|Rachel Simler with the T-shirt quilt she made. 1/6/10 (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Rachel Simler is fast gaining a reputation as Bowling Green's go-to woman when it comes to "T-shirt quilts."
In the past four years she's made three of them as keepsake high school graduation gifts, and she's fast at work at two more. Both are earmarked for special members of the Class of 2010.
It's an art form that seems to be just on the edge of a popular explosion.
After all, what typically involved, active young person doesn't have a closet- and dresser-cache of old T-shirts from every possible sport, summer team or camp, post-prom, play, or other extracurricular interest dating back as far as preschool?
"I have lots of UFOs" ('unfinished objects,' in quilter parlance) but the T-shirt quilts aren't among them. They are her obsession and she completes each one with pride and creative precision.
It all started when Simler's good friend Robin French kept chatting about her quilting group during choir practice.
"She's the one that got me into it. We'd sit in choir on Monday nights and she'd talk about her quilting group," making it sound like such fun that Simler, a total non-quilter, showed up at the next meeting of the Bowling Green-based group that's informal enough not to have a name.
"I came in about eight years ago," joining a group of women loosely connected around Bowling Green Junior High School, including then-librarian Elaine Ezell and moms Nancy Green, Jill Hartwell and Jan Nelson, who works for e-quilters.
"We meet once a month and we try to work on projects. Jan's the one who showed me how to do the T-shirt quilt," based on a magazine article she'd discovered. "Jan brought the idea to the group but I think I'm the only one who actually did it."
At the time, Simler's niece, Megan, was about to graduate from high school with the Class of 2005 "and she was very active in sports," a prime source of excess shirts, "so I called and told her mom 'I need T-shirts!'"
It wasn't hard talking the girl into donating some "because they get so many now! They get one every time they do something, and they don't wear 'em."
Simler started the project right about this time of year, which is a good thing, because she estimates that first quilt took her five months to complete.
"She did get it for graduation."
The oldest of Simler's own five children, Christopher, graduated in 2007, and he too had plenty of T-shirts from which his mom could choose.
"I told him (about the project) ahead of time because I wanted him to help me pick out which ones."
Making the final cut were T-shirts from his time on the BGHS varsity soccer team, St. Aloysius, the Cleveland Indians, and a couple from younger days including a Safety Town shirt and even one sporting the Power Rangers.
The finished product capture precious pieces of his past in a 50-by-60-inch expanse of colorful fabric. It currently has a place of honor on his bed at the Wooster Street rental house where Christopher, now a Bowling Green State University junior and co-manager of the women's basketball team, resides.
Simler's third T-shirt quilt was a gift to a nephew graduating in 2009.
"It does go faster now," she said of quilt making. "Some I do four-by-four squares, the others four-by-three. It really depends how many T-shirts they give me," with each quilt block one-foot square.
The two she's working on now are earmarked for daughter Becca (BGHS 2010) and a niece in Pittsburgh.
Simler admitted she's kind of created a monster, with clear expectations on the part of her remaining children, nieces and nephews that a T-shirt quilt will be their graduation gift, too. "But I don't mind."
She is hopeful that all this work is garnering her "favorite aunt" status for at least the next 20 years or so.
And she's already started setting aside T-shirts for son Josh, 14, and daughters Allie, 11, and Emma, 6.
Simler, who taught at St. Al's School for six years, is currently caretaker at the church and works part-time as a substitute teacher for St. Aloysius and BG City Schools. She also mentors Allie and Becca through the 4-H Quilters program.
She's glad to share her knowledge with any adults who might want to try their own hand at T-shirt quilting.
"They're becoming much more popular. I think they were just starting when we began doing them.
"It's not hard. The trickiest part is cutting the squares," Simler said, warning: "Only cut it after you put the facing on the back" of the T-shirt swatch.
She sews tied-corner quilts rather than machine-quilted, since some of the T-shirt logos aren't flat.