How to make a t-shirt quilt, part 1

Last year, a friend and I decided to put our heads together and make t-shirt quilts: quilts composed of leftover t-shirts we no longer wear but which still have some sentimental value. We both had only minimal prior quilting experience, and we figured tackling the project together would be easier than doing it alone (and more fun!).

We googled a lot of resources, tried a lot of things, and had to backtrack a couple of times. So I’m going to share here what I would do if I did it over again, not necessarily exactly what I actually did. :)

0. First, invest in some good tools:

  • Rotary cutter, plastic guide, and mat (as large as possible).
  • Sharp scissors.
  • Quilting square to make it fast and easy to cut consistently sized squares. Or, make your own with cardboard.
  • Sewing machine. You will also want a “walking foot” and probably a “free motion” or “darning foot” (if you want to do intricate detailed quilting).

t-shirt blocks1. Assemble your t-shirts. Wash them all. Iron them all (taking care not to melt the designs).

2. Stabilize the t-shirt material. T-shirt cotton is stretchy. Stretchy is not a good property for quilt blocks. Therefore, most guides have you attach interfacing (a thin, woven layer) to the t-shirt. Iron-on (fusible) interfacing is a good product to use. Cut it a bit larger than the size you want your t-shirt to be and iron it on BEFORE CUTTING the t-shirt. I cut my shirts out first and then had to cut the interfacing as well, and then it caused problems when it didn’t exactly match up. Interface, then cut.

3. Cut all your t-shirts into a standard size. Square, rectangle, whatever, but do make it standard. You will be thankful that you do not have to patch and adjust sizes later, like we did. We cut ours using rotary cutters and ruler/guide. This took forever and was prone to error in getting exact right angles on the squares. Instead, use a quilting square (hard plastic see-through square you simply cut around, shown at left from the While They Snooze blog) or make your own with cardboard (can’t see through it to center your design, but useful if you can’t find a quilting square in the right size for your project). If you feel extra crafty, make your own with cardboard as a *frame* around the square and you’ll be able to both see and cut.

4. Lay out your design. We used a simple grid of shirts. Decide how you like the overall color balancing to appear.

Here you can see my layout as well as the shirts I had to pad with strips of background fabric to obtain a consistent size.

t-shirt layout

5. Choose a background fabric for “sashing” between the shirt blocks and for the border. Cut strips of this fabric and sew it between the blocks to create rows (or columns) of quilt blocks.

We used 1/4″ seams based on googling, which is a very small allowance but reduces bulk in the quilt top. Here you can see three of my four rows seamed together.


Cutting many strips of consistent width, especially long ones (next step) is a pain unless you have industrial tools. If you only have a standard cutter and mat, you can carefully and precisely zig-zag fold your fabric to cut through many layers at once for a longer total strip. If you are not careful and precise, you will get a zig-zag strip instead of a long rectangle.

6. Cut longer strips to create the sashes between rows (or columns) and join them together with long seams.


7. I had a lot of shirts with interesting pocket designs that I wanted to include, so I decided to add a row to the top and bottom that included these pockets. I laid them out and did some math to get them evenly spaced and cut appropriately sized sashing to fill out the rows.


8. Add a border. You probably cannot cut a continuous piece of your background fabric this long, so just add a seam where needed. Or if you are a perfectionist, space the seams out regularly so it looks deliberate rather than desperate.


You may like to miter the corners together to get a diagonal seam. This is not hard. Cut both border strips to extend all the way to the end of the corner (i.e., so they would overlap). Sew to the end of the interior blocks from both directions and stop. Fold the quilt so that you have a seam at 45 degrees from the two edges and sew from the interior corner out. Trim the excess fabric, unfold, and press the seams open.


Congratulations! You now have a quilt top. Next up is how to turn it into a quilt “sandwich” and then start into the actual quilting.