Andrea Funk

By: Andrea Funk on December 10th, 2015

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A Short History of T-shirt Quilts

Comparing T-shirt Quilts

Matthew looking at his T-shirt quiltPeople have been making quilts from old and/or excess clothing for hundreds of years. Since the arrival of the T-shirt after WWII, it too has found it’s way into quilts. T-shirt quilts evolved into what they are today from the advancements of generations of past quilters.

Who Invented the T-shirt Quilt?

Like so many innovations, the T-shirt quilt was probably first made by any number of quilters around the same time period. I don’t think that it was just one person’s idea. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity in this case, was too many T-shirts. The invention was the T-shirt quilt. 

It Began With The Sampler

Sampler style quilt

When T-shirt quilts were first made in the 1980's, they were patterned after a popular style quilt being made at that time called a “Sampler.”

During the 1970’s and 1980’s quilt-making saw a resurgence in popularity. As new quilter’s began learning how to quilt, many began by making a Sampler quilt.  The Sampler method of making a quilt involves using a uniform square size block separated with sashing. The blocks were arranged in columns and rows. Each block of a Sampler is a different quilt block style. To practice their skills, a quilter tried many different styles of quilt blocks and the Sample let them put the blocks together into a quilt. Quilters were sampling different blocks to see what they liked and to increase their skill – thus the term Sampler.

When quilters began making T-shirt quilts, they turned to what they knew – the Sampler quilt. It was a logical first step for quilters. After all, each T-shirt had a different design, just like the different quilt blocks they were making. 

But There Were Some Issues With the Sampler Style T-shirt Quilt

Traditional Style T-shirt QuiltThere were some issues those early T-shirt quilt makers faced. And for those making T-shirts with a Sampler style, some of these issues are still unresolved.

1. Quilters did not know how to deal with the stretch of the T-shirt fabric.

The quilting cotton they were used to using did not stretch at all. To resolve this problem, they applied a stiffing agent call iron on backing or iron on interfacing to the backside of the T-shirts to make them act the same as cotton. When iron on backing was used in a T-shirt quilt, the quilt was much stiffer than the original T-shirts.   Although other methods of making T-shirt quilts became available, the standard sashed block style is still popular today because it is easy to make. The problem morphed from stretchy fabric to stiff quilts.

2. The graphics and logos on T-shirts come in many different shapes and sizes.

Compare a traditional style T-shirt quilt with a too cool or puzzle style quilt on the rightThink about your own T-shirts. Do you have some shirts with large designs and other designs that are small? This is not just from one T-shirt to another. A lot of T-shirts will have a small design on the front and a large design on the back.  And then there is the shirt or sweatpants that have a graphic that runs vertically down the arm or leg.

But quilters using a Sampler method were unable to solve this problem because the Samplers were based one set block size. So rather than resolve this issue, quilters cropped off part of a design that were too large to fit the one-size block and left blank areas around small graphics and designs.

3. Attracting and Keep a Viewer’s Attention.

compare_two_bordersThe human brain can discern patterns easily – that’s what we do best. Your brain is continuously surveying your surroundings looking for things out of the ordinary. As long as the pattern is recognizable, your subconscious tells your mind that it’s ok to be doing something else.

A quilt laid out in a Sampler pattern, for example, 4 blocks across by 5 blocks tall, is such an easy pattern for your brains, that you won’t pay much attention to it. A solution has to be interesting and novel enough for your brain to have to stop and figure out the pattern.

4. Different color T-shirt blocks need to be balanced throughout the quilt.

Any solutions to a T-shirt quilt designed, whether successful or not in other categories, can fail if the colors of the T-shirts are not balanced through out the quilt. For example, if all the red blocks in the quilt are congregated in one area of the quilt, the quilt will be unbalanced.

Many quilts that are made of uniform size blocks laid out in rows and columns will not look balanced. You could lay them out in a dark/light checkerboard pattern, but if there are more darks than lights, this pattern won’t hold.

To learn more about the different types, styles and qualities of T-shirts, download our T-shirt Quilt Buyer’s Guide. 
It’s a great place to begin your journey to finding a quilt maker.

T-shirt Quilt Buying Guide

Modern Style T-shirt Quilts

This is a baseball themed graduation T-shirt quiltModern style T-shirt quilts were designed to solve for the problems faced by quilt makers using a sampler style approach.  Here is how each problem was solved. 

1. Quilters did not know how to deal with the stretch of the T-shirt fabric.

The stretchy T-shirt material does not pair well with non-stretchy quilters cotton. So the solution was as simple as not to adding non-stretchy materials into the quilt.

2. The graphics and logos on T-shirts come in many different shapes and sizes.

The solution to this problem is to make a quilt with many different shapes and size blocks.

To work well, this solution also must accommodate using any different number of these different shapes and sizes because every grouping of T-shirts is unique.  That solution was a puzzled configuration.

3. Attracting and Keeping a Viewer’s Attention

Because of the puzzle using different size and shape of blocks, there is not an overlying pattern that is easily discerned.  As a result, when you look at this style of quilt, it will take your mind longer to figure out the pattern. And as you do, you spend more time looking at the logos on each block.

4. Different color T-shirt blocks need to be balanced throughout the quilt.

The puzzle configuration also allows a much higher likelihood that there will be a balanced distribution of colors.

If you had been focused on making a sample style T-shirt quilt, you would not have been able to come up with any of these improvements because that solution mandated cotton sashing and one block size.

T-shirt quilt that features a lot of Tie-dyed T-shirt materialDevelopment of the Too Cool T-shirt Quilts Style

In the early 1990’s Andrea Funk developed a style of T-shirt quilts made without the sashing, without the rows and columns and without uniform sized blocks.  Did she invent this new style of quilt? We don’t know.  But she did bring this idea into mainstream, popularized the style and wrote the book on it.

When Andrea made her first T-shirt quilt in 1992, she did not know the “rules” about how a T-shirt quilt should be made.  She had not made a Sampler style quilt, so that style wasn’t even on her radar. So she just made a quilt how she thought would be best.  She did not make the blocks in rows and columns. She did not make all the blocks the same size. And she did not use iron on backing.  The result has taken the T-shirt quilt world in a new direction that solves the problems intrinsic to making a T-shirt quilt.


The Future of T-shirt Quilts

A graduation T-shirt quilt with a double border.What does the future for T-shirt Quilts look like? It’s hard to say. Incrementally, there will be changes and improvements to the Too Cool T-shirt quilt method.  And someone will probably develop a totally new method we can’t imagine now.  As long as any new methods or improvements solve the 4 major challenges intrinsic to making a T-shirt quilts, the future of T-shirt quilt making will be bright.

What will happen to the Sample style or Traditional style of making T-shirt quilts? It probably will stick around because that style is easy and quick to make.  But this style will become less and less used as consumers become more sophisticated and demanding.

What Do You Want Your Quilt to Look Like?

No matter what method is used to make your T-shirt quilt, you will probably like it.  After all, they were your T-shirts. But the true test of a great T-shirt quilt is if someone says, “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it!” This means that the quilt is about more than just the T-shirts it was made from.

To learn more about the different types, styles and qualities of T-shirts, download our T-shirt Quilt Buyer’s Guide. 
It’s a great place to begin your journey to finding a quilt maker.

T-shirt Quilt Buying Guide

WSU T-shirt quilt

About Andrea Funk

Andrea Funk is the inventor of T-shirt quilts made with multiple blocks sizes. The modern method of making T-shirt quilts. In 1992 she founded Too Cool T-shirt Quilts. Her life has been immersed in T-shirt quilts ever since. 


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