How to Stabilize T-Shirts for T-Shirt Quilting – New Quilters

PHoto of t-shirt with cutting ruler and rotary cutter

One reason we all love wearing t-shirts is because they are made from such soft, stretchy knit fabric. When it comes to making t-shirt quilts, though, their stretchiness poses a problem. The same give that makes t-shirts so comfortable also makes them get distorted and wonky if you sew them without preparing them in advance. Being a lazy quilter, I have actually tried this, and the end result isn’t pretty.

That’s why you need to stabilize your shirts before you use them in a quilt or any other sewing project. You do this by applying a fusible backing to the t-shirt fabric. The backing helps the shirt hold its shape while you cut and sew it. The softer and more worn a t-shirt is, the more it needs stabilizing before you try to sew with it.

Steps in T-Shirt Quilting

Making a t-shirt quilt involves four steps:

  1. Deciding on a design.
  2. Getting the shirts ready to quilt.
  3. Sewing the quilt top together.
  4. Quilting and finishing the completed quilt top.

This post covers Step 2, how to prepare the shirts for t-shirt quilting.

Supply List

Here’s what you will need:

  • Light-weight, iron-on interfacing such as Pellon Shape-Flex® (woven) or Therm-o-Web Heat’n Bond (non-woven.) Either woven or non-woven interfacing will work fine. Interfacing update from reader Sandy Shula: “Just from my own personal experience, I like to use Pellon P44F for colored T’s and 911 on very thin, polyester, or white shirts. I found the SF101 to add too much weight on larger quilts and it bubbled on me after washing. This also saves on interfacing cost since there can be a lot of waste depending on the size of your shirt blocks.”
  • A press cloth you can dampen for pressing the fusible interfacing to the t-shirts.
  • Steam iron
  • Ironing board or ironing surface

Step by Step Stabilizing Instructions

  1. Cut a square of stabilizer big enough to cover the whole image you want to feature, plus at least a couple of extra inches all around the image to give you plenty of space for trimming and seam allowances.  Be generous with the extra inches.
  2. Turn the t-shirt inside out. Lay the stabilizer square with its glue side (the rougher side) of the interfacing against the reverse side of the t-shirt image.  Update from reader Marilyn, who has made many t-shirt quilts and taught t-shirt quilting: “Super Lightweight interfacing is great as it adds no bulk, but there is some stretch to it one-way. T-shirts stretch one way. To lock the stretch out and make the t-shirt stable like any other quilt fabric you need to turn the stretch of the interfacing opposite (90 degree) to the stretch of the t-shirt.” Read the interfacing manufacturer’s instructions to make sure you have the right temperature and steam settings before you put that hot iron on the interfacing. Because once you do that, you’re committed!Photo of interfacing ironed to back side of t-shirt
  3. Press the interfacing to the t-shirt. Cover the whole thing with a damp press cloth to avoid melting the inks or any rubberized parts of the t-shirt image. I just dampened a piece of cotton batting I had lying around. Use firm pressure and hold the iron steady for 10-15 seconds in each spot to make sure the interfacing and t-shirt are thoroughly fused together. Overlap the pressing areas to make sure you cover all parts of the image.Photo of ironing interfacing to t-shirt with press cloth
  4. Turn the t-shirt right side out again. Cut out the image using a rotary cutter and a see-through cutting ruler. Leave plenty of extra room around the image for trimming and seam allowances. (Having that extra room is important. Don’t ask me how I know.) If you plan to cut a lot of t-shirts into the same shape, you may want to make a cardboard template that is the size and shape you want. That will speed up the cutting.Rotary cutter and ruiler on top of t-shirt

Here’s what the stabilized t-shirt image looks like once it has been cut out.Photo of t-shirt with interfacing pressed to back side

 

The t-shirt will now hold its shape as you sew, trim, and quilt it.

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Felicity Walker
 

Felicity Walker is the author of the best-selling Quilting for Beginners book series and other books for quilters. She has been quilting for nearly twenty years and loves finding easier, faster, and more fun ways to make quilts.

  • KatyRuth says:

    This makes sense and I think I’ll give it a try. Kids seem to outgrown their tees so fast, that a quilt would be perfect use of those shirts, and make great memories too.

  • Saundra says:

    When making a T-shirt quilt, could backs of the T-shirts be pieced together and work as a backing of quilt? This would make the quilt reversible in a sense.

    • Yes, of course you could piece the t-shirt backs together. Backed with stabilizer, a t-shirt back should be perfectly good for machine quilting, etc. My only concern would be that two layers of t-shirts would make quite a heavy quilt. Some people like that heaviness, and others (me!) don’t like it as well. It’s a question of preferences.

      • KatyRuth says:

        Plus, consider all the seams where you’ve joined the t-shirts to make the back big enough, plus the stretchiness of all those pieces. I don’t think that would be easy to quilt nicely.

  • Kris Van Allen says:

    I used to have that same T shirt back in the 70’s! Wish I still had it.

  • Hi Mary,

    I have to preface this reply by saying that I have never made a quillow, but fleece is very durable and I think it would work fine for this purpose. My only concern would be about wear to the t-shirts themselves. I wouldn’t do this with a shirt that is truly precious to you or the recipient, because it will get worn just like your previous quillows did. If you’re okay with the t-shirts being subject to regular use and washing, I think t-shirts would make for a very comfortable quillow. T-shirt fabric is designed to be worn next to the skin.

  • Mary says:

    My sons are interested in quillows–and have given me some of their t-shirts for t-shirt quilt. I have purchased some stabilizer (hopefully the right kind) for the t-shirts. Do you think it would work to make them into t-shirt quillows with fleece for the non-t-shirt sides? I have made quillows in the past (they’re worn out so need new ones), but not t-shirt quilts although both my sisters are into quilting and could probably help if I go to their homes (500+ miles away).

  • Marilyn says:

    Do you need to use a stabilizer on the t shirts that are made of polyester fabric ?

    • Hi Marilyn,

      If the t-shirt is made from a knit fabric, you should use a stabilizer to counteract the stretchiness of a knit. If the t-shirt is woven and not stretchy, you can probably do without a stabilizer unless the fabric is very thin. A stabilizer will give some durability to a thin and fragile fabric.

  • Shellea' says:

    I’m a newbie to quilting but my husbands baby sister past and my mother in laws has asked me to make a Tahiti quilt using all of my late SIL shirts she received during her years of marathon running. So my question is how, or what is the best way to attempt to quilt the Tahiti quilt using a regular sewing machine? I’ve been reading blogs for months now and it always seems to be the little details that I need info on that more experiences sewing period already know and see as mundane to repatriate. Tshitt quilts are tricky and I can’t mess up on this one since there is a limited amount of her shirts. Not to mention I can’t find a place who does long arms commercially without having to send the quilt out to. Any advice, tips, or tricks would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advanced.

    • cdmwriter says:

      Thanks for writing, Shellea. I need to make sure of a couple of things before trying to answer your question. I was not familiar with Tahiti quilts. When I looked them up online, it looks like they are applique quilts like Hawaiian quilts. Is that right? Also, the shirts you want to use for your quilt are t-shirts, and not woven shirts?

    • Shellea' says:

      Sorry I’m not exactly what site I ended up on I’ve been reading so many on pintrist. The t shirts I’m using are regular plan tshirts but I’m wanting to make it purely by using my home sewing machine including the quilting aspect of that. I understand how a long arm works but that’s not in the budget for me nor is there one anywhere where I’m from. The little steps from all the other tshirt quilt blogs leave those tiny steps out.
      •wash and prepare my shirts after choosing a pattern, batting, and backing material.
      •use templates to cup tshirts
      •apply stabilizer, allowing extra
      •sew shirts together as you would a regular quilt top
      •apply batting, or use disable batting
      •lay your tshirt top, batting, & backing together. *several different ways to stack if your using fleece, or a sheet or your choosing.
      ——but this next step is where I’m not finding a lot of information on. How do you quilt the layers together using a home machine. I’ve seen how others roll the layers and start from the center when they are sewing in the “ditch”, but how else can you quilt it together using your machine if you didn’t want t “ditch” method? Please correct any mistakes I’ve made in my thought process and I thank you for your time.

      • cdmwriter says:

        Hi Shellea,

        Obviously you’ve done your research. Your list of steps makes perfect sense to me.

        It can be challenging to quilt a large quilt on your home sewing machine, especially if the throat area of your machine (the distance between the needle and the motor area on the right side of the machine) is small. You can find quite a few helpful videos on the web about quilting large quilts on a small home sewing machine. I liked this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI_V9Pdk-70. You can find many tutorials by searching “machine quilting large quilt on home machine.”

        You say that you don’t want to stitch in the ditch, but I would always recommend starting your machine quilting with stitching the quilt in the ditch, at a minimum stitching the seams between blocks, even if you want to do fancier machine quilting later. Stitching in the ditch secures the quilt’s layers together and frees you to do whatever other quilting you would like to do afterwards without worrying about shifting layers or sewing over safety pins.

        Since you haven’t done this kind of machine quilting before, I’d recommend doing the machine quilting as simply as you can. Straight lines are the easiest to sew. If you try anything more involved, such as a stipple or any overall free-motion pattern, make a practice quilt sandwich and sew on that for a few minutes at the beginning of each session before you start quilting on the top itself. That will help you get in the groove of quilting so you can do your best work on the precious quilt.

        Best of luck to you, Shellea. I know the quilt will be a beloved heirloom.

        • Shellea' says:

          I appreciate all your help! I apologize for my typos, that’s what I get for replying from my phone. Thank you for correcting my thought process on the “ditch” method. I think I’m over thinking things but want to truly express my gratitude for your time & help. I’ll let y’all know how it turns out.

    • Doris says:

      I am getting ready to make a t-shirt quilt for my husband. I have made only one before. I did it as a quilt as you go. Because it is to hard to quit a big quit. That way it is already quilted when you done. Than just bind it. 12 shirts 3across 4down. Just a idea, I’m going to look up ideas, weather I should wash them.

  • lynda says:

    I appreciate the tutorials, then read the comments to learn additional info! Thanks

  • Mary says:

    Thanks so much! Got some great info!

  • Stacy says:

    All this information has been so very helpful. I’ve not actually started yet, but I hope the new year will bring lots of quilting time my way! I have never done this before, but I have big plans. I have already gathered T’s for my kids, my hubby, and myself. 🙂 I also am thinking that making a smaller, wall type of quilt will be a great fund raiser for our marching band. Every year, the kids get t-shirts with the name of the show. I am going to ask about and see if band parents have extras they would be willing to donate. Once the quilt is done, it could be auctioned off at the end of the year banquet. Wish me luck! Perhaps I’m just a bit toooooooooo ambitious . Does anyone out there have recommendations for the best place(s) to get the stabilizer in bulk? I used to purchase things with coupons at my local Hancock Fabrics, but they have all gone under now.
    Thanks again………..and Happy Holidays to all.
    Cheers,
    Stacy

    • cdmwriter says:

      We’ll wish for your 2017 to be your best quilting year ever, Stacy. Love your ideas for fundraising quilts. As for buying in bulk, you could try Joann.com or any of the big online fabric retailers like fabric.com. Happy quilting!

  • Michelle says:

    I’m a quilter who hates waste! Yes, with t-shirt quilts it is necessary to use a stabilizer because without it the edges of the shirts will curl and make sewing much more difficult. I have found cutting the shirts first makes the stabilizing process easier. Rough cut the shirt design with several inches of extra space beyond your finished size (my favorite tshirt quilts are made of various block sizes so you can utilize fronts, backs, and even sleeve emblems). Now rough cut your stabilizer to approximately the correct size and adhere it to your shirt back. Be sure your stabilizer extends slightly beyond where you’ll be cutting. Hint: Don’t be afraid to piece together the stabilizer, just don’t overlap. Then make a nice neat accurate block using your rotary cutter and template. You’ll love the beautiful stack of neat blocks at the end of this process!

    • cdmwriter says:

      Thanks for this helpful advice, Michelle. I’ve gotten similar advice from a couple of other quilters, and I think I need to modify the article to reflect the cut-first, stabilize-second sequence.

  • Rory Tafoya says:

    Thank you all for the useful information. I’m thinking about doing a Tshirt quilt.

  • Cynthia Welch says:

    Very helpful from a first time tshirt quilter!

  • Jo says:

    Ok so I just read your post but I’ve already cut shirts. Should I put a stabilizer on now before setting?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Hi Jo,

      I would still put a stabilizer on after cutting the shirts. Just cut the stabilizer into the same size pieces as the shirts, then iron on the back side of the shirt. The stretchier your shirts are, the more the stabilizer will help you when you sew the quilt together.

  • Kay says:

    Will this method also work on jerseys? I need to make a quilt out of my granddaughters soccer jerseys. She will graduate from college next spring and has played soccer since she was 4.

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Hi Kay,

      Yes, it should work on jerseys made from knit fabric. Any knits should be stabilized before you quilt with them. Most woven fabric is less stretchy than knits and may not need to be stabilized. The main difference I can think of between a regular t-shirt and a soccer jersey is that the jersey is probably made from somewhat heavier fabric, so you will want to give some thought to ways to make sure the quilt doesn’t end up being too heavy. I recommend using polyester fleece backing in that situation, because fleece is light, colorful, and machine washable.

  • Sandy says:

    Hi, I want to make a rag t-shirt quilt. How would I use a stabilizer to do this without it showing when I sew the pieces together? Do you have any other suggestions for making a rag quilt?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for taking the time to ask a question. If you use stabilizer on the back of a t-shirt, it will show in the seam allowance when you sew the quilt together. This isn’t necessarily a problem. I think it can look great to have multiple layers of color in the ragged seam allowances on a rag quilt. Another possibility is to make the stabilizer stop short of the seam allowance, so it doesn’t show through on the top of the quilt. This might cause problems when you sew the shirts together, because the part of the shirt that is not stabilized will tend to stretch when you sew it. You could also frame the stabilized t-shirt blocks with an outer border of quilt fabric, so the stabilizer will be buried between the t-shirt and the backing layer. If you have more rag quilt questions, I (modestly) recommend my book, Rag Quilting for Beginners, which has 45 five-star reviews on Amazon.com. It covers all the basics of rag quilting, and is available in paperback, and as an ebook in Kindle, Nook, Ibook, and Kobo formats.

  • Marika Swanepoel says:

    I love this method and the fact that your explanation is clear and understandable. And may I say, the fact that you are willing to share your knowledge without us having to pay for it. Are there free interesting more modern patterns from you where I can find them? Im living in Windhoek, capital of Namibia, in Africa, and to order patterns are too expensive with the crazy exchange rates. Greetings from Namibia. Marika Swanepoel

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Marika. There are hundreds or even thousands of free patterns out there online — if I wanted to find modern quilt patterns, I would just do a search for “modern quilt pattern” and do some looking around on the websites that come up. You can also find many, many free quilt patterns on Pinterest.com. I hope it is available in Namibia.

  • Teresa says:

    Do u have how to sew and finish the shirt
    Quilt love to make one thank u

    • Felicity Walker says:

      I think you’re asking if I have instructions for sewing and finishing a t-shirt quilt, and the answer is that t-shirt quilt instructions are on my to-do list, but not done yet. Stay tuned.

  • Joan says:

    You have mentioned both batting and backing: please clarify for me; warmth is not an issue, so do I use only polyester fleece for the backing?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for the question, Joan. I often use one layer of polyester fleece that serves as the quilt’s backing layer and also provides warmth, replacing the batting layer. Many other quilters use a middle layer of batting and a back layer of cotton or flannel for their quilts. For t-shirt quilts, which tend to be rather heavy, I especially like polyester fleece. But it is rather thick and warm, so if you are quilting for someone who lives in a hot climate, you may want to dispense with the batting layer and just back the quilt with a single layer of quilter’s cotton or flannel. Do prewash if you use flannel.

      • Thanks, Felicity, for commenting on my question of batting and/or backing for a T-shirt quilt. Like the idea of reducing the weigh with polyester fleece, because they are very heavy, indeed.

  • Tanya says:

    Great explanation. I can relate to the “lazy quilter” syndrome!

  • Stacy says:

    Thanks for all of the information.
    I noticed that you state, woven or non-woven interfacing is fine. I know nothing about interfacings. Could you explain the difference between the two? Advantages and disadvantages of each type, please? I heard that some can be very stiff and I really do not want that. Thanks again!
    Cheers,
    Stacy

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Great questions, Stacy. They were so good that we wrote a blog post to answer them, which you can find here: http://quiltersdiary.com/t-shirt-quilts-interfacing/

      Hope the post helps answer your questions.

      • Stacie Dartnell says:

        Hi Felicity, I make T-shirts quilts quite often. My go to interfacing is the Shape flex 101. I like to cut the shirts apart, up the sides, through the the sleeves and across the shoulders before I start stabilizing. This works the best for me, especially if I may be using both the front and back if the shirt. I do pre shrink the stabilizer by running it through a warm water rice and spin and hang to dry before I use it for a t-shirt quilt. This doesn’t effect the fuse of the stabilizer at all.

      • Stacy says:

        Well I’m glad I came up with a good one! 😉
        I will check out your post. I feel so special.
        Appreciate all the input here and your web site.
        Cheers!
        Stacy

  • Elizabeth says:

    You are really making it difficult. Cut out the shapes from your shirts, they will probably be the same size. Cut out the interfacing. Iron interfacing to the block. I have made almost 20 of these.

  • Judy turner says:

    Do you use any batting in t-shirt quilts? Mine will be twin bed size. Backing is cotton fabric. Do you quilt or tie?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for asking, Judy. You have brought up one of the big disadvantages of t-shirt quilts — they tend to be heavy, especially if you include a batting layer. Especially for a bed quilt, I would dispense with the backing layer and back the quilt top with a layer of polyester fleece. If you really want to use a backing layer, the main question is how warm you want the quilt to be. If warmth is important, I would put in a layer of polyester or wool batting. Cotton batting tends to be quite heavy and not very warm. If warmth isn’t important, I think you could do without the batting.

      Re quilting vs. tying, I always quilt the layers with my sewing machine. But that’s just me. Tying is perfectly good. Just make sure you space your ties closely enough together to keep the quilt layers from shifting during use and washing.

  • peg says:

    Did you wash the t-shirts first? If so, did you use softener or just dry and press the shirt before you applied the interfacing? Thank you.

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Thanks for the question, Peg. I work with clean t-shirts, but I don’t wash them for the usual reasons people prewash fabric before quilting with it. The t-shirts that go into a t-shirt quilt have typically been worn many times and won’t shrink or bleed dye on other parts of the quilt. I never use fabric softener, so I can’t say whether using it might affect the adhesive power of the fusible glue on the interfacing. I would guess not, but that’s just a guess. Does anyone else have a better answer for Peg?

    • Elizabeth says:

      They need to be washed to remove the sizing. I have not had issues with the ones washed with fabric softener. But if I am washing them for a quilt, I do not use fabric softener.

  • Meg says:

    Hi. Thank you for ingo. Is the quilt still soft enough to use as cover?

    • Felicity Walker says:

      Hi, Meg.

      Yes, the quilt is still soft enough to use on a bed, since t-shirts are quite soft. The more layers you have, the heavier the quilt becomes. That’s the main thing to be aware of when making t-shirt quilts, in my humble opinion.

  • Marie Holden says:

    Making t shirt quilt for graduation gift. Your instructions were very helpful

  • Donna says:

    This was so very helpful.thank you

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