It took me a while to get around to it, but I did finally manage to make a Coast Guard t-shirt quilt for my dutiful husband. Although jersey turns out to be a difficult medium to work with, I enjoyed this particular labor of love very much.
This quilt represents the three cutters and two station jobs that he had in his first ten years with the U.S. Coast Guard: CGC Tampa, CGC Abbie Burgess, CGC Thunder Bay, and Station Rockland (twice). In the most recent six years he has held two additional positions—at NESU Seattle (a Naval Engineering Support Unit which directly supported CGC Healy), and then on CGC Healy herself. Happy 16th anniversary with the Coast Guard, sailor!
Here's what the final result looks like. Size-wise, it was designed to fit a "rack" on a ship, which is about the size of a twin bed—imagine it as a coverlet. (The quilt is pictured below-left on the bed my dad had as a child, and that my brother and I each used during our childhoods as well.)
The following is a picture of him during ice liberty with his current cutter, CGC Healy, somewhere on the Arctic Ocean. CGC Healy is typically deployed to the Arctic for 4 to 6+ months at a time, most recently taking scientists to the North Pole!
Once I decided that it was finally time to begin the project, I started by washing the 23 old Coast Guard work shirts that he had collected over the years. These are only the ones from his first five posts—we must have another 30 in Washington where we live now (this project was done while I was living in Nova Scotia and he was away in the Arctic, so I didn't have access to those). I stacked them by ship and type, and started playing with how to design the quilt using what was available.
As this was my first attempt at making a t-shirt quilt, I didn't want to cut up his original boot camp t-shirt or any of the other unique, one-of-a-kind department shirts that he has—for fear of messing them up without hope of repair—which is how I decided to focus on his more general postings. I can see that a number of similarly themed quilts (or wall hangings) may get made in the distant future, and I have an idea for a fabric book of t-shirts that his various medals and pins can be attached within.
Once I got up the courage to make the first cut, it took me no time at all to disassemble seven of the t-shirts (I used one as a test and the other six ended up in the quilt).
I did quite a number of experiments with scraps of the t-shirt fabric (jersey) to see how easy it was going to be to quilt, and was horrified. It turns out that it is virtually impossible to quilt jersey neatly without a stabilizer of some sort.
Here are the three tests I made: beer mats created for my twice-weekly trips to the local pub for the Irish Session with my two best beer-drinking buddies—a flower for Barbara, a T.A.R.D.I.S. for Sam, and a mushroom for me. I am one of those people who really prefers a mat under my pint, and Paddy's often runs out of them, so I made my own and now have one in my back pocket at all times.
And here's one of my photos of the weekly Sunday evening Irish Session at Paddy's in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. I post this for my husband who can't join me for these sessions while he is away, and he especially loves attending them.
So, I went back to the fabric store and bought a whole bunch of linear feet of lightweight stabilizer. It was super easy to use and a total success. It takes a long time to do correctly with a regular household iron, but the results were perfect.
I spent hours and hours pressing the stabilizer onto the backs of the t-shirts, and then carefully cut the stabilized fabric into perfectly measured rectangles.
The pile of stabilizer-backed jersey selvedge that resulted from carefully cutting out all those blocks:
Then I sewed each of the rows together. As it turned out, the t-shirts he wore at the beginning of his career were a somewhat different size than those later on, so I had to make extra edges to compensate (not shown here, but I sewed those on as well). Each row came from one t-shirt. And it turns out that all the extra bits and pieces (shown over the back of the chairs on the right) make perfect household rags.
And then I sewed all the rows together into one perfect quilt-top. At this point, I had been working on the beast for twelve hours!
The quilt required three different colors of thread on the top, and I used one color of thread for the entire back. A large piece of dark blue cotton was used for the back, and a mid-weight batting was chosen for the middle.
Then finally began the truly countless hours of quilting … round and round and round—pulling the whole quilt through the throat-space of the sewing machine hundreds of times ...
Here's a detail of the quilting around one of the cutters. Think waves ...
So that's it. A quilt made of six old Coast Guard t-shirts. May it keep you warm and grounded.
This isn't in fact the first quilt that I've made for him, it's the second. The first was a scale model Airstream quilt that I created so that he could have some semblance of contact with "home" wherever he was, in the Arctic or beyond.
And as a comparison, here he is with our actual (mobile) home, eating a cheese sandwich and contemplating starting a fire.