Sewing with Batiks

I know most of you have seen fabric such as this:

Or this:

This lovely, undulating fabric is called batiks.  Batiks hit the quilting market in the mid-eighties when Bali Fabrics introduced them at quilt markets.  They gained momentum and hit a popularity peak in the nineties.  However, they’re still a mainstay in quilts and quilt shops all over the world.  With this fabric addition a “late comer” to the quilting world, it’s easy to think this is a fairly recent fabric invention. 

And this would be wrong.

Batiks have been around for thousands of years, beginning in Indonesia.  The term comes from the Indonesian word “ambatik” which means “dotted piece of fabric.”  This fabric is made by the “resist” method.  Wax is spread over the cloth, creating the desired design, and then the fabric is saturated with dye.  During the dying process, the wax can crack, which adds more interest in the dye design work.  Once the fabric has dried, the wax is scraped off, leaving undyed areas.  If desired, more wax designs can be added and the cloth dipped in another dye color.  This process is time consuming, but it produces a beautiful fabric. 

Once batiks hit the quilting world, we quilters puzzled over them for a while.  I instantly fell in love with them, but was left wondering, “Do I use them with other quilting cottons, or do they need to be in a quilt by themselves?”  I also loved the way all batiks appeared to easily go together.  Most quilters were like me.  When batiks hit the quilt shops in the mid-eighties, we all wondered how to use them.  For a while, they appeared in quilts all by themselves.  After a few years, we realized this fabric could be great blenders or even a focus fabric.  We embraced them and in no time at all, we had zero issues throwing batiks in with our standard quilting cottons.

However, batiks are not like our standard quilting cottons.  Quilting cottons tend to go through far fewer dying processes than batiks.  As a result, quilting cottons have a much softer hand than batiks.  Batiks can feel stiff because they generally have undergone several rounds of dying and they have a higher thread count than regular quilting fabric.  This doesn’t make them any better or any worse than quilting cottons, but it does make them different and as a result, if we tweak how we handle this fabric, it plays much nicer with our other material and works well in any quilt. 

The first thing to keep in mind is the shrinkage factor.  By now, my regular readers know I prewash all my fabrics.  If you’re making a quilt and plan to use both quilting cottons and batiks in it, this is one of those times you may want to prewash everything, but especially the quilting cottons.  Batiks are put through the dyeing process several times, so as a result, they do not shrink much – if at all.  However, quilting cottons are different.  They have a higher shrinkage ratio than batiks because they don’t undergo the same sort of wet dyeing procedure.  If you sew non prewashed quilting cotton to batiks and then toss the quilt in the washer, there’s more than a good chance the cotton fabric will shrink more than the batiks, which will cause puckers around the piecing and/or applique. 

There’s another reason you may want to prewash everything, including the batiks.  And that reason is the fading factor.  Again, this ties back into the dyeing process.  Overall, because the dyes and dyeing process has been nearly perfected over the last 10 years, quilting cottons generally don’t fade on each other when they’re washed – especially if you toss a Color Catcher in the washing machine.  Batiks are usually not this color stable.  They’ve been known to crock/fade/run onto adjacent fabric.  If you absolutely abhor prewashing, there’s a simple test you can do to see if the batik will fade. 

  1.  Cut a 3-inch square of the batik fabric and a 3-inch square of a white fabric.  Fill a container with cool water – somewhere in the 80 – 85 degree range.  Add about an 1/8-teaspoon Orvis soap and stir to distribute.  Add the two squares of fabric and stir again.  Let sit for thirty minutes, occasionally stirring to redistribute the soap and the fabric. 
  2. After 30 minutes, if there is no dye in the container, you’re good to go.
  3. If there is dye in the container, repeat the process.  When thirty minutes are up, lay the white fabric square right next to the batik fabric square and allow to dry.  If none of the dye from the batik fades onto the white, you’re probably okay to use the batik in the quilt without prewashing. 

If the batik fails the test, don’t despair.  You need to prewash it, but there are some additional prewashing steps you may want to make to assure the batik doesn’t fade onto a lighter fabric. 

First, there’s this product:


This is a color fixative, and it can be found in most big box stores or Amazon.  It’s super important to follow the directions exactly, and that you use hot – really hot – water in order for the product to work correctly.  Issues which have cropped up after using this product are generally due to the fact the user didn’t have the water hot enough.  The water temperature needs to be 140-degrees and the fabric should be agitated in this hot water for 20 minutes.  When I use this product, I use the “hot” option for all my wash cycles and turn off the cold-water line which runs into my washing machine.  Treat the batik fabric before putting it into the quilt, and after the quilt’s finished, only wash in cold water.

Second, there’s Synthrapol.

This is a cool product and the chemistry teacher in me still geeks out when I use it. Synthrapol is a surfactant.  It’s predominantly used in the hand dying process, but it can be used in prewashing.  The product suspends the dye molecules in the water, so they don’t settle on the fabric.  If you use the blue Dawn Dish Detergent, you have already used a surfactant – it doesn’t let the grease in the water settle back on the dishes or your hands.  It holds them suspended in the water.  Can you use the blue Dawn instead of Synthrapol?  Yes.  It works just fine on small pieces of fabric.  For anything larger than a couple of yards, I recommend using the Synthrapol in your washing machine. And like the Retayne, follow directions carefully. 

If I plan on using batiks and quilting cottons in a quilt which will probably never be washed (such as a wall hanging or a miniature), I don’t bother prewashing at all.  In this case, it doesn’t matter.

The last two items which must be considered when sewing batiks are the needles and the thread used.  Let’s talk needles first.

If you’re machine piecing with batiks, you have to remember batiks have a higher thread count and are more tightly woven than standard quilting cottons.  You’ll want a finer needle which is still strong.  My preferred sewing machine needle to use with batiks is a 70/10.  This size needle will glide through the fabric, but won’t punch holes in it.

Hand applique/finished edged machine applique requires a little more planning.  To begin with, I love batiks for hand and machine applique.  The tighter weave guarantees little to no fraying, which means it’s perfect for raw-edge machine applique.  However, there must be a little more pre-planning for finished machine edge and hand applique.  This tighter weave also means the fabric is stiff.  And stiff fabric is more difficult to manipulate around curves, corners, and prepared edges.  It’s important (at least to me) to remove some of the stiffness, so the batik fabric is a bit more manageable.  The easiest way I’ve found to remove the toughness is with hot, hot water – hotter than even the required temperature for Retayne.

I came across this by accident when I was deep into the mask making of 2020.  I used batiks as the mask lining because of the tighter weave, but didn’t want the folks wearing my masks to inhale all the chemicals of the finished, unwashed fabric.  I was rinsing both the batiks and my quilting cottons in boiling water (212 degrees Fahrenheit) to make sure all the chemical finishes were removed.  I would heat water in my electric kettle, put the fabric in my clean kitchen sink, and then pour the boiling water over them.  After the water and the fabric cooled, I’d hang them both to air dry.  The quilting cottons shrank a bit, but the transformation of the batiks was amazing.  The boiling water made them feel like silk.  They were soft and easy to handle.  This is now the way I treat all the batiks I plan to use for any type of hand applique or finished-edged machine applique. 

While this boiling water treatment does give the batiks softer hand, the fabric still has a tight weave.  As a result, you may find yourself struggling with your preferred hand applique needle.  There are two different hand applique needles designed specifically for this process. 

The first is Clover Black Gold Applique Needles.  I’ve found this brand works wonderfully with batik fabrics – both prewashed and non-prewashed. 

The second type is  John James Gold n’ Glide applique needle

Both brands come in several different sizes, so you should be able to find your preferred size needle in either brand. 

When considering thread for machine piecing batiks, I’ve found a 50 to 60 weight thread works best.  This weight keeps the stitches from showing too much.  For machine applique, I’ve found I’ve been able to use the monofilament fine with the finished edge applique.  For raw edge (or finished edge, if monofilament thread drives you up a wall), I still prefer a finer thread, such as a 50 weight. If the 50 weight seems a bit “thick,” change from a 3-ply thread to a 2-ply or to a 60-weight.  I do shorten the stitch length to about 1.8.  If using the buttonhole stitch, I will shorten the “bite” (inward needle swing) to 1.9.  As always, audition your stitch length and width on a scrap piece of fabric before committing it to your project. 

In my 30-plus years of applique experience, I still find there’s a wealth of opportunity in every batik.  The range of color, shades, tones, and tints of every piece (even if it’s in the same color family), make the batik a wonderful tool for the applique artist.  Every yard has the awesome potential for every inch to be used, making it worth every cent you paid for it.  Batiks can hold up against the blackest of black backgrounds and yet still work beautifully in pastel-oriented quilts.  Their thread count allows them to hold up to the toughest machine work, yet when treated with hot water, can have a hand comparative to silk.  What’s not to love about a batik?

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours – with Batiks!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

7 replies on “Sewing with Batiks”

What about washing batiks precuts? I want to make a runner and use a batik layer cake with a white background.

Generally I don’t wash pre-cuts of any kind, especially if I’m using a pattern which calls for precuts. The reasoning behind this is most patterns which use pre-cuts call for using most of the surface area of them. So for instance, if you’re using a layer cake and a layer cake pattern, the pattern will use up most, if not all, of the 10-inch surface. And pre-washing will shrink the layer cake a bit.

If you’re not using a pattern for pre-cuts, you may be able to get by with washing your layer cake and do fine. If you decide not to prewash the layer cake, I’d just be careful with the runner. Remove it before serving food (if it’s on the kitchen or dining room table). Spot clean if necessary. Vacuum away the dust. And if you ever do need to wash it, use cold water, a pH-balanced soap, and either Retayne or several Color Catchers.

Thank you for your quick response! I appreciate it. I’m a beginner quilter and found this article very helpful when working with batiks. 😊

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