How to Sew a T-shirt Quilt Series – Week 1

**Check out this post for the series overview and printable checklist!**

Welcome to Week 1 of our T-Shirt Quilt Sewalong!  I can’t wait to get started making memories with you through sewing.  This week, I’ll be sharing a supply list and t-shirt quilt basics, including different methods for stabilizing your t-shirts so they’re easier to work with.

Sewing with knits and other stretchy fabrics is often what keeps people from tackling projects like this one.  That was me just a few years ago!  Thankfully, I’ve discovered that sewing with knits doesn’t need to be a difficult or frustrating endeavor.

Don’t forget to join our Summer Sewalong group on Facebook for extra tips, community, and encouragement! **The Live Sewalong is now over, if you’d like to be notified when we do another t-shirt quilt sewalong, sign up for newsletters at the end of this post!**

Okay, let’s break down the t-shirt quilt.


What You’ll Need

T-Shirts
The number of t-shirts you need depends on what size quilt you’re making and what style of layout you choose (more on layout options below).  Generally a lap sized quilt will require 12-15 shirts if constructed in equal blocks; 24+ shirts will be needed for a twin sized quilt.  But, instead of aiming for a certain sized quilt, I prefer to start with however many shirts I have, then see what layout and size I end up with.  This will make more sense when we get to the layout stage!

Stabilizer
There are a variety of ways to stabilize knit fabrics to be used in quilting.  Read below to find which method will work best for you.  Try not to get overwhelmed, and feel free to message me with any questions!   **During our live sewalongs, I also host a Facebook Live session and have a post in our sewalong group where you can comment with questions you might have about stabilizing your shirts.**

Thread
Use whatever your favorite, standard thread is.  A color that coordinates with your backing makes for a nice finish and binding at the end.

Ballpoint Needle (not always required)
A ballpoint needle is recommended when working with knits.  However, when I use a fusible stabilizer, I do my sewing with a regular point needle and have not encountered any problems.

Walking Foot (not always required)
I like to use a walking foot on my sewing machine when I don’t use a fusible stabilizer on my t-shirts.  Otherwise I use my regular presser foot for piecing the top together.  At the end of the sewalong, you will also need a walking foot if you plan to quilt your quilt (that’s a mouthful) on your home machine.  Alternatively, you can tie your quilt and avoid the need for a walking foot.

Backing & Binding
Once you decide what size quilt you’ll end up with, choose a backing material that is at least 8 inches wider and longer than your quilt top size.  Backing material can range from quilting cotton to minky to even more t-shirts!  I like to use a coordinating quilting cotton for my binding.  Here’s a handy binding calculator for figuring how much you’ll need once we get to that step:  https://cutsewquick.com/pages/binding-calculator

Batting
Choose your preferred batting.  If you plan to use a heavier quilt back like minky, choose a lightweight batting (or even pre-washed flannel).  I’ve also used fleece as batting and it’s worked well!


How to Stabilize Your Shirts

One of the most confusing parts of a t-shirt quilt is how to sew quilt blocks with stretchy fabric.  This is where stabilizers come in.  There are multiple ways to stabilize knit fabric.  In fact, you can find various blogs all over the webosphere (is that a word?) which swear by one way or another.  I’m going to lay them all out for you here and let you choose what will work best for you and your shirts.  I’ll also go over these in a Facebook Live video next week in case you have any questions!

Things to consider when choosing a stabilizer:

  • The thickness and durability of your shirts
  • Your level of sewing experience
  • What type of sewing machine you have
  • What finishing style you’ll be using (quilting vs tying)
  • Frequency of quilt use (will it be decorative or heavily used)

Types of stabilizing methods:

1) None.  That’s right, it is possible to sew your t-shirt quilt with no stabilizers whatsoever.  This might work for you if –

  • All of your shirts are a thicker material and in good condition.
  • You are experienced with sewing knit fabric and already have a technique that works well for you.
  • You have a sewing machine (or serger) that handles knits well.  
  • You have a walking foot for your sewing machine.
  • You don’t mind some possibly wavy seams or stretching in your finished product.

2) Tissue paper.  It might sound strange, but tissue paper can help when sewing with t-shirt fabric.  Yes, even the crumpled pieces shoved in your closet from old Christmas presents just waiting to be used again.  There are two different methods you can try with tissue paper (or pattern paper).  

  1.  Place a piece of tissue paper under your knit fabric (flush with your seam), between the fabric and the feed dogs.  Sew along as normal, over both pieces of knit and the tissue paper.  

or

  1. Sandwich your knit fabric between two pieces of tissue paper and sew your seam as normal.  Make sure your tissue paper is light enough that you’ll be able to see the seam edge of your fabric!

Rip the tissue paper out of the threads when you’re done.  Note, this will stabilize your knits for sewing, but it will not stabilize the entire quilt top for easier quilting and assembly.  As with the “None” option, only choose the tissue paper method if you don’t mind some possibly wavy seams or stretching in your finished product.

3) Starch.  If you’re looking for a method that provides a little more stiffness to your shirts than no stabilizing, but you don’t want to commit to interfacing each piece, starch is an option.  I have used starch to stabilize my knits when piecing memory quilt backing out of a loved one’s t-shirts.  I didn’t want to use additional interfacing because the front of the quilt was quite heavy already with denim, plus there was a light batting sandwiched in the middle.  

More notes on using starch:

  • I recommend only using starch with t-shirts in good condition and a thicker jersey material.
  • Choose a heavy-duty starch (like this one).
  • Starch each shirt piece two or three times, letting the starch fully dry between applications.
  • Consider still using a walking foot on your sewing machine for piecing the shirts together.

4) Sew-in interfacing.  On to interfacing options!  Interfacing is a fabric that is sewn or fused (more on that below) to another fabric to provide stability, thickness, or lining.  There are more types of interfacing than is possible to count, so I’ll have recommendations below to help you choose!  

Sew-in interfacing is used by literally sewing it on to the piece of fabric you’re working with.  For a t-shirt quilt, you would sew a piece of interfacing to each individual t-shirt square that you’ve cut out.  Your sewing can be as simple as layering your shirt piece right side up on top of your interfacing fabric and stitching an “x” over the two pieces from corner to corner to sew them together.   For extra stability and less shifting, consider using spray adhesive to hold the two fabrics together before sewing.  

Things to note when working with sew-in interfacing and t-shirts:

  • This is the most time consuming method, but it can be less expensive than a fusible  interfacing and provide similar results. 
  • If you plan to have an “all over” quilting design as your finish, the stitching lines of your sew-in interfacing might clash with your quilting.
  • It’s best to use a walking foot to prevent shifting of the shirt layer.
  • You can use pretty much any type of fabric as sew-in interfacing.  A piece of quilting cotton would work just fine if you have some on hand and don’t want to buy true interfacing.  Just make sure to choose a lighter weight woven fabric that will NOT stretch, as the point of interfacing is to make your shirts less stretchy.
  • When prepping your shirts for interfacing, trim each piece with an extra ½” (or so) margin and then trim down to the final desired size after sewing in the interfacing.  Knit fabric tends to shift and it’s super sad when you end up with a wonky block that needs to be trimmed smaller after you interface it!

5) Fusible interfacing.  I saved my favorite method for last!  Fusible interfacing is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to t-shirt quilts.  However, not everyone wants to use fusible interfacing or has access to it, so I wanted to provide other options as well.

Fusible interfacing comes in different weights and has a bumpy side, which is actually little dots of glue.  As with sew-in interfacing, I like to start by trimming my shirt piece with an extra ½” or more.  I trim my interfacing piece just a little smaller than the t-shirt square (this will save you from accidentally fusing to your ironing board).  Lay your t-shirt piece right side down on your ironing board.  Next, put your interfacing bumpy/glue side down on top of it.  Add a damp cloth to help the glue set better and to save your iron from getting glue gunk on it.  Then iron away!  (Follow your specific interfacing’s manufacturer’s instructions for this, of course.)  Trim your shirt piece down to its desired size once the fabric has cooled.

If you haven’t used fusible interfacing before and this sounds confusing to you, don’t worry!  I have video examples for you in Week 3 when will go over your chosen stabilizing method in more depth.

Yes, this takes a bit of time and you have to buy interfacing, but I find it brings the most consistent results for my t-shirt quilts.  It also adds longevity to your shirts.  So, if you have some shirts that are a bit on the worn side or you’re planning on using and washing your final quilt a lot, utilizing fusible interfacing will both stabilize and help your t-shirt material last longer.

Fusible interfacing comes as woven or non-woven.  You can choose either.  What you’re looking for is a light weight, flexible, fusible, not-too-stretchy, interfacing.

Types of fusible interfacing:

  • Pellon SF101 is probably the most suggested interfacing for t-shirt quilts.  I use it so much that I buy it by the bolt!  SF101 is especially helpful to me in memory quilting when I need to add stability to a t-shirt fabric for piecing a quilt top that also has denim or other thicker fabrics.  If your t-shirt quilt is completely knit fabric, you can also choose one of the lighter weight options below.
  • Additional light weight fusibles that work well with t-shirts and are often less expensive that SF101:

Your local quilt shop would be more than happy to help you find the right stabilizer!


Quilt Layout Basics

That was a LOT of information all at once!  Each week won’t be this long, but I wanted to make sure you got off on the right foot with your quilt and had ample time to decide on a method and gather your supplies.  Again, I covered each method briefly, wanting to give a “quick” overview.  We will go more in depth and have lots of pictures on how to use starch, tissue paper, or interfacing during weeks 2 and 3. 

One last thing to cover before I go today and you can get to your supply gathering – how much stabilizer you will need to buy (if using one of the interfacing methods).

How much interfacing you’ll need will depend on both how large your quilt will be and how large each of your quilts blocks will be.  

To make a rough decision on the size and design of your quilt, fold your t-shirts to showcase the design you want from each one and arrange on the floor.  Are you using shirts that all have a large front design?  Choose a block size that will fit the largest design and make a patchwork quilt with all equal sized blocks.

If you’re hoping to showcase designs of different sizes (perhaps there’s a logo on the sleeve), you can choose a layout with varying block sizes.  Kind of like a puzzle pieced together.

This post has a nice overview of different types of designs for t-shirt quilts.  We’ll get more in depth with design and layout in our next session, so don’t get too hung up here.  For the moment, our goal is simply to get an idea of how much interfacing you’ll need to buy. 

Back to buying interfacing.  If you are doing 10” blocks (block = t-shirt square) or smaller, that are all the same size, you will be able to fit multiple t-shirt pieces across the widget of the interfacing.  That’s because interfacings usually come in 20” wide bolts (though double check with your specific interfacing material before buying).  If your blocks will be bigger than 10”  but less than 20”, you’ll buy whatever length of interfacing you need to accommodate as many blocks as you’ll be cutting.  You can figure this out by multiplying the number of blocks you’ll have by their width.  It can be helpful to use grid paper when figuring this out, especially if your blocks are varying sizes and widths.  Also, always buy a bit more interfacing than you think you’ll need!

Again, if this is confusing or just way too much information right now, it is broken down into bite-sized steps over the next couple of weeks. I even have videos in Week 3 that show you real life examples of each and every method!

I’m always happy to answer questions about interfacing and supplies in the blog comments or on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Can’t wait for you to get started!

Next Post >> Week 2 – Layout Options and and Cutting Your Shirts


Together we can find more ways to reclaim fabric
and breathe meaning, joy, and life into our sewing.


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