Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Memory Quilts and a Preview of my Next Project

My current project is a massive king-size duvet cover I'm making for my sister. She had a rather old and stained, but still very warm comforter and an impressive amount of sentimental T-shirts lying around- the perfect recipe for a memory quilt!

What is a Memory Quilt?

A Memory Quilt Made From My Daughter's Baby Clothes
Memory Quilts are patchwork quilts made from materials that have sentimental value. They can be very elaborate or simple. The quilts can be given as a gift, made in memory of a loved one, or serve as a textile scrapbook.

 For an amazing children's book about memory quilts, check out The Name Quilt by Phyllis Root.


My Memory Quilts

The first memory quilt I remember seeing was at my aunt's when I was a little girl. My sister and stayed in their spare room under a warm quilt made of old T-shirts. The T-shirts were cut to large uniform rectangles, then stitched together with a sewing machine. Instead of quilting with thread, whoever made it had dotted the corners with knotted yarn. I thought it looked pretty easy and the image stayed with me for some time.

Fast forward a few years to high school, when I was in the school's band. As a fundraiser, one of the mothers took the old uniforms and made a lap quilt. It was lovely, but I decided to embellish it further. When I graduated, I carefully removed all my patches and letters from my letterman's jacket and passed it down to my sister. I then sewed all my patches and letters to the band quilt. My mom hung it in the hall at their house for a while, but now it serves as a cozy blanket for my little girls (and a reminder of how nerdy their mother is).

Memory Quilt Process

A few quilts later, I decided to convert my pile of T-shirts into a memory quilt of my own. That first quilt began a learning process that I'm still employing and perfecting now.

1. Gather your stuff. 

Before I set out to do any of my memory quilts, I try to determine how much material I have to work with. I don't mean bolts and yards of fabric, but how many T-shirts (or whatever I'm using). Will I want to supplement with purchased fabric or fabric from my stash? I like lots of texture and interesting details in my quilts, so I work with odd items like bibs, snaps, lace, ruffles, varying fabric weights, etc. If uniform texture is important to you, keep that in mind as you select your materials.

2. Select a unit of measurement. 

Of course, the simplest method of doing a memory quilt is to pick one size (a square or a rectangle) and cut all your material to that same size. But if you know anything about me, you know I tend to complicate things. I use what I call a "unit system", if there is an official name for it feel free to correct me. Instead of cutting all my pieces to the same exact size, I choose a standard "unit" size. Then I cut my pieces to the nearest whole unit. Think of it like LEGO blocks. The smallest LEGO pieces have only 1 bump on the top- 1 x 1 units. A LEGO piece with 3 bumps would then be 3 x 1 units or 1 x 3 units, etc. By using these units, I am able to accommodate various sizes of T-shirts and other materials into my quilts.
My T-shirt Memory Quilt Using Units

I take two things into account when choosing my measurements: the finished quilt size I desire and the size of the decorations on my materials. For example, I wanted to make two 40" x 60" quilts. One of them would be using my T-shirts, the other my daughter's baby clothes. My T-shirts have much larger designs, so I used a 6" square as my basic "unit". For the baby clothes, I went with a 4" square.

By using a "unit" system I am able to accommodate pretty much any shape or size design. One of my sister's T-shirts had a beautiful white tiger design on a royal blue background that I did not want to mess up, so I was able to use it as a whole, large piece- 4 x 4 units. Her husband's beloved sweatshirt had a design running the entire length of a sleeve- 1 x 5 units.

3. Cut the pieces.

When cutting the units I always add a generous seam allowance of 1/2" because of the difference in fabric weights and the propensity of some fabrics to fray easily. For each piece, regardless of unit size, I cut 1" larger than the unit. So for one side of the tiger shirt: 1/2" seam allowance + (4 units x 4" per unit) + 1/2" seam allowance = 17" cut size. For the sweatshirt sleeve: 1/2" seam allowance + (1 unit x 4" per unit) + 1/2" seam allowance = 5" wide, 1/2" seam allowance + (5 units x 4" per unit) + 1/2" seam allowance = 21" long, cut size is 5" x 21".

Occasionally, some pieces are smaller than the basic unit size. They may be a tiny design, or have a piece missing because of an arm hole or fabric edging. When this happens, I use a complimentary fabric (or a piece of fabric from a different part of the same garment) to patch the holes. If you look closely at my T-shirt memory quilt (above), you'll see a light blue patch on the right side to which I had to add fabric.

 When paring down an entire T-shirt to a unit system, keep the placement of the design in mind. I use a clear ruler so that my cut pieces will have the designs centered on them as much as possible.

4. Determine if you need to supplement your material or pare it down.

Math is your friend, I promise. I usually do this step in conjunction with step 3. First, determine how many square units you will need. For an oversize lap quilt of 40" x 60" with a 4" unit size, I needed 10 x 15 units or 150 square units. For this next project, a massive king-size duvet cover, the desired finished size is 80" x 96". Since I'm using a 4" unit size, that will be 20 x 24 units (80" / 4" per unit x 96" / 4" per unit), or 480 square units.

As I cut my pieces, I keep a running total of the square units I have so far. For example, my sister's tiger shirt had 16 square units (4 x 4), and the sweatshirt was 5 square units (5 x 1), which gives me 25 square units.

After you've cut your pieces, you will know if you have too much or too little. If you have way too much, consider making your quilt larger, putting the extra pieces on the back, or making a second quilt. If you have just a little too much, you can omit some of the shabbier-looking pieces from your final design or trim down some of your pieces to a smaller unit size (trim down a 4 x 4 unit to a 3 x 4 for example).

If you don't have enough, try to be creative in finding new pieces. You can use towels, place mats, doilies, or any fabric you wish. Occasionally, T-shirt quilts can be pretty colorless if you have mostly white or grey shirts. Feel free to add patches of color that draw out and complement the colors of the designs of your shirts. Or you can use it as an opportunity to clean out your stash a little.

5. Arrange the pieces. 

Quilt Units in Graph Paper Form
If you like puzzles, this will be the fun part. Once you have your pieces cut, lay them out into a final arrangement. For my T-shirt quilt and the baby clothes quilt, I simply spread all the pieces on the ground and played with them until I reached an arrangement I liked. Keep the seam allowance in mind, it will throw you off if you go by the pieces' actual size rather than the number of units.

For a much larger and more complicated quilt, laying the pieces out is not really an option. For my sister's duvet cover, I kept track of the pieces I cut and made scaled down versions on graph paper. I made a couple different arrangements before I started losing the tiny little pieces and/or messing them up every time I breathed. You can imagine the frustration. (By the way, I believe the tiger shirt is the big blue one in the top center of the quilt in the above picture).

Then I switched to drawing the pieces directly onto the graph paper, which was much easier, but still took a fair amount of time. And this is where I'm stuck on this project. I've got 6 options for the final layout and can't choose between them. I'd like a second opinion. I'll have a survey running on my blog for the next two weeks or so (until May 2, 2012) where you all will get to vote on which layout you like.

6. Sew it together.

To save time, I pieced my quilts together using the sewing machine. I'll let you know how it works out with this huge one. My advice on this? Plan your route. Look at your design and try to join the pieces together into large blocks with long seams. Draw it out with labels marking which order you will sew the seams in.

For the quilts, I added batting and backing. Since the fabric I used was old and worn in some places, I added a second layer of backing between the batting and the quilt top. If any of the pieces frayed or got threadworn, the second layer of backing would prevent the batting from being exposed. Then I used safety pins to hold the layers together while I quilted from the center of the quilt outward. I do use a hoop for quilting.

Back of the T-Shirt Quilt Showing Stitches
For the T-shirt quilt, I used colored thread to hand quilt along the designs. Some of the pieces had no design, so I quilted squiggles, stripes, or circles on them. For the baby clothes quilt, I went a step further and researched some antique quilting patterns. If the piece had writing on it, the writing was usually too small to quilt, so I quilted a larger version of the same writing around it. The quilting is the most time-consuming step. Fortunately, for this next project, I'm doing a duvet cover- no quilting! Don't get me wrong, I love the quilting, but it can take months to complete. Since the king-size project is 4 times larger than my largest memory quilt, it's a bit more than I'm willing to take on.

7. Finish it. 

I think this is the most important step for any project. Get it done! My personal rule is only one project at a time (of course, I break that rule sometimes, okay a lot).

The T-shirt memory quilt is finished with a long fringe made from the extra pieces of shirts. T-shirt material doesn't fray and makes fringing quite simple. The baby clothes quilt is finished with a bias tape made from excess material.

If you are unfamiliar with what a duvet cover is, my apologies for not explaining sooner. It's basically a gigantic pillowcase or slipcover for your comforter that buttons shut on one end. So for this next project, I'll piece the quilt top together, sew it to the backing on 3 sides, and add buttons or snaps on one end to close it. I'll keep you updated with my progress.

Current Project Vote

Here are the options for the duvet cover for your voting pleasure:

In case you were wondering, the tiger shirt is piece #7, and the sweatshirt sleeve is piece #10. 


Option 1: Dark Center Fading to Light Edges

Option 2: Dark Top Fading to Light Bottom

Option 3: Dark Edges Fading to Light Center

Option 4: Large Blocks at the Bottom, Small Blocks at the Top, Scattered Colors

Option 5: Pieces Arranged into Large Blocks of Like Colors

Option 6: Diagonal Rainbow Fading to White in Lower Right Corner

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