Ask Jo: About Using Shirts

When questions come in from blog readers that I think others might like the answer to, I answer them here on the blog.  Today is one of those days.

Today’s question came from Bobbie:
Do you only use the backs of the shirts?  How do you use the fronts and sleeves?

This question came after I had been working on Baby Friedman’s quilt….


This quilt was made entirely of shirts…minus the red of course.

I’ve made several quilts from shirts and I absolutely love them.  They are instantly vintage especially if you can find a good 100% cotton sheet for the backing.  Seriously, one washing and the quilt feels like you’ve had it years.  I love that feeling.

I think my favorite shirt quilt is Rectangle Wrangle….Read all about the quilt HERE.

rectangle-wrangle-3-66
I love-love-love it!!  Being I get shirts at such a cheap price sometimes I feel like I’m sewing for free.  I’m not but it sure feels that way sometimes.

I didn’t know anything about sewing with shirts until I heard about it from Bonnie Hunter.  Once I heard, I was right on board as I have had good thrift stores in my area.

But…back to the question…”Do you only use the backs of the shirts?  How do you use the fronts and sleeves?

The answer is…Some of each.  Sometimes I get LOTS and LOTS of shirts in all at once and then I get a little overwhelmed with them all so I take the backs off and then sell the rest of the the shirt to blog readers via one of my auctions.   When I feel like I need to get “caught up” and this is a quick easy way to get caught up.

Cutting up shirts does take time but it you get into a system, it’s not bad at all.  Most of the shirts I have gotten recently, I’ll be cutting up the whole shirt.  My scrap users system is low on strips so now is a good time to replenish.

I’ll show you what I do….Here’s the shirt I am working with….


I start out by making a slit on each of the sides along the buttons.  I then rip up to the collar.  
Then I take a scissors and and I cut around the collar.  Then I have this…
From here I make a couple cuts in the collar as shown then rip.  Interfacing in the shirts is always different.  Sometimes it’s stuck on the fabric.  If so I throw that piece.

This is what I have “harvested” so far…two great strips for my scrap bucket and buttons.  Yes, I save buttons.  I have yet to figure out why.


Next on to the cuffs.  I cut them off.

I make the slits and again rip.

I cut off and save those two pieces.

Next, these get cut off.
Then I cut the sleeves off.  I often cut through both thicknesses of fabric at the same time.  I also cut off the seams….


Next I cut on each side of the seam at the TOP of the sleeve.  Then I rip.
With that, the sleeves are done.

Now I start on the rest of the shirt.  A slit goes on each side of the side seam.

I rip up to the under arm and then start in on scissor work.  I cut out the yoke and cut the back off.
Then cut the fronts off.  I’ve gotten so I can do a shirt in about 7 minutes.  Time consuming yes but I still feel very well worth it.

This is my harvest from one shirt…..Look.  That’s a lot of fabric!!
If I am working on cutting out a quilt, I will often pull a shirt front out or sleeves out and put them in a pile.  The rest gets folded up and ready to be used.

I always take this much out….the ripped pieces go immediately to the scrap bin.  I use this to make the crumb quilts.  The yoke piece with the tag goes there too.  The good tagless piece gets cut up into strips for scrap users.

The rest I layer like this.  Back on bottom…then fronts and then sleeves.

I fold them in half.
..in half again.

Then half this way…

Then thirds to make this bundle that’s kind of like a fat quarter.
Then they go right into my drawer.
When it comes time that I need some of the fabric, I unfold the bundle, I pick out what I want, always leaving the back for last.  Next time I pick that bundle to use, I’ll likely take out a sleeve or two depending on what I need, then fold it back up and immediately put it away.

If anything is left after I cut what I need for the quilt I’m working on, it goes in the scrap bucket or cut into strips for the scrap users system.

For me…the back side of my quilting machine is designated “shirt land”.  I have three  3 drawer units to hold the cut shirts and a scrap users system for the strips.


Taking the time to organize it all is totally worth it!!

I hope that answers the question…I love to keep all of the shirts but sometimes time doesn’t allow so I sell the rest of the shirts.  At other times Kelli and I split shirts.  One of us gets the back and the other gets the rest.  It’s a great way to get a larger variety.

I’d love to hear from any of you on how you handle shirts….and as always if you have a question, leave it in the comment box or drop me a note rogjok@iowatelecom.net.

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19 thoughts on “Ask Jo: About Using Shirts

  1. Roxanne

    I do some ripping and some with rotary cutter, mainly try to limit scissor work since my hands object to that fairly quickly. I never timed myself but I’m sure is more than 7 minutes! I do really like you folding method and will change my ways on that–yours looks so neat in the drawers, Jo.

  2. Roxanne

    One more thing!! Your rectangle wrangle is a quilt I always love to see–really shows off your skills with color!

  3. Cindy F

    I never thought of ripping either! I’ve been cutting everything with scissors and seam ripper for buttons. I was getting overwhelmed by my shirts so for the past several months I started working on getting them cut up, which I did and then organized them. I still have a container with yokes and collars to process. I have the shirt backs, fronts, and sleeves together and then they are organized by general color. I have a container with all the button hole plackets as I want to do a project with them. Not sure what but I hate to get rid of them. The plackets with the buttons are in a bag so I can cut off the buttons and then use the strip left for my string bin. I keep the buttons too but haven’t figured out what to do with them. The yokes I keep in a separate bin and if it’s too small it also goes into the strip bin. Same with the collars. That leaves the cuffs and I have them in a bin so I can eventually cut off the buttons and put the larger pieces into the strip bin. I quit buying shirts over a month ago so I could get more organized. Now I just need to get to ironing and cutting up the pieces I need for several quilts I want to do. Crisscross Applesauce and Rectangle Wrangle are a couple of the ones in the queue and I still need to finish cutting for Tumalo Trail and the border for Moth in the Windows. I also want to do a string quilt with just the shirts but I haven’t decided which one yet.

  4. Mona

    Your drawer storage system is a great idea. I need to do this, as mine are in a large tote and it’s hard to see what I have without digging through it and making a mess! Thanks for the idea – it’s at the top of my to-do list!

  5. Susan smit

    Morning jo I would’ve willing to buy some of the buttons. I knit baby sweaters for charity so am always looking for buttons for the cardigans I make

  6. Judith Fairchild

    I hadn’t thought of using shirts for quilts thanks for showing us how to get the most out of one shirt and how to store it.

  7. Donna

    I cut all of mine with a rotary cutter cutting along the seam. I fold it so I can get both sides of the seam it once. Makes it so fast.

  8. Joyce

    After washing mine I cut them up with my large rotary cutter… takes me about 4 mins each shirt! I’m naughty and don’t save the buttons . My best places that I find great shirts is st St Vincent’s… very high quality shirts and fun colors! Bonnie got me started too!

  9. Tina Kesteloot

    Ladies!!! Please, save the buttons. I collect buttons like some folks collect beach glass, or river rocks. My buttons include those from my grandmother’s collection, my own scavenging from clothes, from a friend’s deceased aunt, and from freebies at the quilt guild table. After taking a seam ripper to any thread and cloth attached, I sort by color. So, now I have various lunch bags with colors, AND two large glass containers, one with dark buttons, and one with white buttons that proudly sit out in my craft room as decorations. The collection literally spans centuries–some are valuable, some are not, but I love them.

  10. Nell

    Rip from the TOP of the sleeve! Why didn’t I think of that-got burned by ripping from cuff and obviously lost some of the sleeve that way. Mine are in totes and sacks waiting to be processed-LOVE the folding and storing idea. . .hoping this summer to tackle some organization that just takes some serious time. I also try to get EVERY last bit of fabric out of them and start cutting out of sleeves and fronts first. I need to finish Sugar Bowl quilt out of FIL’s shirts for my MIL. Do you keep shirt strips separated from rest of Scrap User System? I have not so far, but also not a lot of shirt quilts DONE. . .they are mostly WIPs.

  11. Penny Holliday

    I like your method of ripping a shirt rather than the time consuming method of cutting, cutting & more cutting! About the buttons ~ we’ve used the white shirt buttons to supplement fancy buttons for projects of sewing them all over thrift store vests & women jackets for a unique designer look & sold them at craft sales, Also same idea ~ glued them to a Christmas fabric covered styrofoam cone, then used thrift store glass candle stick for base & sold them.I love all old buttons to sew on new garments & wall hanging sized quilts. I played with the buttons collected by my Grandma then adding my buttons my daughter did & now when my youngest grand is older she probably will also.

  12. Anne Kirby

    And all those shirt bones? I roll them up like lengths of yarn into a ball and tuck in the end. Cats love Shirt Balls!!!

  13. Linda White

    I am going to have to change how I deconstruct shirts too! I painstakingly take out each seam with a seam ripper, trying to save as much fabric as possible. Now I see that it’s just not worth the time investment and often there are faded strips where the seams fold over anyway! I am determined to sacrifice those seams in the interest of saving time and energy, as I have fibromyalgia and it often takes me 30 min. to do one shirt. No more!
    I have a hanging shoe rack on the back of my sewing room door, and I keep my deconstructed items in it. I can fit 5 or 6 shirts in each pocket. I also deconstruct blouses, scrubs, skirts and sometimes dresses if they are cotton. Scrub fabric is my favorite!

  14. Bobbie Campbell

    Wow!!! Thanks so much for the tutorial & the answer. I’ve read the other comments and seems lots of people got good hints from this post. Thank you. I know you have a lovely family and you’re so generous.
    My prayers and virtual hugs to you all in this most scary time for the family. Bobbie

  15. Linda P

    Just wondering if all your shirts are cotton and what do you think is good price for a shirt that you are going to cut up.. Thank you!

  16. Susan the Farm Quilter

    Love the way you debone a shirt! And I’m so glad you save the buttons!!! The shirts I cut up are used as rags, but I always save the button!!! They are hubby’s that have served honorably and are too stained or holey (you know they never win against a barbed wire fence or working on farm machinery). Love your storage system too.

  17. Cathy

    Love this post! I follow Bonnie too and have been saving shirts. Thanks for the expanded tips! It is SO helpful!! I love the way you fold them together and store them…so simple but it didn’t occur to me to do it that way. I’m trying to get better organized…you gave me lots of help!! Thanks!! Pictures helps so much…I’m a visual learner.
    With all you have going on you amaze me how much you get done and still post for your followers…Thank you…it doesn’t go unnoticed.

  18. Katherine Gourley

    Your shirt quilts have been an inspiration. Unfortunately my Hubby in a whimpering voice begs me to reduce my stash of new fabrics before I take on used shirt quilts. He is just no fun and when he has a shirt to retire he is sneaky about taking it to the thrift store. LOL

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