Thursday, February 21, 2013

Quilt from upcycled dress shirts

This post has been two years in the making, and it's a doozy!!!  To lessen the suspense, here's the final product!

Tommy has been having this issue where he manages to tear holes in the elbows of his work shirts.  The first one or two, we joked about how the shirts must be old or his "big muscles" were tearing them up, but now the count is up to 19 shirts (!!!), and it's not an anomaly anymore.  I've come up with a preventative solution, but that's another post.

Oh, and they all coordinate nicely because 99% of his wardrobe has blue stripes!

My love of recycling and quilting, and his apparent love of all things with blue stripes inspired me to make a quilt from all these recycled work shirts.  I meant to have it done in time for his birthday in March 2011, buuuttt that didn't quite happen.  As I finalize this post, I've been working on the quilt for over two years, and I finally have it done by his 2013 birthday.

I searched around online for neat ideas to do with old shirts, and hit gold with a series of posts on The Cut Cloth and Knitting in the Dark.

Shirt Stripes Inspiration Quilt, from Knitting in the Dark

I wanted to start with fabric that behaved as store-bought as possible, so before doing anything else I laundered the shirts.  Then I cut them apart into two fronts, two sleeves, and one back, and cut off all the seams and buttons (remember how we used them on my wedding dress?).  To make the fabric more manageable and keep it from stretching while working with it, I heavily starched all the pieces.

I chose to use three sizes of squares, meaning I would need three sizes of triangles to comprise the squares.  I also made the executive decision that I would match up the stripes (warning - this is extremely time consuming!!!).  I did some quick math and decided to make 10.5", 7", and 3.5" finished squares.  I also calculated the ratio between the S/M/L blocks in my inspiration quilt (typical math nerd behavior), so I could be sure I was staying relatively on track while cutting everything out.

Cutting all the triangles took a VERY LONG TIME.  I bought a triangle template which was quite helpful, but it was still very labor-intensive to line up the stripes and make all the cuts (In the quilting world they call this "fussy cutting").  I made sets of four matching triangles which would later become complete squares.  Having matching triangles makes the stripes turn into concentric squares.

I cut all the triangles slightly larger than necessary, with the plan of trimming them down to size and squaring them up later in the process.

cut four triangles so the stripes are identical on each
four identical triangles
I began sewing by making half-squares.  I painstakingly matched up the stripes and sewed them together with scant-quarter-inch seams.  Then I pressed the seams open.  This helps the quilt lay flat later, and helps when sewing more pieces together.  Next I sewed the half-squares together to make the complete block.  This was more difficult, because for this step there were two sets of stripes (going in opposite directions) that needed to match up.  Through trial and error, I discovered the best way was to start in the middle and sew outward (and just suck it up and make the two seams).  Again, I pressed the seams open.

sew right sides together, then press seams open

match up new triangles
match up both sets of stripes

sew together, then press flat.  See how the stripes make concentric squares?
Once all the blocks were sewn, I cut them to size and squared them up.  The square template I bought was marvelous for this, and I highly recommend getting one!  I was also thrilled with my new rotary cutter I bought to replace the cheapo one from my college days.  There is definitely something to be said about quality!!!

This is also where I did some quality control.  By this point, I'd realized the dozens of hours I put into the project, and wanted the end product to be as nice as possible.  I threw out all the blocks that had stains, mismatched seams, worn places, or were otherwise of poor quality.  It didn't like losing fabric and work, but I knew I'd be happier in the end.

My next step was laying out all the pieces in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  As with all my projects, there was plenty of trial and error here, but I finally decided on a good arrangement.  To keep it short, I threw all the blocks out randomly on my living room floor, then straightened them up so they all fit together.  Then I photographed it to see all the colors and shades in a small area (the LCD screen on my camera), and rearranged blocks.  I repeated this until I was happy with the size and shape of the quilt, and with the controlled randomness of the colors and block sizes.

Because the blocks were varying sizes arranged randomly, sewing the blocks together was more challenging than with a basic quilt where you first make rows then sew the rows together.  To keep my sanity, I just worked one bit at a time, and kept laying my finished parts back down to see what should come next.  I had to sew a lot of inside corners, and I ended up having to rip out a seam or twenty in the process to get everything to lay flat.  Phew!

inside seams like this scare quilters!!!
Finally, I completed the top!

I used a 40% off coupon at JoAnn's for the backing, which was a simple quilter's cotton.  It took three panels across to make it large enough.

Then I sent it to Texas, to my Mom's friend Lawana Parks, owner of Lake Area Quilts in Jasper, TX, who does excellent quilting work.  I didn't hear from her for a really long time, and was beginning to worry the quilt had gotten lost in the mail.  Finally, she called.  "Bonnie!!!  I don't know how to quilt this... I don't even know how to start!"  It turns out that quilting is inherently not manly, and this manly quilt I sent had completely stumped her!  She sent me pages and pages of quilting options, and together we decided to go with a golfing theme.

Golf Electric Quilt Pattern
The stripes, structure, and maleness of the shirt stripes quilt made it very difficult to pick a good quilting pattern.  However, the loopiness of the golf pattern contrasted well with the stripes, and Tommy loves golf!  Perfect!  I got it back not even a week later, flat as can be!  (One of the biggest goals in making a quilt is having it lay flat once it's all said and done)

if you look closely, you can see a golf club and a tee with a golf ball on top!
I finished it up by sewing on a small binding.  For this, I cut 2.25" strips, and sewed them end-to-end with bias edges to make a continuous ribbon of binding.  I pressed all those seams open, then pressed the binding in half longways.  To attach the binding, including doing the corners and finishing it properly, this gal Heather has a great tutorial.  My Mom has an even easier way to finish though - and this site has an easy tutorial on finishing continuous binding.

sew binding to front side of quilt with sewing machine
I wrapped the binding to the back of the quilt and hand stitched it in place.

I want to warn my readers that this quilt was far more challenging than I had anticipated.  The last 5 quilts I've made were crib size.  I'm not sure why this surprised me, but this much larger one took SO MUCH LONGER!  It was also difficult to work with fussy cuts, triangles, and matched stripes, as well as recycled fabric.  If you're going to attempt this project, please be ready to spend 100+ hours working on it.

Here's a few more detail shots!

Tommy loves the quilt and I'm thrilled with how it turned out!!!  Snuggling up with it is the next best thing to snuggling up with him.

This project is one of the most interesting projects I've done, and I'm so happy about the quality!  Thus, I'm submitting it to a Pinterest Challenge link-up and Sew-vivor!

Sisters Share It All: Pinterest Challenge


  1. Wow! I'm so impressed, this looks amazing!

  2. It was worth all the hard work, it turned out perfect! and it's DONE! Congrats BB!

  3. Only you and your mom can come up with such unique ideas where the final product is just superb and wonderful! This is very beautiful, Bonnie.

  4. Congratulations on finishing your quilt. It looks amazing.

  5. Congratulations. Your quilt looks wonderful.

  6. I'm visiting from Family Ever After and just had to tell you what an amazing quilt this is! The work was worth it -- what a treasure. Great job!

  7. I am also visiting from sew-vivor, and I love this! This will always be cherished, and heirloom!

  8. Your quilt is absolutely wonderful, so gorgeous! I can't believe you matched all the stripes, that would have driven me insane. Well done!
    You deserve prizes for patience as well as perseverance!

  9. My husband is a lawyer and for years I've been saving all his old shirts (stripes, solids and little crisscrossed stripes) and ties. I have at least 2 huge boxes now and want to get rid of them. Your quilt has really given me ideas. Maybe mix your matched-stripe blocks with square-in-a-square log cabin blocks? With solid stripes to make the different sized blocks match up? I'd also like to find a way to put in things like a cuff once in a while or the buttons or the collar... Wow, I'm really enthused! Thank you so much!!!

    1. That sounds awesome! I'd love to see your finished product!

  10. This is one of the coolest things I've seen lately! The idea to turn the stripes into concentric squares is total genius and looks just amazing! Love it so much! :) Lisa


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