Ask Unclutterer: What to do with sentimental t-shirts?

Reader Dawn submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My son has played sports since he was 5 yrs old and between me, my husband and him, we are overrun with “spirit” shirts with his name & number. Of course, he’s switched teams over the years, and has grown, so although a cute memento, I only need to keep 1 per team for the memory box. So, what do I do with the rest? I’m hesitant to donate them because they have his name on the back. Do you have any suggestions for me?

For the cotton spirit shirts you want to toss, I recommend cutting them up and using them as rags. If they would create more rags than you could possibly use in a lifetime, ask your friends, family, and local charity if they could use some cotton rags. Someone will want them.

If the fabric is polyester, you can actually recycle it. Call or check the website for your local recycling center to see if they accept polyester. It’s expensive to recycle and not all recycling centers accept polyester, so be sure to call before you make your donation.

Regarding the shirts you plan to keep, have you thought about having them sewn into a quilt instead of leaving them in a memory box? I think you might enjoy having a quilt to take with you to your son’s sporting events that is made up of all of his previous team shirts. The other parents in the stands might also have fun looking at it and taking a stroll down memory lane. There are companies that offer this service which you can find online, quilters you can hire through Etsy, and probably even your local quilt shop knows of someone in your vicinity who would be willing to sew it for you.

If one particular shirt holds special meaning (a state championship, his very first team shirt) you might also consider putting it in a frame and hanging it in his room as artwork. Since you’re going to the trouble of keeping some of the shirts, why not celebrate them?

Also, ask yourself if you really want to keep a copy of each shirt. Would just a few highlights have the same meaning for you and your son? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question, just something to consider.

Thank you, Dawn, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

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28 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: What to do with sentimental t-shirts?”

  1. posted by Brian on

    same problem, shirts over the years.

    made quilts out of them, old levis on the back side, shirt squares on the front. They are by far the favorite quilts anyone ever uses.

  2. posted by Jorge on

    Take a decent photograph of them and then recycle.

  3. posted by Welmoed on

    I’ve made two of these, using the shirts my kids got from the high school drama productions they took part in. Here is one of them:
    And here is the one for my son:

    They aren’t hard to make; the important step is to use fusible stabilizer on the back of each shirt section BEFORE you cut them into squares.

  4. posted by Meg on

    I had the same problem with shirts from summer camp. I’m in college and stopped going to camp several years ago, and most of the shirts didn’t fit or were too worn out. So I cut out the designs and made the top of the quilt (I can cut and sew large straight lines) and gave the top and some other materials to a local quilter who put everything together for me. I love it! And everyone who has seen it, especially from my camp, thinks its a great idea. I have a little extra, so I think I’m going to make a matching pillow when I have time.

    Cost me less than $50 for the fabric/batting/thread and less than $100 for the quilter, plus a lot of time. I already had access to a sewing machine and related supplies.

  5. posted by Mike on

    In our household, t-shirts go from social-wear to relax-wear to workout-wear to pajama-wear to house-cleaning-wear to painting-wear to rags, and are used as rags until they finally wear away to nothing. It’s the ciiiiircle of liiiiiiife! (Zebras and leopards dance around.)

    Old concert tees that have managed somehow to stay relatively intact go into storage for safekeeping. You may laugh now, but I accrued much esteem back in the late ’90s wearing intact 20-year-old Zeppelin and Rush concert tees given me by older relatives, and I hope to give my kids the same experience in their teen years in the 2020s wearing my preserved regalia of +Live+, Tori Amos, Incubus, Tool, and Alice in Chains. That’s the kind of social/musical cred you just can’t buy.

  6. posted by chris on

    I cut out the shirts and then sew a couple of them onto hooded sweatshirts.

  7. posted by Jan on

    Wear them as pajama or workout shirts. (versus cutting them up or tossing them)

  8. posted by Sarah on

    You could make a tote bag out of it.

  9. posted by Leigh on

    I also turn T-shirts into reusable bags. I cut the arms off, make the neck hole bigger and sew the bottom shut strait across. Kids shirts would make nice smaller bags.

  10. posted by Sidney on

    I LOVE MY T-SHIRT QUILT. It is the perfect weight, and it is very imperfectly sewn. (by me). I love it!

  11. posted by Lorraine on

    These companies will make the quilts for you:

  12. posted by Tracy on

    I love all these suggestions!! If I couldn’t turn in a t shirt into something beautiful and / or useful, I’d just have him pose in it, take a good photo, and it gets out of the house one way or another.

    An easy way to turn t shirt trash into something useful is to make pet beds or pillows. Choose a relatively nice t shirt of a suitable size, flip it inside out and sew up the sleeves and bottom. Turn right way out. Cut up a bunch of the other t shirts and stuff the scraps through the neck hole. If you want to make it softer, add some pillow stuffing as you’re filling it with t shirt scraps. When done, sew up the neck hole. Done! Even if you aren’t going to use it, I bet the local animal shelter could use it. Anyhows it gets rid of a bunch of t shirts in very quickly.

  13. posted by Rebecca Ross on

    My mom and her friend make quilts as their presents for the graduates they know. It has been a big hit with everyone so far.

  14. posted by Wendy on

    I took a photo of my son’s T-shirt Collection:

    The quilts are awesome – but just having the picture of these brings all the memories back to me without holding on to all the clutter!

  15. posted by Gwen on

    I wanted to do something with all of my “Race for the Cure” and corporate race team shirts. A quilt that I can donate to the treatment center to be used by those receiving chemo, would be a perfect option.

    To eliminate the “trophy” clutter, my sister-in-law put the small engraved plate from the trophies in a shadow box. This also provided a consistent look for the awards for the math/science geek (the oldest boy) and the athletes (my brother and youngest nephew).

  16. posted by Sonja on

    How about giving some of them to younger cousins? My aunt gave some of her son’s old shirts to my kids and they are some of my kids’ favorite shirts because they used to be his.

  17. posted by gypsy packer on

    Pillowcases, for dorm beds or throw pillows for mancaves. And, yes, really old event t-shirts accrue much status with the passing years, making them hot gifts to the appreciative.

  18. posted by Stasi on

    I’ll add another vote to the quilt idea. My grandma helped me make one out of t-shirts I gathered in HS and College. We used fleece for the back and it’s a great weight, an old sheet would make for a lighter quilt. Plus I have the great memory of making something with my grandma.

  19. posted by Nicole on

    My dad passed away the day after Valentine’s Day. he had cancer and was a HUGE supporter of the American Cancer Society and Relay for life. I went through and grabbed all of his R4L and ACS shirts (Team caption, star supporter, survivor, etc) from the past 7 years and I was thinking of making a quilt out of them as well. I couldn’t stand to get rid of them because of all the memories (I was usually right beeside him fundraising/helping him).

  20. posted by Jenny on

    I recently have been going through this since I have tons of t-shirts from teenage years and my twenties. I have made some into rags, but I have also been upcycling them as I have been learning how to sew this past year. I made a Christmas gift of an advent calender of 25 little drawstring bags made out of some of these t-shirts. I made a little skirt for our niece, etc. I have plans to make a skirt and pj pants for me too. At Christmas, I gave a couple of gifts with upcycled t-shirt drawstring gift bags as re-usable wrapping. I am just trying to find other ways to use them and keep them out of the trash. Some I donated (the few that were in good shape and were something someone else might actually want to wear.)

  21. posted by Jenny on

    Oh, and I meant to say that before doing anything with these t-shirts, I took pictures of all of them (which was an idea from the site). Somehow that process released me from the emotional attachment to them and I been more ready to find useful ways to do something with these t-shirts I was not wearing. For a favorite t-shirt of my husband’s, I framed the design part from it (after stains in other places had made it unwearable.)

  22. posted by Christine on

    Great suggestions so far! The best end-all solution I have seen for this issue was in Omaha where the children’s soccer league chose to use a reversible jersey (blue to white and) every team (all ages) bought the same uniform, and was then assigned to be blue or white at the game. A simple turn of the shirt! If you played in the league the following year, the same jersey could be worn unless it had been outgrown. This really reduced the cost for parents involved and saved us all from the mass quantities of shirts over the years. Some folks complained about the lack of individuality expressed by the two colors vs. dozens of colors but I found it refreshing. Someone could approach the sports league and explain the benefits of such a program in the long term. We all love colorful spirit shirts- but the real memory lies in the participation and the photos.

  23. posted by Nithy on

    I made a bunch of mine into a duvet cover: cut out squares, sew together, sew to a bedsheet with a gap to get the duvet into. Easier to wash, when necessary, and so much less actual quilting that went into the construction. I also have several skirts made from t-shirts, although that may not be a particularly appealing alternative for the men in your family. There’s a book called Generation T by Megan Nicolay that has a bunch of ideas.

  24. posted by cottrell on

    If you do crochet or knit, you can make a ‘yarn’ out of strips of cloth, perfect for rag throws. Good example here:


    And this Live Journal group offers lots of ways to re-sew t-shirts.

  25. posted by Nicole on

    I’ve been upcycling my old t-shirts myself lately. This website lists so many ways to repurpose those shirts, but my favorite so far has been the yoga pants (5th item down under the “bottoms” section). They only took me 30 minutes to make and now I have comfy pajama pants with memories attached.


  26. posted by EngineerMom on

    You can recycle cotton t-shirts, too. They generally get made into high-quality cotton-based paper.

    As for the quilt idea, it sounds great on paper, but unless you’re willing to pay someone $100+ or have the skills and time yourself, it’s not going to happen. Having a quilt made is not cheap, and it is fairly time-consuming to do yourself (count on at least 16 hours of work, and that’s if you’ve made a quilt before). Making the top isn’t had, it’s adding the back and binding, and either tufting or quilting the whole thing.

  27. posted by RunawayLawyer on

    I, for one, have absolutely no time nor patience to make anything out of old shirts – I just want rid of them, but prefer not to contribute to a landfill.

    Churches will often take soft cotton rags to clean/polish their candlesticks and chalices. Episcopal and Catholic churches come to mind.

    Animal shelters also use all sorts of rags for all sorts of things and because of heavy bleaching to disinfect them, they don’t last long and they are in constant need.

  28. posted by Abby on

    Make pillows! My mom made a whole bunch from my brother’s old TGI Fridays work shirts, and now we all have either green or red bold striped throw pillows. Or, if you simply want to get rid of them no matter if they’re made of polyester or not, you can put them in those drop boxes for clothing that they place in parking lots. The companies are for profit, but they some ship all over the world, where our meaningless t-shirts are considered “Americana” overseas. Also, Goodwill and Salvation Army sort their clothing and whatever they consider unusable supposedly goes to textile recycling factories who ship what’s usable to be sold overseas, or un-spin the fibers to make recycled yarns, or even make rags for use in a number or different industries.

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