NORTH LIBERTY– Quilts are so much more than scraps of fabric, cut by hand and stitched together with careful placement, more than warm comfort on a cold night, even more than American folk art handed down through generations.
Quilts are testaments to lives well lived, celebrations of life’s milestones, congratulatory gifts of honor.
For Peg Griffin-Wood, owner of Common Threads Quilt Shop in North Liberty, quilts tell stories. Their materials often come from personal garments worn by the quilter, family members, or the intended recipient. From gingham to denim, silk to satin and flannels to linens, people have been incorporating pieces of their personal wardrobes into quilts for centuries.
But even common T-shirts can be transformed to become part of the beautiful, intricate and eye-catching patterns of quilts.
While T-shirt quilts are not a new trend, Griffin-Wood had not regularly used T-shirts in her designs until last year, when a customer brought in a T-shirt quilt that had been commissioned through an advertisement.
“She had blindly sent her husband’s favorite T-shirts and her money to someone she found in the back of a Martha Stewart magazine,” Griffin-Wood said. While the woman received her quilt, the fabric was terrible quality, there were spots where the quilter had put holes in the T-shirts, and the quality of the work was quite poor for the money she had spent. “I thought, I could give my customer base a hands-on job with quality fabrics and workmanship, and they are going to be proud to hang them up, and maybe even be leery to send these quilts off to college with their child because they are so pretty,” Griffin-Wood laughed.
But that’s what happens with many of the T-shirt quilts Griffin-Wood makes; customers save T-shirts from their children’s sports teams, clubs and high school events in order to have them put together in a quilt. Often, they end up as graduation gifts.
“These are a bit of comfort when they go off to college because they are a part of home,” Griffin-Wood said. She puts her quilts together so they are substantial, soft and warm, but not stiff or heavy. “They can be washed, and washed a lot.”
Griffin-Wood’s T-shirt quilts are not always the square-framed, symmetrical design one would typically expect, either.
“You can make one as a piece of art that you can hang on the wall, in the game room or in a bedroom,” she said. “You can incorporate smaller pieces of the shirt, a logo or something from the back, onto bigger blocks in an appliqué fashion.”
From cotton to mesh, if you can put interfacing on it, you can incorporate it into a quilt, said Griffin-Wood.
Themes are as varied as her customers and the person or people they are hoping to commemorate. Recently, one customer had lost a baby and brought in many baby clothes to be made into a quilt; another had lost three important people in her life in a short period of time, and she brought in a huge box of their clothing, from wool to polyester and rayon, that they had regularly worn. For a favorite cousin who passed away, Griffin-Wood used his shirts to make quilted pillows to give to each of his children.
“It’s memories,” Griffin-Wood said.
Common Threads has a handful of patterns she knows look good using T-shirts, those that will incorporate a fairly large block of the shirt. However, Griffin-Wood doesn’t just rely on school colors to complete the design.
“When a customer comes in and starts looking for fabric for their T-shirt quilts, I might steer them away from strictly using school colors. I ask them to tell me about their child,” she said. “What do they like? Did they play softball, were they musical, did they love to bake?”
So what was initially envisioned as a black-and-orange or blue-and-white quilt suddenly comes alive with T-shirts flanked by zebra and cheetah prints for the teen who likes wild animals, fishing prints for the outdoorsman, or wild lime green for the drama queen.
“The T-shirts definitely make a statement, but why not bring out the personality of the child?” Griffin-Wood said. “All of the sudden, it becomes a story book about their child.”
Photo quilts also tell stories, Griffin-Wood said. There are ways to transfer photographs to fabric that can be used in quilts. One she quilted recently seemed to have an odd combination of fabrics, until she studied it as she was quilting it.
“It was pieced together by an aunt who dresses for her niece all her life,” said Griffin-Wood. “And every year, they took a picture of her in those dresses. I got to looking, and every block was a photo of her in her aunt’s dresses from the time she was an infant to her 16th birthday, and each one was surrounded by fabric from those dresses. It was awesome to have the foresight to collect these dresses over time, knowing she would make this for her on her sweet 16. It was obviously the story of this child.”
But it’s never too late to create a memory quilt for someone, even if you haven’t been saving T-shirts or other personal garments for years, Griffin-Wood said.
“I’ve had people go out and buy T-shirts, or shop at Goodwill,” said Griffin-Wood. “Iowa Hawkeye shirts, for one example. It’s never too late, you can always find a theme that relates to the person or something they like.”
While it takes awhile to put a T-shirt or memory quilt together, Griffin-Wood said she works with everyone to produce a quality product within their timeframe, even on short notice. All she asks is that the garments are clean and perfume free when brought in.
“It’s always nice to have a lot of time, but it’s not always necessary,” she said.
Other frequent requests Griffin-Wood gets at Common Threads is for wedding quilts, baby blankets, and even table linens. She conducts a variety of classes, from beginning sewing and quilting to learning how to use the large quilting machines she has in the shop.
Customers can rent time on the sewing machines, a serger and large frame quilting machines. They can bring their projects in and have time to spread things out, where Griffin-Wood is well-equipped with space and tables.
“A lot of people can’t lay things out or leave them out at home,” she said, “so they can come and use our facilities.”
March Madness at Common Threads means customers can come in and complete a simple sewing project for the price of a kit; the help is free. During spring break, there is a day where kids can come in and learn how to use the machines to make either a pillowcase or rag quilt. Often, those pillowcases are donated to ConKerr Cancer, an organization that gives pillowcases to children with devastating illnesses.
While Griffin-Wood’s T-shirt quilts vary in price, depending on the number of shirts, the amount of fabric and its size, there are other projects to be made that don’t bust the budget and are equally personal.
“They don’t have to spend a lot of money to get something to hold in their hands,” Griffin-Wood said.
It’s the holding– and the comfort it brings– that is the best part of it all.
“I think part of the reason I do this is because of my 30 years in nursing,” said Griffin-Wood. “It’s helping people figure out what makes them feel happy or content.
“For me, the happiest sound is the sound of the sewing machine,” said Griffin-Wood. “It’s instant gratification. It’s fun here.”