- Arts and Design
How to Make a Tee Shirt Tapestry
Fitting the Family to a Tee
Just as the rings of a tree illustrate its history, family reunion tee shirts can represent the passage of time in the tree of life. My family's tree has many stories to tell and those stories have been captured to a tee!
Early on reunion morning, cousins Howard and Alex lug the pig onto the grill to assure that our family feast will be high on the hog.
They will marinate it and baste it so that the meat will be succulent and the skin crunchy by the time aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins roll into town on Friday with mouths watering and stomachs growling.
Alex portions the pig so no one has to hog the grill!
When the afternoon festivities begin, Howard heats his peanut oil in the cast-iron pot and deep fries a batch of fish so firm and crispy it morphs into an irresistible sculpture waiting to perch on your plate.
Sometimes cousin Oliver treats everyone to crabs legs or tows his popcorn machine all the way from Philadelphia so that we can munch on that buttery movie popcorn. The smell of the food is intoxicating and the company of family is oh, so invigorating.
On Saturday, we get to work off some of that food with our Family Day activities at the state park, such as the 3-legged race, trivia showdown, karaoke, musical chairs, limbo and “Wobble” line dancing.
Melting like Microwave Velveeta
Sunday at mid-morning, when it feels like 200 degrees in the shade, we converge on the steps of the home church to take our family portrait. By the time we say “Cheese,” we’re melting like a slice of microwave Velveeta.
We are drenched in sweat by the time we file into the worship service – but it is all part of the annual ritual we call “family reunion.” There’s nothing fancy about it - just down-home fun and fellowship. It has been repeated every summer in the small South Carolina town of Chester for a dozen years.
We have immortalized so many of these scenes in pictures on our family reunion tee shirts. We realized one of the best ways to preserve our family memories is to wear them! We are a walking piece of family history as our tees have been transformed into wearable billboards of colorful keepsakes.
When our children take a break from their iPhones and PDAs long enough to ask “Who is this?” on my tee, we get the opportunity to share stories of ancestors. It reminds us of what the reunion is all about.
Over the years, it has been my honor to help create amateur picture graphics, using both vintage and current photos. We found a local vendor able to print professional transfers from our designs and iron them onto our shirts. It is not unusual to catch someone admiring our photo tees, or giving us kudos when they see us wearing one. It is a tangible way to memorialize our forebears and elders by illustrating to everyone the strong family bond that we have cultivated.
After each reunion, I preserve my family tee shirt--washing it by hand and hanging it out to dry before storing in a plastic container. From the very beginning, I made a pact with myself to one day find a way to assemble the shirts into a beautiful mosaic.
In rummaging through the tee shirt container this year, I felt that I had enough to put together a collage as a creative way to present a family reunion timeline. I Googled ‘Tee Shirt Tapestry’ and ‘Tee Shirt Quilt’ and the images that cropped up showed that the front of the shirts had been cut off and sewn together like a rectangle-patterned quilt.
I prepared to make my own tapestry using two yards of deep blue canvas tarp fabric (72”x60”) that I purchased from the upholstery section of a nearby fabric store.
Video: "How to Make a Tee Shirt Tapestry"
When I got ready to lay out the design, I couldn’t bring myself to cut the shirts. Instead, I decided to form each tee into a rectangle shape like a new boxed shirt. I folded the arms and sides back and the bottom third up behind, pinning them into position by using a double-threaded needle to tack each tee at the corners.
"What a great keepsake to have hanging around!"
"It's probably 3-4 generations deep."
Brewing a Tee Tree
A tee idea began to brew when I started to position the shirts into different formations. I lined the shirts up chronologically to create a patchwork-type pattern. While it looked very sentimental and colorful, I felt that the project still lacked its own distinct personality. I thought: Why not arrange them into a “T” tree design? This would be a great way for me to pay homage to our ancestors by fashioning the tees into a family tree.
I dug up some scraps of fabric that I had stored away and started to fashion a tree trunk out of a brown piece that resembled bark. My design was comprised of two vertical columns of brown fabric, filled with three folded tee shirts, closed off by one horizontal bar of fabric.
By utilizing three shirts, I created the perfect way to frame the bottom of the tree. I made two fan-shaped, horizontal rows of tees to form the crown of the tree.
In sifting through leftover fabric, I salvaged every piece of green cloth that I could find to create leaves for the tree. I used some pieces of green to fill in empty spaces between tees in the crown.
How To Make A Tee Shirt Tapestry
2 yds of heavy fabric
Brown & Green cotton fabric
Tee Shirts (10 or more)
Heat Bond (Pellon)
Pipe or Dowel
Heavy Duty Needle
Creating a Family Bond
Now that I had a basic layout, I purchased two types of heat bond to use as my gluing agent: Stitch Witchery and Pellon. I began firming up the trunk by using strips of stitch witchery to iron-hem the edges. I used a double-threaded needle to tack the three folded shirts onto the tarp background by stitching each of the four corners. I positioned two strips of brown fabric on each side of the tees, bonded them by putting a strip of Stitch Witchery between the brown fabric and the tarp and ironing them on.
I then used the double-threaded needle to tack down the tees to form the crown of the tree. I used 5 yards of ultra-firm heat bond (pellon) to design the leaves that would embellish the crown. I put the heat bond between two pieces of fabric and ironed them together. I made several leaf patterns and cut them out as appliqués.
It required a lot more leaves than I had anticipated for embellishing the crown. I tacked bunches of leaves together, then tacked those bunches onto the tarp fabric with thread, leaving some of the corners free so that the leaves appeared to be 3-dimensional. I filled in empty spaces by sewing on singular leaves.
Not a Casual-Tee
However, as the date of our reunion drew closer, I realized that there wasn’t enough time to sew in all the leaves to complete the mosaic. I worried that the tapestry would become another project casualty for me. I decided to iron on about half the leaves using Pellon. I finished the tapestry just a few days before the reunion and it was a proud feat for me. The family never looked better!
Teeing in on the Tapestry
In order to hang the artwork, I rolled the top of the tapestry around a 70” PVC pipe and used safety pins to create a casing to hold it in place. (I decided not to stitch it because it would create a sewn seam across the top of the tapestry. If you prefer, you can use a dowel or stick instead of a pipe.) With the pipe inserted, the tapestry was much heavier than I had anticipated, tipping the scales at about 8 pounds. I had saved the cardboard roller that the tarp fabric was purchased on and used it to roll up the tapestry for preservation and transportability.
When we prepared to set it up at the reunion venue, we had to hang it with light stands to support the weight of the tapestry. We were able to position it just above the family memorabilia table, creating a striking accent corner for our family event. It was so enriching to watch as family members mulled over the mosaic, recalling past years and smiling as it brought back special memories. Many of them took a moment to pose in front of the tapestry, which proved to be a great photo backdrop.
From Obsession to Prized Possession
After the reunion, I rolled the tapestry back onto the cardboard roll and covered it with plastic to be stored away for next year’s reunion. This project enabled me to present the tee shirts in an artistic array while also leaving me with several options: I can rearrange the shirts or add more in years to come. Plus I can remove tees from the tapestry if I ever want to wear them again.
I have a great feeling of accomplishment at having been able to transform my obsession with family reunion tee shirts into a prized possession that I will always cherish.
Family cousins size up the Tee Shirt Tapestry.
You're So Artsy!
What type of artsy project have you assembled or dreamed of assembling for a special event?
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