Jack Olson is just 10, but his mother is already preparing for his high school graduation gift. A box in his bedroom closet holds a stack of sports jerseys that she’s saving to someday cut into pieces.
She’s collecting the elements for his T-shirt quilt.
“I’ll do it in his senior year so he can have it for his grad party and take it to college,” said Lou Ann Olson, 42, of Hopkins. “I’ve got his first T-ball shirt, and who knows what I’ll collect.”
The T-shirt quilt is fast becoming a highly coveted graduation gift. While it doesn’t have the same cachet of cool possessed by a smartphone or e-tablet, high school and college graduates say these quilts serve a different purpose. These one-of-a-kind bedcovers reflect their lives in fabric — incorporating T-shirts from athletics, performances, clubs and other activities, as well as cloth from baby blankets, school uniforms and maybe a favorite pair of jeans.
Ryan Strand, 23, wanted a quilt as a college graduation gift. Last spring, when his parents came to watch him collect his diploma at California Lutheran College, he handed them a suitcase. Inside were 48 T-shirts.
“I got a tee for every activity,” Strand said. A vocal performance major, he was on stage in numerous plays and concerts, and also was active in student government.
“He said, ‘Here they are, Mom, I saved them for four years,’ ” recalled his mother, Lindsay, of Minnetonka. “A T-shirt quilt wasn’t on my radar. Who would think a guy would want a blanket? But he obviously did.”
The quilt wizard
Strand’s mom took the suitcase of T-shirts to Beth Kobliska, 58, a former IT executive who started a home-based quilting company four years ago after being laid off.
“My husband assumed I would interview for another job in IT, but I wanted to do something I loved,” Kobliska said.
She first produced quilted table runners, but found few takers at local art fairs during the recession. She stitched together her first T-shirt quilt at a friend’s request.
“It was for a sorority girl, and she was thrilled. She showed it off and the word-of-mouth was phenomenal,” Kobliska said.
Orders poured in. To keep up, she built a website for her company, North Channel Designs, and purchased a 12-foot, $35,000 long-arm quilting machine, which occupies the length of the formal dining room in her Inver Grove Heights home.
For each heirloom-in-the-making, Kobliska cuts the most interesting graphic out of each T-shirt and uses a steam press to fuse the pieces to a lightweight backing in order to stabilize the fabric’s stretchiness. Next she lays out the pattern and pieces the quilt top on a standard sewing machine.
It takes four to five hours for her high-tech machine to stitch the finished quilt top to the cotton batting and fabric backing, a fraction of what it would take to finish it by hand.
During the pre-graduation run-up, she can turn out as many as four quilts a week.
“When I got serious about this, I had to time myself so I wouldn’t over-promise,” she said.
One of the quilts under construction in Kobliska’s dining room will be the centerpiece at the graduation party for Lakeville South senior Colby Sprung, who will take it to Dakota Wesleyan University in the fall. His cloth collage will reflect the 18-year-old’s involvement in sports and scouting. His mother supplied Kobliska with a bag of Colby’s soccer, baseball and football T-shirts, plus kerchiefs, uniforms, badges, patches and sashes from his years as a Cub and Boy Scout.
“As I was pulling out Colby’s shirts, I had so many fond memories,” Anita Sprung said. “Someday I want to visit him and see the quilt in his guest room. It’s a keepsake with function.”
The cost of memories
Sprung requested a queen-sized quilt that will cost $700. Kobliska’s most popular creation is the twin-long size, which uses about two dozen shirts and fits a standard college dorm bed. They sell for between $350 and $500. The most elaborate quilt Kobliska has created was king-sized, incorporated 120 T-shirts and cost the customer $1,000.
“When the moms see the finished project for the first time, they cry. They see their child’s whole life in that quilt,” Kobliska said. “No one ever cried when I turned in a data design.”
T-shirt quilts have been around for years, but they garnered a bit of pop-culture intrigue when one appeared in the third “Twilight” movie in 2010. While they’re trendy now, they have much in common with quilts of the past, said Kathleen Campbell of the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota.
“These quilts are the natural descendant of 19th-century quilts. The pioneers created something useful and meaningful out of scraps and leftovers,” Campbell said. “Historically, a quilt tells a story, and they’ve always been created as a labor of love, so they are as much about the giver as the recipient.”
Ryan Strand called his T-shirt quilt, presented this past Christmas, the best gift his parents ever gave him.
“I loved college, and those T-shirts were there for all of it,” said Strand, now a graduate student at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Without the quilt, they become workout shirts until someday when they get donated or sold in a garage sale. They represent such good times, so that seemed a shame.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.