Quilt Round Up #2: November 2019
Graduation 2020 Order Details

What Do I Mean By Zero Waste Quilting?

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Update: My Etsy shop is now open and the quilts made from scraps of other t-shirt quilts are now available. Please check it out here, like the shop or an item, and make a purchase if you see something you like! All pieces are come with a personalized label!

When you make quilts out of clothing items you tend to end up with lots of extra fabric. So what do you do with it and why does it matter?

Textile waste is a huge global problem. In 2017 Americans sent 11.2 million tons of textiles, predominantly clothing items, to landfills. According to the EPA, landfills are “the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States” and methane is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. And that's just a part of the environmental issues caused by textile production and waste.

With these problems in mind, here at Tangible Culture one of my goals is to be as sustainable as possible. One of the ways that I do this is by using all of that extra fabric responsibly and ensuring that it doesn’t just end up in the trash. It is important to me that in addition to helping you preserve your memories and your life story in a functional art piece that you also can be confident that you are making a green choice and that you know exactly what happens to those extra materials.

Rainbow pile of t-shirts
All of these shirts have already had their designs cut out for memory quilts. This is the extra fabric!

There are a couple of different things that I do to reuse and upcycle this extra fabric as well as the extra batting and thread spools that are by-products of making custom quilts. These include donating thread spools for arts and crafts projects and sending smaller scraps to be used as filler for pet beds.

But the main thing I do is that I make other quilts!

Right now I’m making a limited run line of one-of-a-kind rainbow themed quilts that are made from these upcycled t-shirt scraps (read to the end to see a sneak peek)! These quilts will be available in my new Etsy shop in the next couple of weeks, just in time for the holidays. You can help me in my mission to make zero waste quilts by purchasing one and/or sharing about them on your social media. Sign up for our email list or follow me on Instagram to get some more sneak peeks and to be the first to know when they are available!

Let’s take a look at how I’m making these quilts and giving this extra fabric a new life.


Upcycling the Extra Fabric

When I make a quilt for you, I first cut the clothing into blocks or patches for piecing. This may use a large square if the design on the fabric takes up the whole front and back of the shirt, or it might just be a small 4x4 inch square from the chest design. Either way that still leaves a lot of good fabric behind.

Pink shirt with front design cut out.
The extra fabric found in one t-shirt even after a large front design has been cut out for a quilt.


Squares for New Quilts

Some clients request the extra fabric back so they can reuse them in other projects themselves and I’m happy to return these items to you if you want them. But most of the time customers don’t want the extra fabric back. For those items I start by cutting them down into as many large and small blocks as possible. I stick with just two sizes to ensure that I can easily make other designs out of them later.

Squares of fabric cut from t-shirts
Stacks of large and small squares, all cut from the extra fabric left over from a multipurpose sized t-shirt quilt.

The above picture shows almost all of the squares I was able to cut out of the extra fabric left over from my brother-in-law’s fraternity bike t-shirt quilt. There are a lot of extra quilts right there!


The Smaller Scraps

Of course there are still scraps of fabric left after cutting as many blocks as I can. At this stage the scraps remaining are mostly thin strips, oddly shaped pieces, and the seams, collars, and cuffs. I do remove any extra buttons as well and save them for use in other projects. These small scraps get gathered together and are given to a friend who uses them to stuff handmade pet beds for the local animal shelter.

Pile of scraps
The scraps that are sent off to be used as fillings for pet beds.

This is not a perfect solution as ultimately it just delays the scraps being thrown away when the bed inevitably gets soiled or ripped. However, it does reduce the number of new beds that the local shelter has to purchase, can delay these scraps from going into the landfill for years, and gives animals in need of lots of love a warm and comfortable place to sleep.


Of course the clothing items are not the only textile goods used in quilts. I also purchase thread and batting and fabric for backing and these produce their own forms of waste and scraps.


Thread Spools

Empty thread spools
Some of the spools I recently donated to the teacher's arts and crafts room at my recycling center.

I buy my thread on large spools whenever I can as you get more thread for less plastic, but I’m also using up some of the smaller spools that I purchased early on. When I have used up a spool of thread I am left with a chunk of plastic that can't be recycled locally. These still get dropped off at my local recycling center, however, which has a room where teachers can pull donations for art supplies. Spools make great wheels for cars, can create fun stamp patterns for art projects, or any other creative thing children can come up with.



Pile of batting scraps
Scraps of batting waiting to be sewn together to be used in my upcycled quilts.

When you quilt you always use a piece of batting that is larger than the quilt top. The batting shrinks up as you quilt it and the extra ensures that you won’t accidentally end up with a spot on an edge that doesn’t have any batting. Once you are done quilting you cut the excess batting off.

I save all of these batting scraps. Thin strips get ripped up (warning this is dusty and sneezy work) or cut up and used as stuffing for pillows or other projects. Small pieces are also occasionally sent to my friend to use in pet beds. Larger pieces are saved for smaller quilts or are pieced together to create a larger square to use in another quilt.


Backing Fabric

Just like batting, you always cut your backing fabric larger than the quilt top. This means that you do end up cutting extra fabric from the edges of the quilt as well. Because I bind my quilts by rolling the backing to the front some of this extra becomes the binding for your quilt. The rest of it gets added to my scrap bags for reuse in other sewing projects.


What still gets thrown away?

As you can see I repurpose as much of the fabric and batting as I can. But some things still get throw away. One of those items is extra thread. I chain piece to reduce thread waste. Chain piecing is a process where you feed quilt blocks through your machine one after the other so that they are connected in a chain of small sections of thread. This keeps me from having to do a longer pull of the thread each time I start and stop a seam.

Chain piecing
Chain piecing cuts down on thread waste. You clip the small sections of thread holding the blocks together instead of having to cut off long tails each time you start and stop.

The other thing that gets thrown out are the very, very small pieces of fabric, such as small shavings off of blocks that were cut to big.


Sneak Peek Time!

Now that you know the steps I’m taking to help make Tangible Culture a sustainable business let me show you a sneak peek of the types of upcycled quilts that I am currently making. As I mentioned recently on Instagram, I’m creating a small run (less than 10 pieces) of rainbow themed quilts. They are inspired by the rainbows that dance around my sewing room from a chipped chandelier crystal I found in my grandmother’s sewing stash.

All of these quilts are made from the extra fabric from the custom quilts I have made this year and use the scraps of batting left over from those projects as well. The small sizes are meant to be decorative wall hangings and the larger sizes are great lap quilts, play mats for a nursery, or can be hung on the wall as well.

Here is a look at one of the smaller quilts that will be available in my shop. This small wall hanging is not yet quilted. When it is finished it will come with hanging sleeves and a custom label written to your specifications.

Update: You can see this quilt and a few others in my Etsy shop now!

Rainbow quilt sneak peek
One of the rainbow themed quilts that will be offered in my forthcoming Etsy shop. It's made entirely out of extra fabric from the custom quilts I've made.

Want to be alerted when my Etsy shop will be open so that you can snag this or one of the other quilts before they are gone? Sign up for my email list and follow me on Instagram to get some more sneak peeks and to be the first to know when they are available!


Photo Credits: All photos by author.