’s freshman year t-shirts at the top, followed by his sophomore years shirts. The senior and junior years followed below that, more or less, with the senior year (his best year) the main focus on the row below the central square as would be seen when hanging on a wall or over a banister. 



How do you machine sew these big pieces together?

I began by sewing my cowboy fabric horizontal strips to each set of t-shirts groups in horizontal rows, then I began sewing one row to the row below it.

Here you can see where I am sewing the top two rows of t-shirts to the center section rows. The bottom rows of fabrics are underneath for reference.

Never having sewed this kind of a quilt before but having worked on handmade quilts with a sewing group while we were stationed at Camp Pendleton, this seemed like the best plan.

When seaming vertical fabric groups into the main quilt, you’ll have to roll your fabric in order to keep sewing, as shown here.

Here is the semi-finished quilt top laid out and ready for final additions and ready to be joined to the batting and quilt backing.

Because the t-shirts and backing fabrics were mostly 100% cotton, I chose this all natural cotton batting for this quilt. It needs to be washed and dried first (as part of its instructions) and that created one tear in the batting while in the washing process.

How to finish the quilt?

Measure across horizontally and vertically to get final measurements and decide whether you can live with it being slightly out of perfectly square/rectangular or not. Adjust the outer edges by cutting off pieces as necessary.

For this quilt I literally took my cutting board and placed it underneath the entire quilt while on the floor and used the rolling cutter and trimmed the edges there.

Finish by making a self-made seam binding of the backing fabric ~ or this can be a contrasting fabric if you prefer. The seam binding will start out as about 3″ wide strips that will be sewn together, ironed in half width-wise, then turn in each half and iron down again (seen best in the left-hand photo below).

Begin at one corner and work around the quilt sandwiching all the fabric in-between the binding. Miter the corners (right photo) of the quilt by folding in parts of the binding to create pretty folded  “hospital corners” on each upper and lower edge. Hand sew to the front and back quilt pieces going through the batting, too, once in a while. The batting will mostly be sewn into the quilt in the next step.

Hand baste the top through the bottom fabric to stabilize all the fabrics together (you can also just use safety pins). Machine sew “in the ditch” of each and every vertical and horizontal seam sewing through the quilt top, batting and quilt backing.

If you prefer to quilt as your ancestors did long ago, then by all mean enjoy hand-quilting! My mother-in-law hand-stitched our wedding ring quilt out of left-over pieces from my bridesmaids’ dresses using a PVC quilter’s frame she bought and had set up in their living room for months.

It was a labor of love and I still appreciate her hard work every time we place this quilt on our bed each year… 

I won’t kid you, there is a lot of work involved in sewing a big quilt like this and I took two months just noodling the idea for the design from June to August. Then I began sewing in earnest and finished at just at Christmas-time.

Peter is very happy with his quilt and hopefully one day his track and field quilt can hang beside that of his wife’s. For now, he will have it draped over the queen bed in the spare bedroom.

Here is a final view of the cowboy barkcloth backing fabric ~ two 80″ long panels seamed together down the center of the quilt. Two lengths were cut off both sides and will be used to make a little quilt for Baby C as he grows up. A few t-shirts didn’t make it into the big quilt so those might end up in Baby C’s room, too…

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Happy sewing, friends!

6 thoughts on “How to Make a T-Shirt Quilt”

  1. Barb, This is one amazing project!! My niece was looking to find someone who does this type of thing after my nephew passed away. She wanted to have a quilt made with his clothing for her daughters to remember their Dad. She still has not found anyone…And she does not have the time to do it herself as she is now working to support her and her 3 daughters. Thanks so much for stopping by and for taking the time to let me know that you did by leaving such a sweet comment!!Hugs,Debbie

  2. Barb, this quilt is amazing and you are so smart to put it all together. I hope to make a quilt one day. Thanks for sharing all the details. I'll probably be referring to your method.

  3. OMW Barbara, that is so special and the thinking you put into the quilt <3 <3 <3 I bet your son will treasure it forever. So many precious memories, all sewn together by his Mom. Beautiful

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