How to Make a Patchwork Recycled T-Shirt Quilt

Dalmatian dog snuggled in homemade recycled t-shirt quilt

Give your old t-shirts a new life by recycling them into a cosy DIY comforter, blanket, or pet bed. Check out our dog’s favourite new blankies and get all the details on how to sew a patchwork t-shirt quilt. 

DIY Dog Blankets from Daddy's Old T-Shirts

I made these t-shirt quilts ages ago, and they have been thoroughly enjoyed through our cold winter weather. I’ve been saving this instruction post for a pre-Father’s Day special collaboration with our partner blogs Dalmatian DIY

Irrespective of my efforts in baking, walking, playing, cuddling, I’m pretty sure that our pets LOVE their “Daddy” best. Grrrr… After seeing a friend’s baby onesie quilt, my husband suggested I make something for the dogs from his old t-shirts. That way, they could snuggle with him when he’s not home. If it meant that he would finally part with some of his stretched out old holey t-shirts, how could I say no? Hehehe. Especially since it was for the (spoiled rotten) pets?  

Dalmatian dog wrapped in a homemade t-shirt quilt

Recycling T-Shirts into a Patchwork Quilt

Supplies and Materials

To make your own t-shirt quilt, you will need: old t-shirts, iron-on interfacing, wadding, backing fabric, binding fabric (or pre-made binding), coordinating thread, scissors, a rotary cutter and board (not essentials, but makes the job so much easier!), iron and ironing board, and basic sewing equipment.  

Tips: You can get by using a standard sewing machine foot (I did), but if you have a walking foot it is much easier for working with the quilting stage of this project. Buy or create a cutting template to use with your rotary cutter when making your squares – it is sooooo much easier! 

Materials for sewing a recycled t-shirt quilt

Planning the T-Shirt Quilt Pattern and Size

Anything goes! The quilt can be scaled to suit the t-shirt designs and patterns you have available (as I did for this project), or you can start with a standard bed/blanket size and plan a patchwork layout. Remember that you need to fit the project through your sewing machine working from inside/centre outwards whilst quilting the t-shirts onto your wadding/backing. Don’t make a plan too big/thick to work on with your machine.

The simpler the pattern, the easier it will be to cut, sew, and quilt; however, grid patterns are also less forgiving for accident misalignments or errors. Not that the dogs will be judging my sewing.  

I used a combination of large squares (t-shirt designs), same width rectangles (t-shirt designs and plain), and smaller patches which combined to the same width/height as my rectangles. This allowed me to use my available designs, add a little extra colour/interest, but still keep a linear strip for simple joining and quilting. Each quilt (I made two – one for each dog) is square, three linear strips wide with two squares + two wide rectangles per strip.

Pattern layouts for squares on a recycled t-shirt quilt

Selecting T-Shirt Quilt Backings and Bindings

Since a t-shirt quilt is usually pretty colourful, you can go wild with your backing/binding, keep it understated and let the t-shirts do the talking, or pick something that goes with your decor so the quilt blends when folded or reversed.

You can back your quilt in any suitable fabric – just remember to make sure that it’s been pre-shrunk before you join everything together.  I picked a grey flannel for my backing. It’s soft, cosy, works with our decor, and can handle exposure to black/white dog fur without immediately looking like a mess.  The latter is very important around our house…sigh… The downside is that I wanted a thickish quilt for the dogs to nest on. By the time I combined the front, backing, and batting it was tough work trying to sew neatly. The dogs don’t mind a few wiggles and because of the patterned flannel someone (me!) would have to be looking for my faults to notice. 

I finished the quilt with a basic homemade binding in a matching grey. If you’ve never made binding before, it’s relatively simple, but it does take some patience and time to cut, join, and iron everything. On the plus side, it’s inexpensive and you can then bind in choose any size/fabric you wish. There are plenty of tutorials available online if you’d like to give it a try. Ready-made binding in your preferred style is a-ok for this project as well.

Cutting squares for sewing a recycled t-shirt quilt

Preparing the T-Shirt Patches / Squares

Make sure that your t-shirts are clean (of course) before starting the project. Consider which pieces of the shirts you want to be visible on your quilt and double check your pattern plans before you cut. 

  • Cut the section(s) of the t-shirts that you want to use slightly larger than each planned patch. Remember that every patch will need to be the intended finished face size plus seam allowances.  No need to be too fussy, as you will be trimming down to final size after interfacing.  
  • Cut your interfacing slightly larger than each planned patch.  Interfacing stabilises the fabric to prevent sagging and stretching. That makes it possible to cut precise squares and sew the quilt together using standard methods. It is possible to quilt t-shirts without interfacing, but I strongly recommend using interfacing for recycling mix-and-match.  You can use a thin interfacing for a soft supple quilt or a slightly heavier weight for a stronger sturdy quilt – not desirable for a blankie, but handy for a dog bed or mat.
  • Iron your interfacing to the back side of your patches.  Since t-shirt designs tend to dislike heat, you can spot test the patterns as well as iron face down on an ironing rag just in case. 
  • Make sure they are thoroughly fused together (re-iron if needed) before you trim each piece to precise patch size/shape. This is where a template, rotary cutter, and mat can save a lot of time and effort, but standard measure, mark, and cut also works.

Confirming Pattern Layout and Sizes

Lay out your design to confirm placement of patches and double check your sizes/alignment. Tip: Take quick-reference photos (e.g. on your mobile) and/or mark the backs of your patches to help you keep track of your design layout.

I did this several times during patch prep and joining to check and double-check. For space, I resorted to the floor and the dogs immediately hopped on top, I knew the quilts would be be well-loved! Look at Humphrey “helping” below. Even Tiger, the cat, was keen to sprawl all over the project. That is what spawned the idea of making a wee little patchwork cushion/pillow for his favourite basket using some of the t-shirt offcuts.

Dalmatian dog sitting on recycled t-shirt quilt squares

Joining the T-Shirt Patches / Squares

The best way to do this will depend on your design; however, if you have linear grid pattern (like mine), you can join your patches into strips and then join your strips.  Be VERY careful with sewing along your seam allowances throughout to preserve your design, and make sure you aren’t sewing anything together upside down. Eek!  
 
  • If you have patches smaller than your linear strip width (I had a few locations where to smaller rectangles were combined to form a strip width rectangle), you will need to join together these first.  Sew face-to-face along the seam allowances, then iron the seams. If your patches are all the same width, you can skip this and proceed directly to joining patches into strips, per below.
  • Working from one edge, sew your patches together to form a set of linear strips. Sew face-to-face along the seam allowances. Once sewn, iron the seams to set and flatten.
  • Sew the strips together to form the face of your t-shirt quilt, taking care to align your pattern if/as needed. Sew face-to-face along the seam allowances then iron the seams.
Quilting and binding a recycled t-shirt quilt

Joining and Quilting the Layers

Whilst quilting, it is VERY important that you work from inside/centre out whenever possible to avoid bunching.  This can be awkward, but I found taking the time to carefully and neatly roll the side that has to go under the arm (see first image in the collage below) before each centre-to-edge seam helps greatly. If you have a walking foot, use it.  If you don’t, be patient with yourself and work carefully.  

  • Cut your backing and batting slightly larger than your t-shirt face layer in order to ensure that you have enough of converge as the layers flatten out together during quilting.  
  • Layer the backing, batting, and face together so that your fabrics are pattern/right side out.  Use basting spray if you wish (I did on the second quilt, and it was much easier sewing than the first without) and pin securely.  You can use straight pins, but I opted for safety pins for a more secure hold and to spare me the inevitability of sticking myself a million times! 
  • Using a thread colour that compliments your t-shirts and blends with your backing (ideally), sew to quilt your layers together.  

To keep things secure but very simple, I used the presser foot distance from the seam as an easy method of keeping things uniform and straight for all of the quilting. I did not do any decorative quilting. I quilted a line down both sides of each t-shirt joint/seam using this method, working inside-to-outside where feasible.  Pins were removed incrementally as the sewing progressed. Then I sewed the outer edge just outside of where I planned to bind to hold things in place for trimming and binding.  This stitching is hidden by the binding on the finished quilt.

Binding the Edges and Finishing the T-Shirt Quilt

The “best” sewing method will depend on the type of binding you decide to use and your personal preferences. No matter which way you prefer to sew a binding, it is amazing what a difference ironing (and a little starch + water) can make to help your binding sit and sew neatly.  Please don’t skip the ironing during this process… no matter how tempting. Yes, that includes stopping and pressing your corners. It’s worth the extra effort, I promise.

  • Trim the outside edges if/as needed to be straight, square, and remove any uneven or excess fabric/batting.  Remember to leave a little extra for wrapping into your binding.
  • Starting from somewhere on the edge of your quilt but away from any of the corners (I like the lower right – never the first place my eye rests to notice the joining seam), leave a tail for joining the ends, then slowly bind your quilt.
  • Wash and dry (hang dry on a strong rail works great) to clean up any bits of fluff and dirt that have accumulated during your cutting, layout, sewing, etc as well as remove any wash-out glue or starch you may have used depending on your preferences for basting/binding. Then enjoy!
How to Make a Patchwork Recycled T-Shirt Quilt
Green in Real Life blog spacer bar with floral accent

Recycling T-Shirts to Make a Pet Bed Cushion

As a slight twist on the quilt concept, after Tiger’s mooching around my quilt-in-progress, I used some of the t-shirt remnants to make him a little mini patchwork cat cushion for his favourite nesting basket. 

The t-shirt cushion face was made using the same general steps as the quilt face, but with lighter interfacing for a soft squishy feel in his bed. The backing is a larger piece of fabric, taken from the back of one of the shirts, so that the interfacing is covered to for stuffing/washing. The patchwork face was sewn into an envelope style cushion cover (see below), using more t-shirt material for the back flaps. Using some scrap fabric from my stash, I also sewed a very basic case to stuff with the fluffy batting and offcuts trimmed from the edges quilts for the (free!) bed cushion insert.

DIY patchwork cat basket bed cushion

Sewing an Envelope Style Cushion Cover

If you’ve never made an envelope style cushion cover, I should warn you now. It addictive. Envelope cushions and pillows so easy to DIY.  I have them all over the place.  Here’s a quick how-to for sewing your own.

Measurements and Dimensions

The finished case will need to accommodate the bulk of your pillow or cushion insert, not just flat dimensions so include an allowance for loft depending on how plump you’d like the filled pillow or cushion to look/feel. How much rear overlap is personal choice; however, for a nice secure envelope, I like my cases to have a back flap that is almost the full size of the insert plus an overlapping closure that covers between 1/2 and 3/4 of the back.

Sewing an Envelope Style Pillow/Cushion Cover

Basic Wrap Around Envelope Pillow/Cushion Cover:

  • Cut fabric to size. For a basic envelope, it will need to be large enough to fit around your entire cushion once and overlap at the rear (plus seam allowances).  
  • Finish the raw top/bottom edges, as these will be exposed for the rear flaps of the envelope.
  • Fold the fabric into the case, pattern-side in. Leaving the front-side face down, fold the back overlap flap up, and pin to secure. Fold the full-back flap down and pin to secure. Double check all measurements and ensure your folds are square.
  • Sew the sides together along the seam allowances. 
  • Invert through the rear flap gap to right-side (pattern) and add your insert.

Front Panel Envelope Pillow/Cushion Cover:

  • Cut fabric to size. For a front panel cushion cover, you will need a front and back panel, plus an additional panel to overlap at the rear (plus seam allowances).  
  • Finish one edge of your back panel and back overlap panel for the exposed edges of the rear envelope flaps.
  • Assemble your panels, pattern-side in. Place the front panel pattern side up. Lay the back overlap panel on top, pattern side down, raw edge aligned to the raw edge of the front panel and finished edge towards the centre. Pin to secure. Place the full back panel on top, pattern side down, raw edge aligned to the opposite raw edge of the front panel. Pin to secure.
  • Sew all four exterior edges together along the seam allowances. 
  • Invert through the rear flap gap to right-side (pattern) and add your insert.
Fluffy white cat in a wicker basket bed

Offcuts and Leftover T-Shirt Scraps

Tiger’s miniature patchwork cushion cover allowed me to use up some of my quilting leftovers, but there are lots of ways to reuse material from old t-shirts. Check out our post for details on how to make t-shirt yarn and other t-shirt recycling project ideas. We also have a post all about sustainable sewing and home textile waste for even more ideas and inspiration. Happy creating and crafting!

Cutting up old t-shirts to reuse the material

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