The Fluffy Stuff in the Middle

Let’s define a quilt. 

I know the term “quilt” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people because the word tends to evoke an emotional response. 

My grandma quilted.

My momma left me this quilt when she passed.

I loved making this quilt.  I can remember working on it at quilt bee.  There sure were a lot of laughs involved.

In this sense, the word “quilt” is a noun.  It’s a thing.  However, it can also be a verb – as in “How are you gonna quilt it?”  In other words, what quilting motifs will you employ to hold the quilt together? 

And this is where I want to define a quilt.  A quilt is comprised generally of three layers – a top (the pretty part everyone sees), a back (the part not seen as much, but can be equally as pretty as the top), and the middle (the part no one sees once the quilt is finished).  The top is given much care and consideration.  Months, if not years, can go into making a quilt top.  The backs can be one solid piece of fabric, or it can be pieced.  I’ve seen backs so beautifully pieced they could serve as the quilt top if the quilt needed to be reversed.  Once the quilt is completed, the middle part is never seen again (hopefully). 

We Americans typically call this middle part the batt.  The batt, or batting, can be made from cotton fibers, polyester, wool, silk, bamboo, or a combination of fibers.  Europeans and Canadians call it wadding. We’re used to something like this:

However, the middle part of a quilt doesn’t always need to be a batt.  It can be a piece of flannel or even a sheet.  Quilts which employ a lighter middle are sometimes called summer quilts, and as the name implies, are used during the warmer months when a heavy quilt would be too much for a bed. 

Antique Summer Quilt

Sometimes a summer quilt wouldn’t even have batting in it – it would simply be a top and a back.  However, quilters soon figured out that something in the middle – an old sheet, a piece of cotton flannel, etc., — made the quilting easier and the stitches prettier.  On the opposite side of the season, winter quilts were sometimes quilted on top of a heavy banket, often making the blanket both the middle and the back of the quilt.

Cathedral Windows Quilt

There are also quilts which wouldn’t even think of having a batting.  Cathedral Windows quilts have no batting.  Yo-yo quilts don’t either.  Quilts made from denim generally won’t use a batt because the quilt is already pretty heavy.  A batt would just make it heavier and more difficult to tie or quilt.  Some crazy quilts used a batt, and some didn’t.  These are still called quilts, despite the absence of the third layer.  Some quilters would argue these middle-less quilts aren’t true quilts, and according to the strictest definition of a quilt, this is true.  However, it doesn’t negate the workmanship of any of them.  These quilts are embraced by quilters and quilt shows (who usually show these quilts in the “Other” category). 

Because it’s not seen, it’s easy to give batting the short shrift.  Does it really matter what kind of batting you use?  Shouldn’t you just go with what your long arm artist has on her machine?  After spending lots of money on fabric for the top and back, is it so wrong to go cheap on the batting?  Let’s take a few minutes to look at the history of batting, when it went commercial, and the differences and uses of today’s batting.

Until the mid-1800’s if you made a quilt, you couldn’t just stroll down to the General Store and pick up a pack or roll of batting.  Nope.  If you made a quilt, you knew you had to make your batting, too.  Women grew cotton or purchased cotton for the purpose of making their batts.  Before the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, this meant the cotton bolls were spread out before the fire to warm.  Once warmed, the seeds were picked out of the bolls (seeds were easier to remove from warm cotton).  Then the cotton was carded with brushes such as this:

Into strands and soft puffs of cotton.  These were then laid on top of the backing fabric.  It was a painstaking and time consuming process. The cotton puffs and strands needed to be laid out as evenly as possible to avoid “hollows” in the quilt.  Once this was done, the quilt top was basted on and tiny, hand quilting stitches held all three layers together.  Because the batt was literally cotton fibers and not a solid piece, the hand quilting stitches had to be set close together to keep the cotton in one place and stop it from migrating.

Of course the introduction of the cotton gin helped speed up the process.  The machine (mostly) removed the cotton and debris, cutting down on the time spent making the batt.  However, it’s this early process of batt construction which helps quilt dealers and appraisers date a quilt.  Not only will they carefully look at the fabric and dyes, but they will also see what the batt will tell them.  If there are cotton seeds present, the batting has migrated a bit, and the quilting stitches are small and set close together, chances are the quilt was made prior to 1794 (although women continued to make their own batts after the invention of the cotton gin).  Fabric color, patterns, and dyes tell the rest of the story.  It is also not unusual for these early quilts to use an old quilt as a batting.  Batt making was time consuming.  It was easier and quicker to use a worn-out quilt in the middle than go through the process of making a batt. 

There is some debate about who made the first commercially available batting.  I spent several hours researching this on the interwebs and one name kept popping up:  Mountain Mist.  In the spirit of honesty, I can’t say for sure if they were the first folks to produce ready-made batts, but I can say they began offering them in 1846.  The batts were wrapped in paper to keep them clean and safe during shipping.  Later, somewhere around 1929, those labels began to have quilt patterns printed on them.  The patterns were a huge success.  There’s a ton of information about these patterns on the internet and you can even purchase these labels off of Ebay.  If you think you’d like all the Mountain Mist Patterns, there are several books which contain all of the patterns, and those are available on Amazon.

While we’re thinking about quilt labels, let’s just park it here and discuss them a bit more.  If you purchase packaged batting like this:

Or rolls of batting like this:

There’s some important information you need to read before tossing the bag or the paper wrapping.

  Loft is one of the pieces of information mentioned on the label.  Loft has to do with the thickness of the batting.  There will times you will want a low-loft batting – such as wall hangings – and there will be times you want batting with a bit more “poof” – like with applique quilts.  Somewhere on the label the loft will be mentioned. 

If you’re purchasing batting in a bag, the size of the batt will also on the label.  Remember, it’s important for the batt to be 4-6-inches larger than the quilt top because it does draw up a bit during the quilting process or it could shift.  You always want to be sure there’s enough batting margin so you have batting all the way around the edge of the quilt top and in your binding.  Fortunately, the batt sizes are pretty standard for all batting companies:

Craft – 46” x 36”

Crib – 60” x 46”

Twin – 63” x 87”

Double – 78” x 87

Queen – 84” x 92”

King – 100 x 92”

If you’re long arming your quilt, simply choose a batting which is at least 4-inches larger than your quilt top.  The extra batting gives the clamps something to grab. If you’re quilting on a domestic machine, you can get by with as small as a 2-inch margin.  However, rolls of batting usually have the width listed on a label somewhere on the roll.   If it’s on a bolt, the measurement should be on one end of the bolt, just the same as fabric.   

One additional word about batting in a bag verses batting on a roll or bolt.  The batting in a bag has been folded up quite tightly so it can conveniently fit into a bag.  When you take it out, the folds are easily seen and felt.  It’s best to let the batt relax for a day or two somewhere it can be spread out and not disturbed before quilting.  For years I used my dining room table or the guest bed.  Now I simply throw it across my long arm for a few days.  Usually this is all you need to help your batt relax and lose those unsightly folds.  However, if there are a few folds or wrinkles that don’t seem to want to chillax, I have carefully pressed the area with an iron, using the steam feature.  Generally, this works on the stubborn areas.   After the folds and wrinkles are gone, then proceed with the quilting process. 

The label should also list the fiber content.  It should state if the batt is cotton, silk, bamboo, wool, polyester alpaca, or a mix of fibers, such as 80/20.  The 80/20 batting is made from 80 percent cotton fibers and 20 percent polyester.  This information is important because the batt’s fiber content affects the overall look and drapability of the quilt.  More on this later. 

The last item of information on a label concerns how far apart you can place your quilting lines.  Some batts require the quilting stitches to be no further apart than a couple of inches.  With some batts the quilting lines can be as far as 8-inches from each other.  This simply has to do with the batt’s integrity.  The quilt line distance is the maximum distance you can place your stitches without the batt disintegrating or migrating. 

Those four things (loft, size, fiber content, and quilting line distance) are usually found on all quilt labels.  There’s some additional information you need to know about the batt, which may or may not be on the label.  Some of these you can tell the batt has it simply by closely look at it (such as scrim).  Some of these – like bearding – only happen once you have the quilt quilted and bound.

  • Scrim – This is a 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 batt 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 – Something to be avoided at all costs.  It refers to any wispy fibers which could eventually seep out of the quilt top.  Honestly, I can’t see any batting company putting a warning on their label stating “Caution:  May Beard.”  I can tell you this generally happens with lower-quality batting.
  • Fusible – Most fusible battings will say so on the label.  And 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. I can’t seem to get it to bond evenly  and without wrinkling. 
Bearding on the back of a quilt

Now with all of this information under our belts, next week we’ll look at the types of batting, when to use them, their characteristics, and any precautions we need to take.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


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