Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The t-shirt quilt

Happy new year, Reader!

It is a frigid morning here in St. Paul, and I am glad I'm not running the nearby half-marathon today. I am still nursing a cold, so it has been good timing for holing up indoors...making my t-shirt quilt!

There have been rumblings around Miles and Laurel that this was happening, but if you count from the time I started stockpiling t-shirts for this quilt, it has been in the works for five or six years and I didn't want to share too many details before I had actually finished it. And now it's done!

I needed mega-guidance for this project, and I got it from the good old internet. I clicked around the top Google results for a "DIY t-shirt quilt" search and relied on several websites: this one for basic instructions, this one for a tutorial about sashing (the rows of fabric between the t-shirts), this one for finishing the quilt with batting and the back piece of fabric, and this blogger's recap, which I stumbled on randomly but relied on extensively for commentary beyond the basic instructions. If you are interested in making your own t-shirt quilt, you should definitely Google around, too - there are lots of good resources online and this post is just about the experience!

First, you gotta choose your shirts, cut the excess fabric away, and iron interfacing onto the back of each shirt square to stabilize them so they don't stretch. Before I did that, I arranged them in rows so the white, gray and color shirts were balanced. (Was definitely getting ahead of myself a little there.)

I also had a little conundrum regarding an abundance of Twin Cities in Motion event volunteer shirts, thanks to my role as a TCM committee chair this year. I was a little unsure about how to cut those shirts - just choose a few letters of "volunteer" to include? - and then Josh had the great suggestion of putting two of those shirts in adjacent blocks to split the word between the two, which worked out really nicely. (You can see one example of that in the photo above, in the bottom row.)

For some reason, I thought the quilt was going to be gigantic once I incorporated the sashing, but it's just a lap-sized quilt. I have zero idea what I was thinking! I wanted to make smaller blocks (roughly six-inch squares) than a traditional t-shirt quilt. My rationale was that I would still know what event each shirt was from, even if they were cropped, but that I'd end up with a colorful quilt rather than just a quilt full of big t-shirts. (Just my personal preference for this project.) My hope was that the colors would look prettier all together in smaller blocks, too.

I ended up using 42 squares from probably 38 t-shirts, mostly from races I've run. The oldest is a shirt from my high school Nordic ski team days, circa 2002. It was unexpectedly fun to remember the experiences that go with each shirt: a marathon in a noreaster, my first triathlon, a race I think of as a comeback half-marathon, a freezing cold half-marathon, a duathlon I did with my mom. That was a preview of why a t-shirt quilt is such a fun idea: the memories from the shirts combined with the project itself.

I had two work stations. Here's one:

And here's the other:

The work stations were on opposite ends of the same room, and the space in between was pure mayhem: tons and tons of fabric scraps, pins, and thread strewn around. Josh was in the living room for a chunk of that afternoon, and when he walked through the space, he said, "Whoa."

The sewing went smoother and looked better with each row, as I figured out the best way to arrange the sashing strips for each square. When you have a zillion squares of t-shirt material laying around, it looks a little strange, and it's hard to see the big picture. With each row that got attached to the quilt, it started to come together, and I started to get really excited about the project.

I also texted my mother with photographic evidence as each row was completed. I'm sure she appreciated that.

Wish hated my new love for quilting at first. In his book, anything that diverts attention away from him is a waste of time. (Don't get me started on how he feels about wedding planning.)

I'm sure you could manage something more productive with your time.
I read a bunch of blog recaps about t-shirt quilts, and a message from one in particular stayed with me: don't trick yourself into thinking that this is a cute Sunday afternoon project. Just laying out the t-shirts, ironing on the interfacing and getting them trimmed to the right shape took a long time. Then cutting the strips precisely for the sashing in between each shirt took a long time. And then sewing the whole thing took the better part of two full days. It was all-consuming to me - mostly in a very fun way - but make no mistake, it was a lot of work, probably because I wanted to do the sashing.

Finally, after a long day of sewing that flew by, the top layer was complete!

I did not want to get too confident, though, because I knew I wasn't out of the woods yet. Assembling the layers of a quilt is major new territory for me. I had never worked with batting before - the thick middle layer that makes a quilt heftier than a few pieces of fabric alone would - and I was nervous. I sewed together two large pieces of fabric for the back, laid that on the floor, cut the batting to the approximate size, and laid the top layer on to complete the little trifecta. Then I pinned it all together and cut away the excess fabric:

I sewed all three layers together with a seam about a quarter-inch away from the edge. Then, to finish it, I chose to do binding around the edges, which this link explains in the "binding" section. (Author's note: I tried to explain this in a coherent sentence and failed miserably - just know that I covered up the unfinished seam with a little strip of fabric on either side of the seam and zig-zag stitched it.)

And then - I could hardly believe it - it was done!

Somewhere along the way, Wish had started to warm to the project. Of course, he wants to get in a photo whenever he can, so when Josh was snapping a picture of me with the quilt, Wish trotted over, probably to make sure I was really done, so he could celebrate.

From a technical standpoint, this is a great project for an introduction to quilting. Precision, while still important in this kind of quilt, seems like it would be so much more crucial in a more intricate quilt. If you have a sewing machine and it still scares you, this project is also a wonderful way to get to know your machine, because you just simply have to sew a ton. You start to see what you can get away with and what you can't, how to become totally comfortable threading a bobbin without the instructions, when you can wing it and when winging it will really result in trouble. You learn by making mistakes, and I made plenty. It's kind a rare opportunity to tackle an in-depth project like this completely on my own, from start to finish, and I really had to think through each step, make some errors and then adjust and regroup and discover a better way.

And when I was done, I had this my first quilt, completed with lots of little imperfections, and I am so stinkin' proud. My little quilt!!

1 comment:

  1. It's SO beautiful!! I can't wait to see it in person! Also "getting to know your machine"...I know what that means (curses). Congrats though- I am impressed and inspired!