The Fluffy Stuff in the Middle — Part II

Continuing our batting discussion from last week…

The fiber content of batts can be cotton, polyester, silk, alpaca, or bamboo.  These five are the most common.  There are blends – such as cotton/polyester – too. 

  • Cotton – Cotton batting carries several advantages.  First, it’s a natural fiber, so it breathes.  It doesn’t slip around as much during the quilting process.  Many cotton batts are bonded, therefore the fibers stay together and don’t shift or beard.  However, remember bonding uses a glue or other adhesive, meaning the quilting lines should be close together.  This is a great batt for traditional and heirloom quilting as it softens with age. Cotton batting also shrinks, which is something you can use to your advantage as you plan the appearance of your quilt.  If you want your quilt to have an antique appearance – the lovely, puckered look of older quilts – then pre-wash your fabrics.  Assemble your quilt top, quilt it, and then toss the quilt in the washer.  Allow it to air dry or dry on the gentle cycle of your dryer.  The cotton batt will shrink, but the fabric won’t, and the finished result will be that beautiful, puckered appearance. 

While we’re discussing pre-washing, let’s park it here for a hot second and address the issue of pre-washing batting.  I don’t, as a rule of thumb, pre-wash batting.  Even if I have horrible wrinkles or fold lines, I don’t do it.  In my opinion, this could thin the batting in spots since it’s not protected by a quilt top and a backing.  The only circumstance I can conceive about washing a batt would be if it had a horrible odor.  And then I think I’d return the batt and get a new one. 

I use cotton batts if I want my quilt to have great drapability.  Cotton batting is a low-loft batting, which allows it to have a soft feel.  I use cotton batting in any pieced quilt which is show-bound.  It just gives pieced quilts the best appearance.  A couple of additional thoughts about cotton batting before we move on.  First, since cotton batting is low-loft, it’s ideal for use with embroidery machines or quilting on a domestic sewing machine.  There won’t be a lot of bunk to deal with in the harp.  Second, while it’s great for machine quilting, it’s difficult to hand quilt.  It’s just a tough batt to work a hand quilting needle through and have those tiny, hand quilting stitches we all want. 

  • Polyester – Like polyester thread and fabric, polyester batting has taken a pretty bad rap in the past.  When I first began quilting (back in the dark ages), there weren’t a lot of quilting references and there was no internet to Google information on batting.  I walked into a big box fabric shop to buy batting and all they had was polyester.  Since I was making a baby quilt, I assumed I needed the fluffiest batting available – which was a 1-inch polyester batt.  I was so wrong.  I couldn’t finagle the quilt sandwich under my sewing machine needle, much less put a hand stitch in it.  I finally tied the poor thing. 

But that’s all there was available – thick, polyester batting.  Once cotton and wool batts entered the marketplace, polyester batting retreated and reformed itself. 

Today’s polyester batting comes in a variety of lofts (from an 1/8-inch to ½-inch) and has none of the “sparse” spots the earlier polyester batts had.  For me, polyester batting is the ideal batt for children’s play quilts or any quilt which will see the inside of a washing machine frequently.  Polyester batting washes well, dries quickly, and doesn’t mold or mildew.  It’s available in white, black, and light pink (Mountain Mist Cream Rose). 

Since polyester is a synthetic fiber, it doesn’t breathe well and can overheat.  But it is a super strong fiber that holds its shape even when washed repeatedly.  I use polyester batting on the rare occasion I’m asked to make a play quilt.  However, if I plan to hand quilt a top, the 1/8-inch polyester batting is my go-to unless it’s a show quilt (then I opt for silk).  It hand needles like butter. 

  • Silk – This batt quilts like no other.  It takes hand or machine quilting and elevates it to the next level.  It is a bit on the expensive side, so I tend to reserve its use to show-bound or heirloom quilts.  If you can’t find a wool batt to use, silk makes a terrific substitute.  Most silk batts have some polyester blended with the silk fibers to stabilize the silk and reduce shrinkage.  It’s available in natural and black. 
  • Wool – This is a very warm batting, and it adds the warmth without the weight.  Wool batting is light, it absorbs moisture, and it’s great for use in cool, damp climates.  Like silk batting, it hand needles beautifully and can be used year-round, not just in the colder months.  It’s more expensive than cotton or polyester, but most of the time it doesn’t cost quite as much as silk.  Years ago wool batting required dry cleaning, but now it’s washable.  It comes in natural and black.   

If I make a quilt that’s both pieced and appliqued, this is my batting of choice.  The thicker loft means my quilting stitches will take the spotlight.  And when those stitches are around my applique, it means the applique will appear to “pop” off the quilt top and also be showcased.  If the applique quilt is show-bound or is made for a special occasion, I will “double batt” the quilt – I’ll use a cotton batting against the backing and a wool batting against the top. 

  • Bamboo – Zone of Truth.  I tried the bamboo batting years ago, as soon as it hit the market.  I was not impressed.  It was stiff and difficult to work with.  However, jump ahead to 2023 and it’s an entirely different bamboo batting ball game.  The bamboo fibers are mixed 50/50 with cotton fibers and is now luxuriously soft and supple. Bamboo battings have an excellent loft and a thin scrim which make it perfect for machine quilting.  Like cotton batting, it’s a challenge to hand quilt.
  • Alpaca – This is a very new batting, and I’ve never tried it.  The manufacturer has stated it’s a lot like wool batting and it’s also a very warm batt.  They’re still working with the bonding method so that this type of batting can be washed like wool.  It is available in natural and black.  If any of my readers have tried it, I would love to know how you feel about alpaca batting.
  • Cotton/Polyester Blends – Overall, this is my “go-to” batting for cuddle quilts, charity quilts, and generally any quilt which isn’t made for a special occasion.  This batting really gives you the best of both worlds – the durability of polyester with the look of cotton.  Most quilters simply refer to this blend as “80/20” – which refers to an 80 percent cotton/20 percent polyester blend.  However, the ratio of cotton to polyester fibers varies from brand to brand.  This type of batting lends itself to both machine and hand quilting.  Because of the addition of polyester, the loft is slightly higher than 100% cotton batting. 

If you use a long arm artist, be aware this cotton/poly blend is what most of them keep on their long arm.  So, if you want a specialized look for your quilt that can’t be obtained by the blend, you may want to verify what type of batt they use and offer to purchase any specialized batt they don’t have on hand.    

I realize this is a lot of information about batting – more than you may have wanted to know or even to consider!  However, batting is just as critical to the appearance of your quilt as the top or backing.  Even though it’s not seen, its after effects surely are.  However, there are still a few more things to keep in mind.

  1.  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, sometimes you’ll see a seed or two.  Use a pair of tweezers to remove the seeds.  The reason?  Over time they will leave a stain.
  2. Again, if you’ve picked cotton batting to go in the middle of your quilt sandwich, you probably want to chose white over natural color.  And I’ll admit this is 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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’ll 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 batting.  Lots of folks don’t realize this, but it’s true.  Just like there’s a right and wrong side to fabric.  And if you place your batting wrong side up, you can have issues with thread tension as well as bearding.    Needle punched batting has a right and wrong side.  Even if the label on the batting doesn’t indicate if it’s needle punched or not, you can tell by looking at it.  If one side of the batting has tiny dimples in it, it’s needle punched.  And the side with those tiny dimples in it is the right side.  The wrong side of needle punched batting has tiny balls all over the surface.  This side should go against the backing fabric, and the dimpled side should go against the top.  If you reverse this, the chances of your quilt bearding have increased, because as your needle pierces the tiny balls, it will pull up fibers.  There’s a right and wrong side to most bamboo batting, too, as many bamboo batts are needle punched. 

If your batting has a scrim, the scrimmed surface is the wrong side.  Make sure it goes against the quilt back.  The reason behind this is it’s believed the side with the scrim should be against the side of the quilt which 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 wear because it’s always against something – a bed, a wall, etc.  One the chance the batting has a scrim and is needle punched, go with the dimples against the quilt top. 

However, if you’re working with a bonded batting, 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 easiest to needle is the right side.

  •  If you’re quilting on a domestic machine, always use a new needle.  It will cleanly punch through all the layers of the quilt sandwich, so bearding won’t occur.  My favorite domestic machine quilting needles are microtext 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 (depending on the side 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 then 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 stellar.  They also have a very informative website.  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 to quilt your own quilts on a domestic, mid-arm, or long arm, here’s one more reason you may want to give Hobbs a try — they have a sample pack of their 13 most frequently used batts in 18-inch squares.  Purchase a pack, sandwich them between some quilter’s-quality muslin and experiment.  This is an economical way to determine which type of batt works for you. 

Finally, as it is with fabric, you will have batting scraps.  Unless they are small, you may want to hang on to them.  For the larger pieces, sort them according to fiber content – keep all the 100% cotton batting scraps together, all the cotton/poly together, all the wool together, etc.  If you’re running short on a batting, you can zig-zag the larger pieces of batting together to make the batt long enough.  Overlap the pieces just slightly and make a clean cut with your rotary cutter.  Then move the pieces so they lay side by side, fitting together like pieces of a puzzle, and  zigzag  together.  If you zigzag them with one piece on top of the other, a ridge will form and it will show through your quilt top.  Just be sure use all the same type of batting pieces together – in other words, if you need to make a cotton batt a few inches longer, be sure to use your 100% cotton batting scraps.  If you use another type of batting scraps, the shrinkage ratio may be different, and this will make your quilt look wonky once it’s washed.

I used the smaller batting pieces on my Swiffer Sweeper.  It works so much better than the disposable cloths.  I have used the super-small pieces to dust knick-knacks and furniture.  The batting gets into the grooves better than anything else I’ve ever used.

Before closing, let me encourage you to quilt as many of your own tops as you can.  For years I quilted on Big Red, then a mid-arm, and finally a long arm.  Since I purchased my Janome M7 Continental, I find myself quilting anything smaller than a twin-sizes quilt on it.  Quilting your own tops not only gives you the satisfaction of completing each step of the construction process, it gives you valuable insight on why it’s important to fully complete each step of the process.  If you haven’t thought twice about why it’s important to square up after each step or reduce bulk as much as possible, quilting your own quilt will give you first-hand experience on both how and why it’s important.  I’ve come to love the quilting process as much as everything else.  I love to see the texture pop off the quilt, right beneath my hands.  You don’t have to quilt all your quilts, but I would encourage you to quilt some of them.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

PS – Standard disclaimer. I’m not employed by Hobbs Batting Company, 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.

PS #2 — About a week or so after I wrote this blog, one online quilt store offered flannel-backed batting, touting one of its qualities as “You don’t have to baste the quilt because the flannel works to keep everything in place.” I read through the description, but wasn’t too hyped about the price — a twin-sized batting was nearly $50 before shipping and handling. Birdie Bird produces this batting. If any of my readers have tried this or do try this batting in the future, would you be so kind as to let me know how well it quilts? I would appreciate it.

5 replies on “The Fluffy Stuff in the Middle — Part II”

I am grateful for all this information about batting. It’s a topic rarely addressed in on-line tutorials. Personally, I use the 80-20 blend, but recently I purchased a wool blend batt on sale. I’m holding it for the right project.

Good to hear about your experience with wool batts. I am doing a little bit of hand quilting, but get discouraged with how long it takes. I will definitely give it a try on my wool batt.

Using scraps of batting for dusting; what a great tip! Thanks for that as well as all the valuable info in this blog.
I recently finished quilting (on my M7), a large (97×110”) quilt using Dream Bamboo, and I really liked how that batting grabbed onto the fabric. It made basting pretty easy.

That’s really good to know about the bamboo batting. I really need to revisit it. It was years ago when I tried it, plus it was a fusible. It was just so stiff and difficult to manipulate. Sounds like it has come a long, long way.

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