The Best Way to Breathe Life Into Your Old T-Shirt


(Photo: courtesy of Matt Yaeger) 

The Yaegers were at an impasse.

His concert T-shirts — yellowed, stained, odorous — lingered in the house. Grazia Yaeger  wanted them gone, but her husband Matt wouldn’t hear of it.

Their compromise: a quilt.

She would sew his beloved Phish shirts into a blanket that he could cuddle under every night on the sofa. And she would never have to see him in dressed in the offending cotton again. It was a win-win.

Matt and Grazia aren’t alone. We all have beloved shirts that we don’t wear, but also don’t want to part with. 

Craft sites offer lots of options: You could frame them — shadow boxes work well for this. You could cut off the sleeves, sew up the neck and armholes, and create a pillow. There’s canvas wall art, duffle bags, scarves, and more.

One of the most popular ideas though, is the quilt. And even if you’re only moderately crafty, it’s not that difficult to pull off. 

If you can sew and cut in relatively straight lines, you can do it. And you’ll create something you can still use — just in a different fashion.


(Photo: courtesy of Jessica Grief)

Jessica Greif, in Brooklyn, wanted to preserve a trove of T-shirts in storage at her parents’ house, and hit upon the idea of a quilt. Her quilt top includes a Bat Mitzvah tee and race shirts.

"These T-shirts …have stories behind them or represent times and places that have been meaningful to me," she says. She took classes at the City Quilter in Manhattan, then did the rest herself.

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This likely isn’t her last.  

"I have a plan to make one for the future baby of a dear friend," she says. "I love this as a way to preserve memories."

Tutorials for T-shirt quilts abound.  You may even have a local quilt shop willing to show you the ropes. Or, use this is an excuse to take full quilting class. Either way, a few things set T-shirt quilts apart from other blanket-making.

Set your size

You’ll essentially make your own pattern for this quilt, instead of following set directions. Quilts are comprised of blocks, and you’ll want to figure out your block size. You can trim the shirts to a standard foot-long measurement square, or cut smaller sections from the shirt and add sashes from quilter’s cotton.

A lot of this will depend on the shirts themselves — is there a small graphic that will look odd on a block with mostly plain cotton? Or should the graphics stand alone?

The Yaegers’ quilt included shirts with large graphics, so Grazia didn’t have to add much. Greif, on the other handed, used bonus fabric liberally.

Back them up

T-shirt cotton isn’t the most stable material. It can pull and stretch, making it hard to sew, and can wear out sooner. Many quilters recommend using fusible backing. Available at craft and fabric stores, of various weights, fusible backing is thin, white, and irons on to the back of the shirt. This will help stabilize the cotton, so it’s easier to cut and sew, and will last longer.

Stack the shirts

After you’ve backed and cut your squares, you’ll lay them out in rows. Greif’s quilt uses three shirts per row, fives rows across. But you can easily make a king-sized bed quilt, if you desire. You can sew the T-shirt blocks together, or frame them with fabric and then join them.

This is similar to a basic sampler quilt — browse the web and you’ll find loads of examples to understand the concept, or want to look like you know what you’re talking about at the local quilt shop.

Tie vs stitch

Traditionally, a quilt includes the top, a backing, and then a middle layer for warmth — a quilt sandwich, if you will. It’s bound around the edge, and then comes the actual quilting — sewing a pattern across the blanket. This keeps the filling from shifting, holds the layers together, and also, can be as much art as the layout and fabric. But don’t stress out. You’ve got a few options:

Stitch in the ditch:  More straight lines, just run back over the seams where you attached the squares.

Send your project away to someone who quilts for a living: Such people do exist. Your local shop will know them. They have sewing machines built to put intricate stitch patterns on large expanses of blanket.

Hand-tie Instead of stitching a quilt, you can just run short lengths of thread through certain points and, literally, hand-tie the thread into knots. This works if you don’t have a fancy machine or the money or interest in sending it out.

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