How to Sew Crazy T-Shirt Quilt Blocks | New Quilters

Tools and Supplies

  • Lightweight or featherweight fusible interfacing, either woven or non-woven. I like Pellon 911FF, but there are also good interfacings available from Thermoweb, June Tailor, and other manufacturers.
  • Basting Spray OR wash-away glue stick OR straight pins
  • Rotary cutter
  • See-through cutting ruler
  • Thin (preferably see-through) pressing cloth or large piece of scrap quilting fabric to protect the images on your t-shirts when you press the blocks.

Fabric You Will Need

  • T-shirt(s)      
  • One foundation square or rectangle of muslin or light-colored solid fabric for each t-shirt. The foundation pieces should be at least a few inches larger than the t-shirts (after you cut the shirts into crazy shapes) so you will have enough room to sew crazy quilt strips around it.
  • A pile of scrap fabric in colors that you think will look good with your t-shirts. Strips or longer chunks are the most useful because each scrap needs to be long enough to cover at least one full edge of the t-shirt. As you get to the outer sections of the block, you will need longer and longer strips. (You can piece together two or more scraps to make a long enough strip.) Your fabric scraps don’t need to all be the same size or be completely regular shapes. I think it’s fun to have some odd-sized pieces in a crazy block.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Use a rotary cutter (or scissors, if you prefer) to cut the t-shirt up both sides and across the shirt just below the neckband. You may also want to cut off part of the section below the image so you end up with a large square or rectangle.
  2. Back the t-shirt with interfacing to make it less stretchy and easier to sew.
  3. Use a ruler and rotary cutter to cut the shirt into a crazy shape. What’s a crazy shape? It’s an irregular polygon (a many-sided shape) with odd angles like the one shown here. Here are a few more examples from a crazy quilt I made for my sister and brother-in-law. The crazy-cut t-shirts are marked with dashed yellow lines.
    All sides of the crazy shape should be straight lines. I also find that a simpler shape is easier to work with than a really complicated one with a whole lot of sides and angles. Make sure to leave enough room all around the image for ¼” seam allowances, plus a pleasing amount of empty space around the image.
  4. Secure the t-shirt to the foundation fabric. Design note: the image doesn’t have to be arranged so it’s straight up and down. You can tilt the t-shirt at any angle you want. It’s a crazy quilt, after all! There are several ways to attach the shirt to the foundation fabric:
    * Basting spray. Lightly spray the back side of the t-shirt, then smooth it into place on the foundation fabric.
    * Machine basting. Set the stitch length on your sewing machine to 4.0 or longer, then sew the shirt to the foundation all around the outer edges, using a 1/8” seam allowance so your stitches will be hidden when you add strips around the outside of the shirt in the next steps.
    * Washable glue stick. Dot the outer edges of the shape with glue, then smooth it into place on the foundation.
    * Straight pins. Pin the t-shirt to the foundation.
  5. Pick one scrap from your pile that is at least as long as one edge of the t-shirt. Here’s my first scrap. The photo below shows how I tested the scrap on the t-shirt face up first, to make sure it was long enough to cover the whole side and that I liked the way the print on the scrap went with the blue t-shirt.
  6. Lay the scrap on one edge of the t-shirt, right side down. Align the scrap and the t-shirt’s edge together. Sew the scrap to the t-shirt with a scant ¼” seam. Try to stop stitching right at the edge of the t-shirt and not stitch off onto the foundation, which makes trimming more difficult. When the scrap is sewed on, flip the scrap over and press.
  7. The image on many t-shirts is made with rubberized inks that can melt if you touch them with a hot iron. That’s why I recommend always putting a press cloth over the image area to protect it while you use the iron. Don’t do what I once did and melt the logo on a very important and irreplaceable t-shirt into a smear of goo! (Luckily, the bottom plate of the iron was teflon, so it came right off on a piece of waste cloth. I fixed the t-shirt by coloring in the missing ink with a colored Sharpie.)
  8. If the scrap is longer than the t-shirt edge, use a pair of scissors to roughly trim it so it follows the lines of the next two t-shirt edges. Trimming the excess fabric makes sure this scrap doesn’t show through the next sections you add to the block. This step is most important with dark fabrics and large scraps that make it hard to see the edges of the t-shirt. If your scrap small and/or light colored, you can probably skip the trimming without problems.
  9. Pick out another scrap and lay it on the next edge of the t-shirt, right side down. This scrap should be long enough to cover both the t-shirt edge AND the width of the first scrap.
  10. Sew the scrap to the t-shirt and across the first scrap with a scant ¼” seam, then press the seam open.
  11. If the scrap reaches past the outer edge of the foundation fabric, as the one above does, flip the block over and use a ruler and rotary cutter to trim away the extra fabric. Trimming from the back makes it easier to avoid cutting into the block by mistake.
  12. If needed, turn the block back over and trim any remaining excess from the scrap with scissors.
    Here’s what my block looked like after I trimmed it. Pay no attention to my raggedy edges! That all gets covered over as you add more scraps to the block.
  13. Rotate the block and add a new scrap to the next edge the same way you added the first two. Keep going around the block, adding a scrap to each side. I like to vary the width of the strips so the block has a really offbeat look.
    As you get to the outer sections, you will need longer strips. If you want to, you can piece together shorter scraps to make longer ones. They don’t have to match! Chunkier triangular scraps are also helpful for filling in the corners.
    If you’re working with pretty large scraps, you may want to baste them to the foundation fabric or stitch down their outer edges to make them easier to work with. My favorite way to do this is to trim the scrap first, then put a few dabs of wash-away glue stick along the edges and smooth the scrap down to the foundation.
  14. Work your way around the block until the entire foundation is covered with scraps. The photo below shows the order in which I added my scraps.
    Sometimes you end up with a tiny area like the green corner in the bottom right corner of my block. If the area is large enough to cover with a scrap, I go ahead and do it even if most of the scrap will be hidden inside the block’s seam allowances. If the uncovered area is really tiny, I just use a straight stitch to sew down the raw edge of the scrap(s) next to it and call the whole thing good.
  15. Square up the block with a ruler and rotary cutter, then you’re ready to embellish it.

Traditionally, crazy quilt blocks are embellished with fancy hand embroidery, rick rack, ribbons, charms, and all kinds of other fanciful elements. This block stitched by Sarah Eliza Pye in 1897 and photographed by Scrappy Annie (Flickr) is a good example of the over-the-top crazy quilt style. I don’t find this necessary for a t-shirt block. To my mind, the whole point of a t-shirt quilt is for the shirt itself to be the star of the show, but part of the fun of a crazy quilt block is throwing away the rule book and going all the way over the top if you feel like it.

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