Quilting has always fascinated me, most likely because of the amazing colors, textiles, and textures involved. But I think it goes deeper than that. I love quilts because they are often pieced together from scraps leftover from other projects, scraps that would have otherwise gone unused. Not only are quilts often wrought from recycling, but more importantly, they often are incredibly beautiful, despite their humble origins. My all-time favorite technique is crazy quilting. It’s actually patchwork, and instead of using regularly shaped pieces, every piece is organic, and they are haphazardly stitched together for an asymetrical end product. They are usually made out of beautiful fabrics, like velvet, silk, or lace. And they often have really rad embellishments, embroidery or applique, too. Quite logically, they hail from the Victorian era, when dresses were made of luxe fabrics (thus the scraps, which women ingeniously turned into quilts) and the crazier the better in terms of style. Here is a stellar example from the Illinois State Museum:Someday, I’m going to make a true crazy quilt, but I haven’t yet accumulated enough lovely fabric scraps, and I don’t really want to buy the fabric, because hey, that’s cheating. Since “recycling” quilting is the kind I’m drawn to, it makes sense that I’ve only made a few quilts so far. My first quilt was hatched from a pile of fabric that I used for slings when I broke my arm years ago. I wanted to include a photo, but unfortunately, that quilt still resides in New York. Not too sad though, since my craftsmanship was lacking, but hey, it was my first big sewing project, and I was only 13 and recovering from a busted humerus bone.
My most recent quilt came from the transition from college to life on my own, when I needed to pare down my belongings. No hauling unnecessary stuff with me as I moved from place to place. I had several boxes FILLED with old t-shirts, more than I could ever use, even in my awkward, “wear a t-shirt to school every single day” phase in middle school. I couldn’t move them with me, but I also couldn’t bear to part with them. They represented a lifetime of sports, trips, affiliations, and my aforementioned nerdy phase (yup, I even had a periodic table of the elements t-shirt). What to do? MAKE A QUILT!
I had enough t-shirts (plus a generous donation from my brother) that it quickly became clear that I could make two quilts. The first quilt took over a year to piece together, because I tried to preserve the dimension of the graphic on each shirt. It was an admirable, though costly effort. I finally patched the darn thing together, mostly by hand, but in the end, somehow it wasn’t as great as I envisioned it. I haven’t quite finished that quilt. It still needs a back!
The other quilt, I promised myself, needed to be an exercise in beauty through simplicity. This was supposed to be fun, after all. I decided on a traditional pieced quilt, and let go of the urge to preserve the original designs–if a word or image got cut off, all the better–it would have more of an abstract, dynamic feel. As I studied the colors and images I had to work with, I quickly settled on making this mostly about harmonious color arrangement, and settled on a reversible quilt: one side featuring the lighter, pastel colored t-shirts, the other exhibiting the bold hues!
This quilt was HUGELY different from the first, both in process and product. I had so much fun making it. Since I used simple squares for the quilt and border, I was able to spend weekends watching old movies and enjoying the rhythmic, mindless task of tracing and cutting squares. And their uniform size freed me to play with color arrangement, which was a blast. The end product was kind of crazy, but I think the colors did turn out about as harmonious as possible given my materials. I was particularly pleased with my rainbow border on the bold side, and at the end, added some visual interest with a little beading and embroidery. Here is the finished quilt, in all it’s glory:
What do you think? Is it beautiful, or borderline hideous?
Unlike my sling quilt, I was very pleased with my craftsmanship on this one. But like my sling quilt, I was thrilled to use material that otherwise would have gone to waste, and even more thrilled to have a functional object carrying so many memories. After I finished, I sat on the sofa with Jonathan for a while and recalled great family vacations to Sanibel Island, the year our tennis team won the STAC championships, and the tie-die shirt I wore pretty much daily when I was 10, because it was all about tie-die and slap bracelets in 1993. Like the quilts that were passed down to my mother from her grandmother, I hope this quilt is a conversation piece for future generations. They may not hang it in the living room like my mom does, but I hope it excites them to have a piece of family history and perhaps they’ll crack up over my brother’s golf camp shirt with the slogan “Grip it and rip it.”
What’s not to love, right? If you want to make your own t-shirt quilt, there are some good resources out there, but here are my general tips:
- Use fusible interfacing and iron it on the back of your t-shirt fabric to stiffen the stretchy material, otherwise it will be tricky and messy to cut and sew. Attach the interfacing before you trace and cut the squares
- Use a simple square patched technique, and try to keep your squares from being too big, even at the expense of some print. The t-shirt quilts I’ve seen that have huge squares are not as interesting or aesthetically pleasing, IMO
- Don’t stop at t-shirts! For my border, I actually infused a little color from some old boxer shorts with fun patterns