Once upon a time, when my quilt top was finished, the next item on my list was the backing. I’d either piece it or pull a whole quilt back from my stash. Since this was BLM (Before Long Arm Machine) you know what I didn’t think about at this point?
In many ways, the batting is always an afterthought with a lot of quilters. What’s on sale? What do I have? What does my long arm artist have in stock? Does the Joanne’s 40% off purchase coupon on my app cover batting this week?
Before I had a long arm, I was right there with you. I honestly didn’t give it much thought or effort. Most long arm artists seemed to like the 80/20 and had plenty of it in stock. Unless I was making an applique quilt that was show bound, I really didn’t care too much about what was in the middle of my quilt sandwich. But like I said, that was BLM. Once I started quilting 99% of my own stuff, suddenly batting became as important as pattern and color choice.
Let’s take today’s blog and look at batting a little more closely, starting with its history. In England and Australia, it’s commonly called wadding. In America, it became known as batting. Before commercial batts were available, it was up to quilters to make their own. Cotton was grown, picked, and laid out in front of the fireplace to warm. The warmth was important, as it made picking the seeds from the cotton bolls easier. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented a little machine called the cotton gin (short for engine), that separated the cotton seeds from the cotton fiber. Once seedless (by either method), the cotton fibers were combed with combing cards like this:
The combs separated the fibers. Once the quilter had enough combed cotton fibers for a quilt, they were spread out on the backing of a quilt, and the quilt sandwich was made as normal. These early batts were not one piece like we have today, but literally handfuls of cotton fibers spread as evenly as possible over the quilt back. For this reason, the quilting stitches had to be close together to keep the batt from migrating and clumping up.
Now that you’re thanking the good Lord for Eli Whitney, the cotton gin, and commercial batts, let’s discuss what to look for in a suitable batt for your quilt. The first decision that must be made is what size should be purchased. Fortunately, pre-packaged batts come in crib, twin, double, queen, king, and California king sizes. This is handy if you don’t quilt many of your own quilts by either domestic or long arm machine. If you do a great deal of your own quilting, I’ve found it much more economical to purchase batting by the yard, or better yet, batting by the roll. Storage space does become an issue, especially if you purchase more than one roll at a time.
But no matter what the form the purchased batting is in, you need to spread it out and let the folds relax for a day or two before making the quilt sandwich. If I have some stubborn folds that just won’t go away, I will steam those out with an iron. And always remember the batting should be three-to-six inches larger than the top (as should the backing). Sometimes there is a little shrinkage in the quilting process. A quilt that will be long armed will need the larger margin. A quilt quilted on a domestic machine can make do with the smaller margin.
The next item up for consideration is fiber content. Most battings are made of cotton or a cotton/polyester blend. However, today’s batts may also contain wool, silk, or bamboo fibers. Some batting is all organic and some is made from recycled fibers. There is no right or wrong decision here – what matters is personal choice, what the quilt will be used for, and how you want the quilt to look. The batt you chose for the quilt that goes on your bed may be entirely different from the batt you may chose for a crib quilt. With fiber content, loft also must be given some consideration. Loft is a fancy-schmancy way of saying thickness. If you chose a thicker batt (higher loft), the quilting stitches will be very visible. If a flatter batt is used, the piecing will show more predominantly, rather than the quilting. While we are talking about loft, let me also throw this in here: low loft works generally works best for quilting done on a domestic machine or an embroidery machine. A high-loft batting can be difficult to maneuver through those machines. Most long arms can handle just about any loft without major problems.
Now that we’ve covered size, loft, and fiber content, there still are a few batting terms I want to define for you before we move into brands and appearance. We see these terms on the batting labels and it’s important to know what they mean, because these characteristics affect the quilting plan and the quilt’s appearance.
Quilting Distance – Some batting will specify an optimal quilting distance between rows of stitches. Take a look at your quilting pattern and use this information to your advantage.
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 you’re a beginner quilter or prefer a design with wider spacing between the quilting lines. If you use a cotton batting without scrim, you’ll need to plan to make your quilting lines close together, so the fibers won’t separate in the wash.
Bonded – Some battings contain a type of glue or bonding adhesive, which means the batting fibers may get looser once the quilt is washed and the glue or adhesive is rinsed away. This usually requires close quilting lines to make sure the quilt holds together over time. However, if a batting is bonded, it generally won’t beard.
Bearding – This term refers to wispy fibers that eventually seep out of the quilt top. I can’t begin to explain how annoying this is – and disheartening. You spend months on a quilt and then more time (and perhaps more money) for the quilting, only to have batting wisps make you quilt look as if it needs a good shave. The way to avoid this is to use quality batting. Trust me, you’ll regret using the cheaply made stuff.
Fusible Batting – This is great for small projects! It can be ironed temporarily to secure it into the middle of a quilt, which saves time because that means no pinning or basting. However, personally, I’ve never been able to successfully use it in large quilt projects without it wrinkling on me
Needle-punched Batting – Needle-punch batting is mechanically felled together by punching the batting with a lot of needles. Because of this process, it’s a firm batt and it is denser than other batting. Needle-punch batting is a great choice for quilts that will endure a lot of harsh abuse (such as a play quilt or a chemo quilt). It’s also great for quilted apparel.
Moving on, now it’s time to address brands and desired appearance.
Quilters, as whole, are a pretty loyal bunch. Once we find a designer, tool maker, or any particular brand we really like, we tend to stick with that product and go into deep mourning if the manufacturer goes out of business. Batting is no different. There are several stellar batting manufacturers out there (Hobbs, Warm and Natural, Mountain Mist, and Pellon to name a few). I base my choice on customer service and consistent value for the dollar – just as I do any quilting-related purchase. And my very favorite batting brand is Hobbs.
They have just about any kind of batt you could want, in any size you want, with just about all the fiber content available. I’ve never had an issue with bearding and their customer service is wonderful. Warm and Natural and Quilter’s Dream come in close seconds. And I will use Mountain Mist polyester batting for hand quilting. But what works for me may not work best for you. Try different brands out to determine which one works for you. That’s what is really important.
Let’s look at each type of batting and what kind of look it gives your quilts.
Cotton Batting – This is made from 100% cotton fibers and is about 1/8-inch thick. When quilting on a regular sewing machine or an embroidery machine, this is probably the kind of batting you want, as it doesn’t create a lot of bulk you have to deal with when maneuvering the quilt through the machine throat. This batting gives great drapeability and is the kind you want to use when you want the attention to be on the piecing and not the quilting. It is not the best batting to use for hand quilting, though. Cotton batting comes in two colors, white and natural. Care must be given when using the natural color. It’s kind of an ecru shade and if you’re using light colors or white as the background or neutral, it can make those colors appear dull. Overall, white is generally the best choice for almost any quilt that you plan to use a cotton batting. One more word of caution, before putting the quilt top on the quilt sandwich, peruse the batting for any cotton seeds that somehow slipped through the manufacturing process. These can be oily and eventually leave a small stain on your quilt top or back.
Polyester Batting – Like polyester thread, polyester batting has come a long, long way over the years. Polyester batts used to have incredibly high loft and have thin patches here and there in the batt. No more. Today’s polyester batts hold its shape and thickness better than almost any other batting, but is very light. It has nice drapeability, and if the quilt you’re making is one that may spend significant time in the washing machine, (such as a crib quilt or child’s play quilt) this is probably the kind of batting you want. It stands up well to such treatment. The loft is a bit higher on polyester batting (it can run from 3/8-inch to 1-inch thick), which means your quilting stitches will show up more than with a thinner batt and it adds warmth without weight. Another plus is that polyester batting is mold and mildew resistant. Polyester batting is my go-to batt for hand quilting. It needles beautifully.
Wool Batting — I love wool batting. It has a higher loft, running about ½-inch thick. This is my go-to batting for applique quilts. The higher loft emphasizes the quilting stitches, which in turn defines the applique better. And despite the thickness, it’s incredibly light weight. It is also very warm. This batting is excellent for hand quilting or the long arm. It is a bit bulky for domestic machine quilting. It also ties beautifully. Because of the ½-inch thickness, it doesn’t drape as pretty as a polyester or cotton batt, but you’re trading that off for definition of quilting stitches – your quilting with be front and center with a wool batting.
Cotton/Poly Batting – Like the name denotes, this batting is a blend of cotton and polyester fibers. It’s commonly called 80/20 (80 percent are cotton fibers and 20 percent are polyester), and this is generally the staple of all long arm quilters. It’s a great all-around batting. This batt has all the characteristics of a cotton batting, with the loft of a polyester one. It quilts well and washes great, too. The drapability is good. While I will always prefer a wool batt for my applique quilt, this is my go-to batting for cuddle quilts, throws, and play quilts.
Bamboo Batting – This batting is still fairly new to the quilt market. It’s comprised of 50 percent bamboo and 50 percent organic cotton. In order to make this batting, the bamboo is processed into fiber using pollution-free methods with little waste — so it’s a “green” quilting supply. The pros to this batting are it is very breathable and holds up well to machine quilting of any kind. It’s machine washable, with a 2 percent to 3 percent shrinkage. The cons to this batting are I have always found it a bit stiff. It doesn’t drape as well as the other batts. And there isn’t enough history behind this batting to determine how well it holds up to time, use, and the elements.
Silk Batting – If I had to name a favorite kind of batt, this would be it. It’s great for hand or machine quilting – needles slips through this like a hot knife through butter. It’s appearance in either pieced or applique quilts is spectacular. It has a bit of a higher loft than cotton batting, but it is so light that the extra bulk isn’t a problem. Like bamboo batting, silk batts are a recent addition into the batting market, so it doesn’t have a great deal of history, either. To stabilize the silk fiber, it’s blended with polyester. The silk batting you purchase is really 90 percent silk and 10 percent polyester. It’s also important to buy a bonded silk batt to prevent any bearding. Silk batting maintains its loft, it’s light as a feather, and it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It can be machine washed, but any quilt made with silk batting should be laid flat to dry. This quilt batt shows off your quilting stitches like no other batt and has the best drapability of them all. It is simply the best. The only drawbacks to this batting are the price and availability. It is more expensive than the other batting and is generally only available through web sites. I’ve never found it in a quilt store.
Black Batting – Besides white and ecru, black batting is available, generally in the 80/20 blend. If you use a lot of black in your quilt – say black is your background or neutral, you will probably want to use black batting. However, if your quilt is a pretty equal mix of black and a light, or there are large patches of a light (such as in setting triangles when the quilt is set on point), you will want to forgo the black and stick to a white. In this situation, the black would “gray-down” your light and probably not give the quilt the appearance you really want. However….if you’re using a lot of bright, saturated colors (especially with batiks), you may want to go with a black batt even if you’re not using a lot of black in the quilt. Black batting beneath these bright colors makes them look even brighter.
By now you should know your way around batting terms and types. The best advice I can give you is to try the different brands and see what works best for the type of quilting you do. If there is a brand I would personally always have in my stash, it’s the 80/20. Of all the batts, this is the most versatile. However, no matter what kind of batting is used, two situations will arise – scraps and shortage. Every quilter has run into the situations where he or she has large, left-over batting pieces they don’t know what to do with (and they’re too big to justify throwing away), or you’ve finished piecing the quilt only to discover you’re a few inches short on batting. Here are a few ways to deal with both of those situations.
Let’s talk scrappage first. Quilters will always have leftover batting scraps, no matter how carefully it’s purchased. I can never bring myself to throw away the large pieces of remaining batting scraps, no matter how hard I try. I’ve discussed how to tame your fabric scraps, now I want to tell you how I manage my batting scraps.
The most important thing to remember is don’t mix your batting scraps. With our fabric scraps, we know that all the material is 100% cotton and it’s all either prewashed or not. However, with the exception of cotton batting (it has its own very distinct look), it can be difficult to tell the 80/20 from the 100% polyester. Keep the different kinds of batting in different tubs and label the tubs. The reason behind this will become apparent in a few more paragraphs.
The large scraps – say 12 x 12-inches or larger – can always be used for projects such as mini-quilts, placemats, table toppers, or pillows. Wider and narrow pieces of batting are good for wall hangings and table runners. Smaller pieces can be used for coasters, Christmas ornaments, or mug rugs. It’s always great to have these scrap options on hand for such projects so you don’t have to cut into a whole batt to get the size you need. It’s a wise use of resources and money. Those are the most obvious scrap-use options. But what about the smaller pieces? There are some organizations that will take certain sized smaller batting scraps. These organizations use these scraps to make washable sanitary napkins for women. You can google these groups and research what size they need and send your smaller batting leftovers to them. There are also a few “unorthodox” uses for these scraps. I have found they work wonderful on my Swiffer Sweeper — they pick up tons more than the regular dust mop cloths. They also do a beautiful job polishing furniture.
Now let’s look at a fairly common scenario. You’ve pieced your top. You’ve got your backing pressed and ready to go. You rummage through your batting to find what you think is a large enough piece, only to discover is just a bit too short or too narrow. Before you head to the store to buy another batt, let’s look at your batting scraps. You may have enough to add to the large piece of batt you have so you won’t need to purchase any extra. However, you don’t want to add two different types of batting together. For instance, you wouldn’t want to add a cotton batt to an 80/20 or a 100% polyester batt. Not only would the lofts be different, it would also give different appearances in the quilting stitches. And if you wash the quilt, the cotton batt would shrink more than either of the other two, thus altering the quilt’s appearance even more. This is why it’s important not to mix your batting scraps.
Piecing batting is not difficult. Place two pieces of batting together, with an overlap of about ½-inch on your cutting mat.
Once the batting edges are lined up and overlapped, they will need to be cut. Place a ruler over the overlapped area and cut down the center. When you remove the little scraps, you’ll have two straight edges that will butt up together perfectly.
When piecing batting, you don’t want a seam, so you don’t piece right sides together. The batting pieces will butt up against each other and you will sew along the edges of the batt.
The sewing does not have to be super-secure. Basically, you’re simply basting it together until the actual quilting is done, which will hold it permanently into place. I use a wide zig-zag stitch and a thread color (both in the bobbin and on top) that matches my batting. Be sure not to let the batting pucker. Some sewing machines seem to struggle moving the batting over the feed dogs. If you’re machine seems to have this issue, try using a piece of tissue (the kind you use in gift bags) beneath the batting. This will easily tear away from the batt when you’re finished. If you have scraps of wash away stabilizer, those work great, too.
There is this quilting product:
With this fusible tape, you cut your batting as described above, cut a piece of tape the length you need, and fuse it onto the butted edges. I have used this product and it works great. The only problem I have is that my iron doesn’t like to press directly on the batting. I use a press cloth over top and have no issues. I have also heard (but I have never tried) lightweight fusible webbing (such as Heat-n-Bond light or SewKnit) also does a wonderful job in this process. The directions state to cut a piece of the webbing ½-inch wide by the desired length and press according to directions and in the same matter as you would the fusible tape.
It’s always a great thing to save money, and by sorting and storing your battings scraps, we can do both. It also keeps a great deal of batting out of landfills. So, this is really a win-win for everyone. And just in case you’re wondering, I have found no difference in the quilting process with either a pieced batting or a whole one, on either Big Red, my mid-arm, or my long arm.
Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam