Quilty friends, have you ever considered working with fabrics other than our beloved quilting cottons? Maybe you’re thinking of making a memory quilt, or perhaps you’re just looking for more cost-effective fabric options. No matter the reason, this guide to upcycling fabric for quilting is for you!
I love thrifting for fabric that I can upcycle into my various sewing projects. Thrifted fabric is good for your wallet, the planet and is also a fun way to incorporate unique, and sometimes sentimental textiles into your projects.
In this post, I will cover my guiding principles when upcycling fabric for quilting. I’ll share tips on acquiring and preparing your textiles, and show you some of the best Suzy Quilts projects for using upcycled fabric.
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What Projects are Best for Upcycling Fabric for Quilting
Let’s start with the big picture: when can I upcycle fabric for quilting? The short answer is, whenever you want! One of my primary quilting philosophies is that (most) rules are meant to be broken, or at least tested.
That being said, there are certain types of projects that are perfect for upcycled fabric. Here are a couple of wonderful—and free—Suzy Quilts tutorials that would be perfect projects for your thrifted finds!
The Project: Patchwork Infinity Scarf
Why it’s perfect: This is a great project for lighter weight and gauzier fabrics than you might use in a typical quilt, which just happens to be exactly the types of fabrics that are super easy to find at a thrift store.
The Project: Quilted Oven Mitt
Why it’s perfect: This is an awesome smaller-scale project. You don’t need a ton of fabric, which makes it perfect for an upcycle. One thing to note here is that it’s extremely important that your fabric be natural fibers for this project. Keep reading for tips on identifying fiber content in thrifted textiles.
The Project: Patchwork Jacket
Why it’s perfect: Double upcycle! Upcycling a denim jacket with upcycled fabric is earth-conscious and fashionable.
The Project: Quilted Christmas Stocking
Why it’s perfect: ‘Tis the season to start thinking about the holidays! A quilted stocking made out of upcycled fabrics is a jolly addition to your holiday decor.
The Project: Quilted Throw Pillow
Why it’s perfect: Throw pillows are a great way to add accents to your home, and can be a sweet opportunity to decorate with sentimental fabrics. The Grow pillow in particular is a great pattern for incorporating different upcycled fabrics. The one pictured below uses parts of an old summer dress along with some purchased fabric.
Types of Fabric to Look For
Alright, you have project ideas and your mind is swirling with all the thrifty possibilities, but what kind of fabric are you even looking for? When I search for upcycled fabric for quilting, I look for 100% cotton wovens (as opposed to knits). Lightweight cotton is the gold standard in quilting fabric. It’s easy to work with, durable, and easy to find.
If I'm not sure about the thread count and quality of my thrifted fabric, I will blend those upcycled fabrics with store-bought quilting cotton to make sure the integrity of the final project stays intact. Using upcycled textiles that are similar to quilting cotton makes this a lot easier.
Above is the Fishing Net quilt pattern made with upcycled denim jeans – get the pattern here! This quilt was made by my friend Caitlyn Williams.
Can you use fabrics that aren’t 100% cotton? Absolutely! Tons of woven fabrics have a cotton feel and are actually cotton/poly blends. They make equally lovely upcycled fabric for quilting. Just keep an eye on the fabric content so you know when you need to turn your iron down.
While the tips in this post are primarily focused on finding and using woven fabrics, if you already have your heart set on upcycling some knits (maybe you’re making the t-shirt quilt of your dreams?) never fear! I would recommend checking out this post all about sewing with jersey.
How to Find the Best Upcycled Fabric
Below you’ll find a few examples of the types of thrifted items that make great upcycled quilting fabric, whether you’re shopping in a thrift store, or in your own closet:
- Sheets and pillowcases: Never again will you skip the linen section when you’re perusing the thrift store. Vintage sheets are an excellent source of yardage when you’re looking to upcycle fabric. A sheet can often have enough fabric to back an entire quilt, and then some. Most sheets are made from percale, which is a closely woven fabric usually composed of 100% cotton or a cotton/polyester blend.
- Button-down shirts: AKA my favorite source of upcycling fabric for quilting. Every thrift store is loaded with button-down shirts, and they’re commonly made using cotton. The variety of prints, colors, and textures is an upcyclers paradise! If you’re planning on making a memory quilt, button-down shirts can be a great source of fabric from your loved one’s closet.
- Pants and jeans: Quilting with denim can be a unique and fun way to add texture to a project. Pro-tip: If you’re looking for upcycled fabric at the thrift store, don’t skip the men’s shorts section. This can be a great source of solid-colored fabric.
- Fabric: Yes, I know, it seems obvious. But you would be surprised how many thrift stores have a surprisingly well-stocked stash of completely unused fabric.
Did I mention that thrifted fabric is perfect for practicing your hand stitching? Check out, How to Hand Quilt (with Video Tutorial!)
Do you want to commemorate some old clothes or textiles from a loved one without making an entire quilt? Make a mini quilt and frame it! Suzy Quilts has an entire series on this plus improv patterns to get you started – Sew Mojo #1-#4 Mini Quilt Pattern Bundle (Download)
Preparing Your Upcycled Fabric
You’ve sourced some fabulous new-to-you upcycled fabric. Now what? First, wash it! I’m not weighing in on the great quilting fabric washing debate here—your thrifted textiles have likely already found their way through a wash cycle or two hundred, so shrinkage isn’t the main concern.
Washing your second-hand fabric is all about cleanliness and removing any potential starches or irritants. I recommend washing and drying your fabrics using the same method you plan to use for washing your finished project.
If you’re planning on mixing new fabric and upcycled fabric together in one project, wash that new fabric too to avoid uneven shrinking in the finished product.
Identifying A Mystery Textile
Maybe you found the perfect item you want to upcycle, but that tag doesn’t contain the fabric content information. A quick and easy way to determine if something is a natural fiber (i.e. cotton, linen, wool) or a synthetic fiber (i.e. polyester, rayon, nylon) is ye olde trial by fire.
Cut a small swatch of the textile you want to test and hold the edge up to a flame (carefully please). You’re looking for a few things here to help you identify the fabric content:
- What does it smell like when it burns? Synthetic materials smell like chemicals, whereas natural fibers smell like paper or sometimes wood.
- When you remove it from the flame does it continue to burn? Synthetic fibers melt, and usually, they go out pretty quickly after being removed from the direct flame. Natural fibers tend to burn longer, you might need to blow it out.
- What does the burnt edge look like? Since synthetics tend to melt you are likely to find the burnt edge to have a hard, melted plasticky appearance. Natural textiles create an ashier burnt edge, and the fibers of the fabric won’t be melted together.
Cutting Upcycled Fabric for Quilting
What your thrifted fabric was in its previous life will determine how you cut it. In particular, garments can be a little complicated.
When working with a clothing item for upcycling, start by cutting out all of the usable fabric pieces into the largest pieces possible. Lay your garment as flat as you can, and then assess where the seams are. The pieces you cut out are going to be constrained by the seams of your garment.
Garments are typically constructed either on the straight grain or on the bias. Just like with quilting cotton, it’s important to make sure we are cutting on the grain, not on the bias. There are two methods I like to use for doing this.
Method 1: The Stretch Method
Take the material in your hands along one of the edges and give it a little tug. Then move one of your hands 45 degrees up the fabric and give it another tug. Woven materials pulled on the grain will have a little bit of give, but not necessarily stretch.
But the bias (45 degrees from on the grain) will have significantly more stretch. Based on the results of your test, cut the material on the grain.
Method 2: The Rip Method
Make a snip in the edge of your material, preferably along one of the seams, and give it a pull. Woven materials always rip on grain, as is demonstrated in the video below from the Grow quilt sew along.
Whichever method you use, determine which direction is the straight grain of your fabric and then get cutting! Once you have cut out all the large usable pieces from the item you are upcycling, cut as usual for the project you are working on.
To Interface, or Not to Interface, That is the Question
Depending on the type of material you are working with, interfacing your fabric may or may not be a necessary step before sewing. Interfacing is a magical material that is sewn or fused to the wrong side of a fabric to offer more structure. You may want to consider using interfacing with your fabric if:
- Your fabric is stretchy. Particularly if you’re using something like jersey t-shirts as your upcycled material. Interfacing is going to add structure and reduce the stretch of the material, which will make it much easier to sew with.
- Your fabric is super thin, gauzy, or has eyelets. It’s not a bad idea to consider interfacing your upcycled fabric if it feels really thin and delicate. Also, fabric with eyelets can be adorable and add a lot of texture, but consider adding some interfacing so you don’t end up with batting sticking out of your eyelets.
Let There Be Thrifty Quilts!
Alright friends, it’s time for you to take these tips and tricks into the world and use them for quilty good. Let’s create some sentimental memory, eco-friendly, thriftastic quilts! If you have a fabric upcycling tip of your own be sure to share it in the comments. We would love to hear from you!