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4 typical Quilting Methods for T-shirt Quilts.

1. Tying
2. Stitch-in-the-Ditch
3. Computer Driven Long-Arm Quilting
4. Non-Computer Driven Long-Arm Quilting
    • Operated from the Back of the Machine
    • Operated from the Front of the Machine

Are you getting ready to have a quilt made from your T-shirts? If so, you know there are a lot of choices you will need to make about your quilt. The quilting style? It's an important decision. It will influence the look and life of your quilt.

We want to help you know what you want and how to get it! First, we will explore the different quilting options available for a T-shirt quilt. Armed with this information, you will be able to figure out what you like and don’t like. Last, we will give you links to information about how to find a quilt maker using the quilting style you want.  

Definition: Quilting is what holds the front, batting and backing of a quilt together.

A quilt has three layers – the quilt top, the batting and the backing material.  These three layers must be connected together to make the quilt. If the layers aren't connected or are connected sparsely, the batting can bunch up and be lumpy.  In the quilting world, the lingo used to describe the connecting of these three layers is called “quilting.”

 4 Typical Quilting Methods Used on T-shirt Quilts

1. Tying

c)Horse logo close up with manetail tiesTying is a technique that uses thread or embroidery floss or yarn to make a single large stitch through the three layers of the quilt. The thread is knotted on the top of the quilt.

Ties should be placed every 4 inches to secure the three layers. If the ties are too far apart, the batting may sag and bunch over successive washings.

Although this method holds a quilt top, batting, and backing together, it may not stand the test of time. Ties can come untied. The T-shirt material might rip between ties.

A tied quilt costs a lot less than a fully quilted quilt. First, a quilt maker who ties a quilt has less experience than someone who long-arm quilts her quilts. Second, someone tying a quilt didn't  have to invest in the cost of a long-arm quilting machine. For reference, a long-arm quilting machine is like having a car sitting in your shop.

Tying is a great choice if you are looking for a low-cost quilt.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best choice, tying is a 2

2. Stitch-in-the-Ditch


Ditch1This method is done using a home sewing machine. The three layers of the quilt are pinned and then stitched together. The stitches are placed in the ditch. On a quilt, the ditch is where the seams of the blocks come together.

Stitching in the ditch will hold the quilt together. The problem is the areas that are not sewn down. Say – the middle of a block. These areas will droop and sag over time.  This is because the quilting is not close enough. Most batting manufacturers say, “for the best outcome, stitching will need to be no more than 4 inches apart.” Stitch-in-the-ditch quilting leaves large areas un-quilted.

Like the tying method, this is not a long-lasting solution. After several washings, the batting in the unstitched areas can ball-up inside the quilt. This makes for a lumpy quilt.

Quilting in the ditch takes about the same amount of time as tying a quilt. But unlike tying, large areas of the quilt are left un-quilted.  

A stitched-in-the-ditch quilt might cost a little more than a tied quilt. The equipment needed is no different than a tied quilt. But it may seem a better quality because it is “quilted” and not tied. The drawback is that there is too much area left un-quilted.

I would select a tied quilt over a stitched in a ditch quilt.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best choice, stitch-in-the-ditch is a 1.

3. Computer Driven Long-Arm Quilting

Definition:  A long-arm quilting machine is a sewing machine that rides rails along an X/Y axes.
The machine moves over the three layers of a quilt.
A computer or a human can control or drive a long-arm quilting machine.

Overall quiltingWhen the quilting is computerized, the T-shirt quilt is typically stitched with an overall quilting pattern. The same design repeats over and over on the quilt.

This quilting method does result in a quilt that will last for a lifetime. If... quality materials have been used for the backing, thread and correct number of stitches per inch.

If you choose a company using computerized long-arm quilting, be sure you like the pattern you choose. That pattern is going to be repeated over and over throughout the entire quilt. 

If the computer is doing all the work, the person making the quilt is less likely to pay attention. The machine is set up so you can press a button and walk away. The lack of attention may result in lumps in the batting or wrinkles in the backing. Issues that are much less likely to happen when the machine is being watched.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best choice, computerized quilting is an 7.

This score is not a 10 because the final quilting will lack interest. The quilting is repetitive. It won’t be a design element that makes a quilt cool. It will just hold the three layers together. 

4. Non-Computer Driven Long-Arm Quilting

This method uses the same long-arm quilting machine but a human operates it from either the front or back of the machine.

Operated from the Back of the Machine

back of machineHere, the long-arm machine operator stands or sits behind the long arm machine. The quilter follows a printed-paper pattern on the bed of the sewing machine with a laser pointer. As in computerized machine quilting, the designs are repetitive.

Companies using this method may have a limited number of patterns choices. The result, you will have a limited choice of designs to choose from. So, be sure you like the pattern you choose. That pattern will repeat over and over across the entire quilt.

The photo here shows how much of the front of your quilt you see when you work from the back of a long-arm quilting machine. Not much! 

If you want to have a quilt overall quilted, I would prefer to have it done by a computer. This way the pattern is reproduced perfectly row after row. It’s difficult to trace a printed pattern with a laser pointer attached to a sewing machine.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best choice, non-computerized long-arm quilting from the back of the machine is a 6.

Operated from the Front of the Machine

long-arm quiltingThe long-arm machine operator works from the front of the machine - this is the quilt side.  The designs are exclusively tailored to the particular block being quilted. The result can be a quilting design that is exciting and different on each block of the quilt.

Bonus – the back of the quilt is as fun as the front. The long-arm quilting artist can choose to outline or trace the designs on the T-shirts or freehand designs as they work. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best choice, non-computerized long-arm quilting from the front of the machine is a 10.

Day of the dead tracing backHere are some reasons:

  • The quilter can tailor the design to the graphic on the T-shirt block.
  • The quilter can watch for and eliminate batting lumps and wrinkles as they work.
  • The quilting is dynamic and interesting.
  • The back of the quilt is fun.

The drawback to this is that it will cost more than any other style of quilting. This is because is it time consuming and requires an artist.  This is the quilting style that we use here at Too Cool T-shirt Quilts.

The photo here is of the back of one of our quilts. The design on one block from the front of the quilt was traced. On the back you see what was traced. Very cool.

Planning a T-shirt quilt?
Here are step-by-step directions for ordering your T-shirt quilt.

How to Order a T-shirt Quilt


Study Photos to See What Quilting Style You Would Like for Your T-shirt Quilt

Figuring out what you like will take a little sleuthing. If you just Google “the back of a T-shirt quilt” you won’t see much. There are not a lot of photos of the backs of T-shirt quilts. Why? Photos of the back of a T-shirt quilt are difficult to take well.

No Quilting

This is a blanket – read more about blankets here. A blanket will have a flat backing with no indentations. A blanket and a quilt are different. If you want a quilt, make sure it has some type of quilting.

Here are some things to look for to determine what style of quilting is being used.

Tied Quilts

  1. back_bad_tie

    This method will give a quilt a slight polka-dotted pattern.
  2. There will be a divot in the quilt where each tie is located
  3. The quilt here was machine tacked (the same as tying) at each intersection where blocks come together. 

Stitch-in-the-ditch Quilts

  1. Look for a depression along each seam.
  2. The back of the quilt will be quilted in squares that correspond to the outline of the blocks.
  3. The T-shirt blocks will be smooth and not show any quilting.

Over-all Quilted

  1. Overall quilted blackA printed backing material may be used. Read more about that here. A print material hides quilting. You can’t see the quilting because the printed material overwhelms the quilting.
  2. If you look at the front of the quilt you will see that the stitching goes over the seams.
  3. Follow the stitching with your eyes and look for a repeat in the pattern.

Individually Quilted Blocks

  1. back of a quilt blueThe stitching does not go over the seams from T-shirt block to T-shirt block.

  2. The back of the quilt is a solid color material so that the stitching can be seen.

  3. Some of the designs have been traced.

  4. The quilt maker shows off the quilting on her website.    



How to find a T-shirt quilt maker who excels in the quilting style you like.

Do a Google image search for “T-shirt Quilts.” Sort through the photos and look at quilts styles you like. Read more about different quilt styles here.

Once you know what you like, click on photos you like. Go to the quilter’s website. Once on a website look for photos or a photo gallery. Then look for photos of the backs of their quilts.

You should see photos of the backs of their quilts. If not, and if you love their style, email and ask for photos of the backs of her quilts. Ask what type of quilting she is doing.

Then compare a number of companies to find the company for you. Here is a resource that has a number of articles to help you find a quilt maker that’s a great fit for you.

Be sure you know which style of quilting you want used on your T-shirt quilt. If a company does not offer what you are looking for, keep looking!

To learn more about T-shirt quilts, visit our Learning Center.
We have over 200 articles about all aspects of T-shirt quilts.

Learning Center

Back of black travel quilt by Too Cool T-shirt Quilts

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.