The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Are T-shirt Quilts a Bane
or a Boon?
Here’s a riddle for you: What’s multicolored, soft and scratchy, and old and crusty before it’s brand-new? Answer: A T-shirt quilt.
Oh, T-shirt quilt. You’re a complicated figure. I bet if I asked a sample of quilters what they hear most often when they tell a non-quilting person they make quilts, it goes something like, “Oh, that’s great! I have all these old T-shirts I want to turn into a quilt. Do you do that?”
That’s a lot memories. Too many? Only the person who made the quilt and attended all those
meetings/conferences/fun-runs can say for sure. Image: Flickr Commons.
Am I right or am I right? This is something I hear quite often, anyway, and I can’t be the only one. On the one hand, it’s a very good thing that a non-quilter gets excited about the prospect of a quilt in their lives. Some of the people who light up at the idea of a quilt made from their old “5K Fun Run” T-shirts actually want to try to make the thing themselves, which is great. More quilters means more people caring about quilts, which is an unqualified good thing.
Strange, then, though I would never say to someone outright, “Oh, don’t do that.” I have more than once gently nudged a rookie quilter away from making their first quilt out of T-shirts. The main reason is that sewing with cotton jersey is kind of a drag if you haven’t sewn a stitch since high school Home Economics.
At least she stabilized before she cut. There is hope. Image: Flickr Commons.
And in order to make an even halfway successful T-shirt quilt, you need to stabilize the patches you’ve cut with appropriate interfacing. I shudder to think of all the perfectly fine irons that have been gummed up beyond repair because the first-timer wasn’t pressing on the proper side, which is totally understandable if you’ve never used the stuff before.
What’s also hard for a beginner is getting the hang of sewing “pretty sides together.” When the maker opens up a just-sewn unit or completes a row and finds they’ve sewn something backwards or upside down, it’s seam-ripping time. Anyone who’s sewn with jersey knows seam ripping big swaths of the stuff is the pits. So yes, I have gently suggested to a few people in my day that they should absolutely make a quilt—but to keep in mind a T-shirt quilt is not as friendly as it seems, so go easy on yourself if it takes you awhile.
T-shirt quilts exploded in popularity some years back. It’s pretty obvious to me that the trend was/is a direct result of a kind of T-shirt mania that started sometime in the 1990s. Custom T-shirts became easier and cheaper to make at that point, so suddenly every intramural softball league, every charity pub crawl, every workplace summer picnic, every annual conference, etc., etc. ad infinitum had its own T-shirt to commemorate the event.
The colors do not inspire me. Perhaps they inspired you! That’s good! Image: Wikipedia.
Add those T-shirts to the stack of beefy tees you got at your alma mater’s student union and four years of all-state high-school track meet T-shirts, etc., and now we have a T-shirt problem. It’s hard for most people to let go of the past, especially when the memories are pleasant, like that time you went to SeaWorld and met Shamu. (There’s a T-shirt for that.)
At some point, though, even the most nostalgic among us looks at boxes full of 10, 20, 30-year-old (!) T-shirts and think, “Something needs to be done.” Throwing the shirts in the garbage is too painful, though, so the eureka moment of turning it all into a quilt feels great. Also: recycling!
Ask yourself: Do you really, really, really, really need to save this forever?
In any format? Image: Wikipedia.
I get all of this. And I know I’m being a real T-shirt quilt killjoy, here, but I’m going to say it: T-shirt quilts are rarely very…well, attractive. You’ve got to admit it! Of course I understand these quilts are not made to win blue ribbons. Their purpose is to hold memories.
But a quilt that has plain square patches—because good luck trying to make actual blocks—of colors like bubble-gum pink, navy blue, kelly green, black, brick red, and blinding white is that it’s not usually something you want on the couch. So, back into the closet it goes, albeit taking up less space than the pounds/cubic feet of T-shirts that were there before.
Writing this column has been an interesting experience because toward the end of what I suppose is a rant, I stopped myself. What’s my problem? Quilts are quilts! Am I being the Quilt Police, turning up my nose at a quilt not made “properly” or not made to be what I consider attractive? Maybe, yeah.
But there is definitely in me a desire to get more people quilting, and I honestly consider the T-shirt quilt a minor threat. Hard for a beginner, often rather garish, and often not a successful solution to the T-shirt problem so many people have. I should probably relax and try making one myself. Maybe it’s not so bad, and I could make it therapeutic by using T-shirts that say things like, “Life’s a Beach” and “Bless This Stress” and “It’s Wine O’Clock.”
Sounds pretty stabilizing, actually.