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:
- Deciding on a design.
- Getting the shirts ready to quilt.
- Sewing the quilt top together.
- Quilting and finishing the completed quilt top.
This post covers Step 2, how to prepare the shirts for t-shirt quilting.
Here’s what you will need:
- Light-weight, iron-on interfacing such as Pellon 911FF featherweight or Therm-o-Web Heat’n Bond. 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 FF 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.
- Rotary cutter
- Steam iron
- Ironing board or ironing surface
Step by Step Stabilizing Instructions
- Use a rotary cutter to cut the t-shirt up both sides, along the shoulder seams, and just below the neck band.
- 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.
- Lay the image part of the t-shirt on your ironing surface, right side down. 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!
- 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. I have also used a silicone pressing sheet. 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.
- Turn the interfaced t-shirt over so the image is facing up. 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.
Here’s what the stabilized t-shirt image looks like once it has been cut out.
The t-shirt will now hold its shape as you sew, trim, and quilt it.
What if I Need A Bigger T-shirt Area?
The image on some t-shirts is very close to the neck band. Sometimes this doesn’t leave you enough room to make a quilt block as large as you want it to be. If this happens to you, consider cutting fabric from the bottom of the t-shirt, stabilizing it as shown above, and sewing the extra fabric to the area where you’re short. Sew the pieces with right sides together and use a 1/4″ quilter’s seam.
You can add extra fabric on the top of the image area, on the sides, or all around. When the quilt is complete, no one will ever notice!