A “Binding” Love: How to Make A Memory Quilt

By Kay Helbling


You have said goodbye to a loved one and walk back into your home to find you are surrounded by memories. T-shirts that tell stories of a time you laughed together. A jacket worn at a game you cheered on. A tie worn at your last anniversary dinner.  Each can become a piece of cloth to add to your memory quilt.


You come across writings tucked away in a Bible or other favorite book, an award earned years ago, a card sent with a note of love. All can be copied and transferred onto a cloth block given a place of honor next to photos also be taken from paper to cloth.


If you read my article last week, you knew I’d share a few tips for the most novice quilter to preserve these pieces of memory. Everything will simply be working in squares. The more experienced quilter can take it to many levels, but even the beginning quilter can cut squares from a t-shirt and sew them together. 


Front of the quilt, creating 10-inch quilt blocks.

  1. For the most basic quilt, simply cut  11-inch blocks of material from items of clothing. Sew them together side-by-side to create long horizontal strips. When you reach the desired quilt width, sew the horizontal strips together until you reach the length you want. Always use a consistent (1/2 inch) seam width. Don’t let the 11 inches throw you. It must be 11 inches to result in a 10-inch block after all the side seams are sewn together.
  2. If you have small pieces of material, you can create a 10-inch block by sewing four or more smaller blocks together. A four-block square requires four 6-inch blocks of fabric. Sew them together to create one large, 11-inch square.  
  3. Even smaller pieces of fabric can be used, creating a large block from nine 4-inch squares. Use a ¼ inch seam on the interior block seams to achieve a 10-inch block when finished.  
  4. Some quilters separate each block with a strip of material. They call it framing. These are simply 2 to 3 inch wide strips of material, cut the length of the block. They are sewed between each of the blocks vertically. Then, one long strip is used between each horizontal strip of blocks.
  5. The simplest fabric to quilt is cotton or a cotton blend. But you can cut out pieces of wool from a coat or take the seams apart on a man’s tie and sew ties fabrics together. There isn’t enough fabric in a tie to cut a 6-inch block, but the fabric can be sewn together and,  using a 6-inch cardboard template as a guide, cut a block from the fabrics you’d pieced together. You’ve probably heard the word “piece quilt”. Well, now you understand where it gets its name.
  6. If you want to use a design from a favorite t-shirt or other fabrics that tend to stretch easily, you’ll need to back the fabric with fusible (iron-on) interfacing. Interfacing is also suggested on a fabric that is woven loosely, like a sweater.
  7. If you want to transfer a photo or written work onto a cloth block, run to your local office supply store where you’ll find t-shirt transfer paper. Select the one for white fabric and follow the instructions. If you will wash your quilt later, I’d highly recommend you take your transferred blocks to a retailer who professionally heat-presses t-shirts. They’ll usually give your block a final press for about $1 a block.

To finish:

  1. For the back of the quilt, rather than buying material, I usually purchase a large white or colored sheet. It avoids having to piece material together if my quilt is large.  
  2. Purchase a batting that will cover the size of your quilt and the density you’ll want to have. If you are going to hang the piece, I’d suggest a very light batting. If you are going to cuddle with it, I’d go with the thickest.    
  3. To bring all layers together, I head to a large open space on my floor. I lay my backing material (sheet)  with the outside of fabric facing down. Sandwich your batting between the backing and the quilt front, which is layed front side up. To hold it all in place while I’m quilting, I’ll either run a very, very large (12 inch) basting stitch across and diagonally over the whole quilt, or pin every 12 inches with a large safety pin.
  4. Hand quilt if you have the skill. Machine quilt if you have the equipment. Tie if you want a fast and cozy way to complete it.  But the simplest way to finish your quilt is to sew buttons onto the top of the quilt from some of the clothing. Place a button onto each corner of each large quilt block, or wherever you chose. Sewing through all the layers of the quilt will hold it together well and the buttons add a special touch to the top of your very special quilt.
  5. The last step is to finish the edge.  I usually hem by hand with a slip stitch. If you want to use the sewing machine, that is certainly a faster route to take. Just be careful that you don’t stretch any of the quilt blocks if you are sewing the quilt together by machine or you will end up with an oddly shaped quilt.

Just as will be the case with every quilt you make, the choices are yours, the work is yours, and the memories will always be yours.


Kay was an insurance adjuster and executive for 15 years, a small business owner, and a teacher for 10. But, her most fulfilling work has been as a mother of her two boys. She is now enjoying an empty nest with her best friend—her husband.


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