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Comparing T-shirt Quilts

A Short History of the T-shirt Quilt

November 29th, 2021

By Andrea Funk

sewing machine - Minnesota APeople 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 quilters 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 Sampler let them put those 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 T-shirt quilt with sashingThere were some issues early T-shirt quilt makers faced. And for those currently 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 material.

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 of stretchy fabric morphed to stiff quilts.

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

Cropped off imageThink 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 graphics 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.

July 2021 FThe 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. If 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 brain, you won’t pay much attention to it. A solution must be interesting and novel enough for your brain 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 design, whether successful or not in other categories, can fail if the colors of the T-shirts are not balanced throughout 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

Too Cool T-shirt quilt - a modern styleModern 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. The solution was as simple. Just don't add non-stretchy materials into a 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. Every grouping of T-shirts is unique.  That solution was a puzzle configuration.

3. Attracting and Keeping a Viewer’s Attention

Because of the puzzle style that uses 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.

Development of the Too Cool T-shirt Quilts Style

MSU AndreaIn 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 about 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. She just made a quilt how she thought would be best. 

She did not set 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.

Another Step: The Stained-Glass Style T-shirt Quilt

Stained glass T-shirt quilt by Too Cool T-shirt quiltsIn 2019, Andrea Funk took the T-shirt quilt one step further with the introduction of the stained-glass style Too Cool style T-shirt quilt. Her inspiration came from stained-glass windows. 

The little lines between the pieces of glass in a stained-glass window are called leading. These thin strips of lead hold the pieces of glass together. 

Andrea applied this to T-shirt quilts. She began with the Too Cool style and figured out how to make the same quilt with the thin strip of fabric between the blocks. 

This method is very difficult to make. Currently very few quilt makers have the skills and knowledge to make this style. But the results are stunning.  

Read more about stained-glass T-shirt quilts here.

The Future of T-shirt Quilts

Harley Davidson Stained glass T-shirt quilt by too cool tshirt quiltsWhat 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 3 major challenges intrinsic to making a T-shirt quilt, 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

colorful fun summer feel


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.