I was looking through my 2018 blogs last week and had a sudden epiphany: I never talked about batting. With all the techniques I covered, I never specifically talked about batting and why choosing the right kind and using it the correct way makes all the difference in the world with your quilting. Let’s rectify that this week.
Batting, of course, is the center of your quilt sandwich. There’s the top you’ve spend so much time piecing and/or appliqueing, and the back. Between these two, there has to be a batting (at least there has to be if you want it to meet the true definition of a quilt). And when you talk about batting, most quilters assume you’re referring to a fluffy substance. Nearly 99 percent of the time that’s true, but technically the batting is anything that’s used as the center of a quilt. In antique quilts, it’s not uncommon to find an old quilt or blanket that’s been used as the batting. For summer quilts, I’ve used a cotton or flannel sheet as batting.
However, for the sake of this blog, we’re referencing the “fluffy stuff” that’s sold in bags or rolls clearly labeled as batting (or “wadding” if you live in some European countries). Batting can be cotton, cotton/poly blend, wool, polyester, silk, or even bamboo. The batting sold in bags are labeled queen, king, twin, or crib-sized. If you only complete one or two quilt tops a year, the bagged batting may work best for you. For those of us who have long arms, generally rolls of quilt batting work better, since we try to finish several tops a year. Some of it has scrim and some of it doesn’t. So how in the world do you choose which kind of batting to use with your quilt? Well, just as the colors of fabric we pick determine the look of the quilt, so does the batting. There’s no right or wrong choice, it just depends on how you want your finished quilt to look.
My go-to batting is 80/20. It’s made of 80 percent cotton fibers and 20 percent polyester fibers. It washes well, holds up to abusive quilting (close lines of stitches), and is generally a great all-around batting. It doesn’t break the bank and I can buy rolls of it at just about any store that sells quilt fabric or most quilting websites. If I’m making a charity quilt, a child’s play quilt, or any quilt for general use, this is the batting that goes in the middle.
However, it’s not the only batting that I use. If I want my quilt to have great drapability or have a slightly puckered, antique look, I reach for my all-cotton batting. I also use cotton batting in show-bound quilts, as this batting seems to show off the piecing the best. That’s because cotton batting is low-loft – it’s a thinner batting. This showcases the piecing more than the quilting. I also use it for any quilts I consider heirloom quality.
But….if the quilt is appliqued or pieced and appliqued, I order wool batting. Wool batting has a thicker loft, which means my quilting stitches will take the spot light. And when those stitches are around my applique, that means the applique will appear to “pop” off the quilt top and also be showcased. If I really want my applique to shine, I double-batt – I use a cotton batt next the backing and a wool batt next to the quilt top.
Hand quilting requires batting that a needle will easily go through without much force. When this is the case, I use polyester batting. I know that 100 percent polyester batting has a bad reputation – the kind manufactured years ago had thin spots in it. However, it’s gotten much better and makes the perfect batting for hand quilting. A needle pushes through without a lot of effort, making it easy to get at least eight stitches to the inch with some practice. If my hand quilted piece is show-bound, I prefer silk batting, which is even easier than polyester to get a needle through. However, silk batting is on the pricey side and I only use it for small, hand quilted pieces.
With any batting, you should read the directions before making your sandwich and proceeding with quilting. There are a few terms that may appear in the instructions you need to understand.
- Scrim – This is a light layer or grid of woven fibers added to some cotton battings. It acts as a stabilizer and helps to hold the batting together while quilting. This can be a good safeguard if the quilt will be frequently washed – the fibers won’t separate.
- Bonded – Quilt battings contain a type of glue or bonding adhesive, which means the batting may separate if the quilt is washed. In order to avoid this, close quilting lines are needed to make sure the batting holds up over time.
- Bearding – This is something to avoid. It refers to any wispy fibers that eventually seep out of the quilt top. This generally happens with lower-quality batting.
- Fusible – While I am not a huge fan of fusible batting (I think it’s stiff), for small projects and quilted items such as bags, it’s a wonderful thing. I’ve found myself struggling with it if I use it for larger quilt tops and I can’t seem to get it to bond evenly and without wrinkling.
Now for a couple of things you should be aware of with batting.
- If you choose cotton batting, give it a close eyeballing to make sure there are no seeds in it. Most cotton batting is very high quality, but even with this, occasionally a seed or two will pass through inspection. Use a pair of tweezers or your fingernails and remove the seeds. The reason? Over time they will leave a stain.
- Again, if you’re going with a cotton batting, chose white over the natural color. And I admit at this point, this is more of a personal preference thing. I tend to use a lot of white in my quilts and the dark flecks in the natural cotton batting can show through.
- If you’re machine quilting on your domestic sewing machine, a low-loft batting may work best. The high-loft batting is thicker and takes up more room, thus making it more difficult to maneuver around your machine’s throat.
- Know when to use black batting. Just like the other battings, black batting comes in a variety of blends and lofts. I don’t use black batting often, but it is important to know when to use it. If I’m making a quilt that has a lot of black and white in it, I will use black batting. However, I will also plan on quilting the black areas more densely than the white areas.
I will also use black batting if I’m using vivid reds, greens, blues, and purples. The black batting actually enhances the warmth and richness of the quilt top’s intense dark hues. And of course, if my quilt uses black background fabric, I will use black batting
- There is a right and wrong side to some batting. Yup – there is. Just like there is a right and wrong side to some fabric, there’s a right and wrong side to some batting. And if you place your batting wrong-side up, you can have issues with thread tension as well as bearding. If the batting is needle-punched, there is a right and wrong side. You can tell if your batting is needle-punched by giving it a close look. If the surface looks like it has tiny dimples in it, it’s been needle-punched. And that side with all the tiny dimples is the right side. The wrong side of needle-punched batting looks like it has tiny balls all over the surface. That side needs to go next to your quilt back. If you don’t put it next to the back, then there is more tendency for your quilt to beard on the front. Here’s the reason why: If you place the wrong side of the needle-punched batting next to the quilt top, as your quilting needle pierces the tiny balls, the needle will pull up fibers.
There is a right and wrong side to some bamboo batting. If the bamboo batting is needle-punched, you need to make sure you have the dimpled side next to your quilt top.
If the batting has a scrim, the side with the scrim surface is the wrong side. Make sure it goes against your quilt back. The reason behind this is that the side with the scrim should be the against side of the quilt that receives the most abuse. So, while the topic of which side of the quilt – top or back – receives the most abuse is a hot one, most batting producers agree the back of the quilt receives the most abuse since it’s always against something – a bed, a wall, etc. If the batting has a scrim and is needle-punched, go with the dimples against the quilt top.
However, if you’re working with bonded batting, you can rest easy – it doesn’t have a right or wrong side. And if you’re in any doubt, take a piece of the batting and push a hand sewing needle through it from each side. Whichever side is the easiest to needle is the right side.
- If you’re quilting on your domestic machine, always use a new needle. It will cleanly punch through all layers of the quilt, so bearding for whatever reason won’t be an option. My favorite domestic machine quilting needles are microtex and top stitching needles. The size of the needle will depend on the thread used. Long arm needles are more heavy-duty and can take the abuse of quilting a top or two (or more depending on the sizes of the quilts) before being replaced
The longer you quilt and the more different brands of batting you try out, you will probably find yourself liking one brand over the other. My very favorite brand is Hobbs, followed by Quilters Dream and Warm and Natural. I like Hobbs for lots of reasons: They have different lofts and blends, so I can find just about anything I need for any quilt I’m making, and their customer service is awesome. They also have a very informative website, so if I have any questions about what to use, I generally can find the answer there. And if not, an email to a customer service rep is answered quickly.
If you plan on quilting your tops (either on a domestic machine or a mid-arm or long arm), here’s one reason you may want to give Hobbs a try. They have a sample pack of their 13 most frequently used batts in large 18-inch squares. Purchase a pack, sandwich them with some quilters-quality muslin and experiment. This is an economical way to determine which type of batt works best for you.
Before closing, let me encourage you to quilt as many of your own tops as you can. For years I quilted on Big Red, moved to a mid-arm for a short while, and now am learning Loretta the Long Arm as quickly as I can. I love the quilting process as much as I love everything else (except for cutting out the quilt). Give it a try. You may love it as much as I do.
Until Next Week, Quilt with Passion!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
PS – The usual disclaimer applies here. I am not employed by Hobbs Batting nor do I receive any type of reimbursement or fee for endorsing their product. I only promote products that I have a history of using and that history includes consistently great results and superb customer service. In my over 30 years of quilting, Hobbs is one of those companies.