How to sew a t-shirt quilt

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

New Year, new skills. This month I've been involved in a sewing project of a different sort - memory quilts. It's not my usual kind of make, but has been really interesting to learn to do. I have seen a fair few made as gifts using a collection of t-shirts from festivals or concerts as well as children's baby clothes. It involved a fair bit of research so I've pulled together the best of what I found in case you would like to have a go at making your own. These were made for the lovely Stanley, Freddie and Hayley, who I hope will be able to enjoy them for a long time.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt


Materials

Quilt top:
So, as you can see from the title, these quilts are not made from stable quilting cottons. As these were being made to remember a loved one, the boys picked out the tops that had special memories. This turned out to be quite a collection of t-shirts, polo shirts and sweatshirts. None of these fabrics are what you would typically use for quilting, being made from knit rather than woven fabrics. The main issue with this is that knit fabrics can stretch as they are being sewn and can easily distort out of shape. They can still make great quilts though, so long as they are stabilised with interfacing.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

I bought 3 metres of interfacing from Plush Addict for each quilt. It took me ages to find what the right interfacing needed to be and I almost made a huge error with stretch interfacing. The Vilene G405 works really well because it adds stability but doesn't make the fabric too stiff or heavy. By ironing this on to the back of the fabric, the knit doesn't stretch out of shape and can be quilted easily. 

Each of the quilts used 14 different t-shirts. It would be possible to make these with fewer shirts and use fabric from both sides.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

Batting:
(For anyone new, this is the stuff inside the quilt - without this you have a blanket instead).
I was after quilts in the region of 45x60 inches. I opted for a cotton blend instead of polyester for durability and strength. This particular one is able to be quilted at 4 inch intervals, giving me leeway to be quite wide with the quilting. On these, I wanted minimal stitching so as not to interfere with the special t-shirts. I bought my batting from Minerva Crafts, buying 1 metre of the 120 inches wide selection. Then all I had to do was cut this in half for my two quilts.

Backing:
This can be tricky to find. Ideally you want something that has a lot of pattern on it so that the quilting that you do on the front can blend in easily. I bought a matching pair of Makower Dimples in blue from Plush Addict, ordering 1.5 metres of each. This gives a piece that is roughly the same size as the batting and the quilt top.

I also bought two fat quarters of the boys' favourite colours for binding. (One fat quarter is just a little too short).

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

Tip! Making binding from the same fabric as the backing helps when you are new because it will help stitches blend in more easily later (so, just order 2m of the backing). This is what I did for the third quilt, using Liberty quilting fabric from Sewbox.

Tools:
Rotary cutter & cutting mat, ruler, quilting foot, universal sewing needles needle, quilting sewing needles, spray adhesive and curved safety pins.
I also cut a card template for my squares.

Pattern and Instructions

Essentially, there is no pattern, just maths.
But I did use help along the way!

For a 45x60 inch quilt top, I cut 70 squares measuring 6 and a half inches each. This was spread over 14 t-shirts, meaning I wanted 5 squares from each t-shirt. My seams are sewn with a scant 3/4 inch (1cm) seam allowance, which is larger than normal in quilting, but I needed it this size due to all the interfacing and varying weights (and my lack of skill in this area).

You need to pre-cut and apply interfacing to the back of each t-shirt before cutting out squares. 

Tip! You don't need to cut 70 individual interfacing squares! Use block interfacing to save time.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt


I wanted to keep logos, so cut 14 individual squares to be ironed on to the back of these. I then cut 14 larger squares that were at least 13 inches each side. These could then be ironed to the back of the shirts and later cut down into 4 individual quilt squares.

Tip! It's hard to sew through some logos, so if you offset them so they will sit in a quarter of the square that won't be stitched through, you can keep them whole more easily.

Once the interfacing is applied, each t-shirt needs to be precisely cut into squares of the exact same size. I used a cardboard template to make sure that they were always the same. If they aren't exact, your corners won't match up on the quilt top later.

Once all the squares are cut, experiment with your layout. I laid down the quilt backing as a guide and arranged the squares in a 7 x 10 rectangle. Once I'm happy with it I collect up the squares from top to bottom, labelling each column.


Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt


I stitched each square to the next one down in the column using a universal needle and walking foot. I pressed these seams open to avoid areas of difficult bulk later. 
Once all the columns are stitched, they can then be sewn together one at a time. This time though I press the seams away from the centre of the quilt, to help with stitching in the ditch later on. 

Then it all needs to be put together...quite frankly, the floor is the only place I can do this. I lay out the backing fabric on the floor and then lay the quilt wadding on top. I use spray adhesive to fix the two layers together in stages, building up to the whole piece by folding each section over, then repeat with the quilt top (here's the one I use - Odif 505 basting spray). It isn't necessary, but I also use curved safety pins to make sure nothing moves out of place.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

Now comes the quilting - a lot of sewing in a straight lines! Switch to a quilting needle. First sew over the seams that are in place from stitching all the squares together. Stitching in the ditch takes time but is easier with the seams pressed to one side.

Tip! If you want your stitching to blend in on the top and bottom, but need different colours, just use a different thread in the bobbin.
You wouldn't do it in free motion quilting as the lower bobbin thread can come up through and show on the top side, but because the stitching starts at the ends it'll be ok.

I start with a centre seam and move out to the side, then repeat on the other side. It doesn't matter if you start with vertical seams or horizontal seams.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt


Tip! Squish and stitch.
My sewing machine is not aimed at quilters - it has a small gap between the needle and the body of the machine which I was worried would be too small. Some quilting tutorials tell you to roll the sides up, which can make it difficult to get through. Instead I just squished the quilt through as it moved through the machine and it was more than fine. I would just say to make sure you have a big table for the rest of the quilt to lay on as it gets heavy so help supporting the quilt will be much appreciated.

Once all the seams have been over stitched, start sewing straight lines, going through the middle of the squares this time. All over.
That's the hardest work done.

Now the binding needs to be attached. 
I followed this tutorial - T-shirt quilting step-by-step (with free pattern) | Craftsy Quilting with Angela Walters
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk_c_Qbx-t4

But, I did it slightly differently, and when it came to stitching the binding on to the back, I used clips to keep the fabric in place and stitched through the ditch on the front to keep a nice finish on the main side.

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

And that's about it!

Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt

Steps:

  • Cut 14 squares of interfacing measuring 6.5 inches on each side, and 14 squares measuring 13 inches on each side.
  • Cut the sleeves off the t-shirts and cut up the sides, separating the front and back of the shirt.
  • Apply interfacing to the back of the fabric.
  • Cut 5 individual 6 and a half inch squares from each shirt. 
  • Decide on layout.
  • Sew the columns and press seams open
  • Sew each column together and press seams to one side.
  • Baste the backing fabric, quilt batting and quilt top together, securing with curved safety pins.
  • Sew the layers together, stitching in the ditch over the seam stitching. Quilt halfway between these seams as well for durability.
  • Neaten the edges and sew on the binding.
Make a memory quilt: how to sew a t-shirt quilt
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Hi, I'm Laura. Welcome to my journeys with modern, feminine dressmaking; pattern reviews, tips and guides for beginners. I'm a lifelong foodie, so you'll also find some delicious recipes and places to get that foodie fix.
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