Quilt Batting Basics – Baffling No More?

These lovely petunias have nothing to do with quilting, but are a lot prettier to look at than batting!

Looking for the CQ Batting Selection Chart? Click here.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the hot summer is ending. If you are like me, you have spent the summer piecing quilt tops for beds and wall hangings, and have a lovely collection ready to finish. For many quilters, piecing is the joy of quilting. I suspect there are more than a few of you out there who actually have dozens of toppers and no finished quilts. Time to dust them off!     

Each step of bringing a quilt to completion has its own choices, challenges, and delights. Creating a quilt sandwich and basting it is definately not as much fun as piecing or quilting. But batting is the heart of the quilt. It provides cozy comfort and gives dimension to the quilting.     

Batting selection can be boggling, and many of you have asked for advice on your choices. With the development of new materials, even experienced quilters have new options. As you read the labels and grope the selections, you may be confused by the terms, and hard-pressed to figure out which one is right for your project. Being The Curious Quilter, when I started quilting eons ago I read every label, absorbed every bit of advice, and groped every quilt I could. I asked experienced quilters what they used and why. I am still learning, and new batting materials are emerging, but I have some great basics to share with you. But I hope you will venture beyond the basics, so you can understand how to choose your own batts wisely.

Start by asking yourself some basic questions.   

  • What am I making?  A baby quilt may require different choices than a large bed quilt.  A table runner may need more wash-ability than a wall hanging.
  • How will I be finishing it?  Will it be tied, hand quilted, or machine quilted?
  • What look am I going for?  Puffy? Flat? Highly sculpted? Puckered? You may want a soft and supple bed quilt, but need more structure and stiffness for a quilted carry-all.
  • How warm should it be?  This is a very important consideration for bed quilts and garments. 
  • How will the finished item be cleaned? This will affect the type of fiber or material you select for your batting.  Some quilters choose the batting material first and then assess the preferred cleaning method.  If you are making a baby quilt, think washable.  A quilted handbag may never be washed. 


Next, some understanding of the language of batting can be helpful.   
Basic quilt batting terms:     

  • Batting/Batt: sheets of carded fiber, natural or synthetic, used to provide warmth and substance to a quilt or garment.  This term appears to have come into use in the late 1800′s.
  • Padding: usually a loose material used to add comfort to something, such as cotton stuffed in a mattress, or the feathers in a pillow. Loose padding or wadding is used in trapunto work.
  • Wadding: traditionally, carded cotton sold in sheets; literally, any soft material used for stuffing or padding. This historic term is still commonly used in the U.K.
  • Loft: High: Loft is the thickness of the fluffed batting. A high loft is anything above 1/2 inch, and the highest lofts come in the polyester batts.  Very high lofts are more suitable for tying than hand or machine quilting. Polyester batts are warmer when their loft is left high. 
  • Loft: Medium: The fluffed batting is somewhere between 1/4 – 1/2 inches.  A common batt loft for machine and hand quilting, it shows considerable dimension.  The warmth factor tends to increase with loft, but close quilting will reduce actual loft for the finished product.
  • Loft: Low: Any batt under 1/4 inch is a low loft batt.  Low loft batts are easy to hand or machine quilt. Less dimension may show in quilt work, but low lofts offer the most traditional look.  Provides all-season lightweight warmth, but a wool batt with a low loft may be warmer than a medium loft polyester batt.
  • Quilting Distance: The distance between rows of quilting stitches which will keep this batting from shifting or bunching.  This varies radically depending upon the material involved.  When selecting a batt, bear in mind the type of quilting you are hoping to use on the project. Select a batt with a quilting distance closest to your pattern. 

 
How it is formed into sheets:

  • Bonded: Fibers are held together through a bonding agent, similar to a glue. The batting label should tell the type of bonding agent, a starch or a resin.  A batt with a 100% cotton rating and a water-soluble agent will require very close quilting.  Some bonded batts cannot be preshrunk as the bonding agent will dissipate with laundering.
  • Scrim: A light, loosely woven fabric, sometimes used to stabilize batting fibers when needle-punching.  Often a polyester fiber, it may even be used in batts labelled as all cotton.
  • Needle-punched: Fibers are loosely felted together by a felting process using tiny needles. This creates a more stable batt, but some hand quilters find it difficult to use as it is quite firm. Most needle-punched batts include a scrim for securing the fibers. They may provide more stability for wall hangings.


Drawing from that set of information, you are probably getting a good sense of the right batt for your project already. If two factors contradict, I usually go by which one seems the most important to me for that item. And if you have the opportunity to look at and touch quilts made with that batting, do so! Many quilt stores are happy to tell you which batts are in each display quilt.

If you are looking at several different types of projects it may be worthwhile to make up a set of samples, using various batts and quilting techniques. It is an excellent way to compare, you can easily see the difference between the same pattern of quilting on a cotton batt vs. a polyester batt. You can feel how it works, either by hand quilting or machine quilting. Bind your samples and wash them to get an idea how they will wear as quilts. Label them so you remember what is inside. Also check out my articles on basting, be it pin basting, hand basting, or perhaps the use of fusible batting for craft projects or small items like placemats and wall hangings.

Now let’s look at materials used in quilt batts. Keep reading! After this section, check out the link to a batting selection chart, and a party idea.

Materials used, and wash-ability: note, all are interesting, but choose the ones you wish to learn more about.  

    Ripe cotton boll waiting for harvest.

  • Cotton: Fiber from harvested cotton bolls.  Stable, soft, washable, but will shrink. Batting can be preshrunk per label directions, depending on the use of bonding agents. Tends to yield a flatter look than a polyester or cotton/poly blend when quilted.  Cotton may ‘beard’ or have fibers migrate through the stitching holes.  Cotton tends be harder to hand quilt than polyester, but gives a lovely, traditional feel to a quilt.  It is considered a lightweight, all-season batt. Bleached cotton batts tend to shrink the least, as they have been pre-washed. I prefer cotton for quilted garments, because of the softness.
  • Polyester: Polyester batts have a higher loft than cotton, and offer great stability between fibers. Because of this, it can be purchased in several lofts or thicknesses, and quilting distance can be quite large. Lower lofts are excellent for hand and machine quilting and yield a nice level of dimension. Warmth increases with higher lofts. When tying a quilt, a polyester batt may be the best choice, as it will have the least bunching. If you wish to use a high or very high loft, say one inch, tying is probably preferable. It has little to no shrinkage, and is very washable. Polyester ‘fibers’ are actually spun from a member of the enormous family of plastics. While its’ extreme durability and wash-ability make it a favorite in baby quilts, it is the most flammable type of batting.
  • Cotton/Poly Blend: Considered by many to be the best of both worlds, these blends offer the softness of cotton and the stability of polyester. Bonded ones may be easier to hand quilt than needle-punched.  Blend percentages vary by product. If you are used to 100% polyester batts and curious about the feel of cotton, you may wish to try a blend first.  These batts tend to be low loft, and the quilting dimension will be higher than a 100% cotton batt, but not as high as a 100% poly batt.
  • Sustainable bamboo makes soft batts, despite the harsh manufacturing process.

  • Bamboo: Bamboo batts are gaining popularity. The fibers from bamboo are long and strong, but surprisingly soft. It can be as drapeable as silk, as soft as fine wool.  Both bonded and needle-punched bamboo batts are easily machine and hand quilted.  Because the fibers are naturally long, quilting distance may be greater than a cotton batt.  It s very washable, and has minimal shrinkage.  While bamboo is considered a very eco-friendly and sustainable plant, the process of turning bamboo into fiber and fabric may not be.  Mechanical processing requires labor and/or energy intensive mashing and crushing to extract the long fibers to spin for threads.  Chemical processing is more common, and I will be addressing it as I post more on the use of chemicals in fabric manufacture. See also Quilting Trivia: 10 tidbits about bamboo and bamboo fiber.
  • Soy/Corn/Flax: Soy is also growing in popularity, and you can find many other grain or grass based batting materials emerging as well.  Flax has been made into linen for thousands of years, and the process for making these other grains and grasses (including bamboo) is very similar.  Of these four, bamboo and flax will offer the most stability because of their long fibers. SOy and corn are also very supple, and offer new options to explore.  They are washable, easy to quilt, and soft to the feel. The mechanical and chemical processing of these is very similar to bamboo.
  • Will their haircuts become your next batting?

  • Wool, Sheep’s Wool: Extremely soft, and the warmest batting option. Very easy to hand quilt, and easily machine quilted.  Comes in bonded and some needle-punched forms, and many lofts.  Commonly available is a low loft version that may even be washable. You can purchase handmade wool comforter batts online from several woolen mills or sheep farms,  up to an inch thick, for a price! Wool batts vary widely in loft, wash-ability, and stability. Quilting distance also varies with loft, but a low loft will probably require stitching every three inches.  They can beard, but are soft, give great definition to quilting patterns, and provide a classic choice for a warm quilt.
  • Other Animal Fibers: Very similar to sheep’s wool, the soft furs of other animals are occasionally found in quilt batts.  In some cultures camel hair has been used for fabrics and batts for generations. If you lean towards the exotic, look for alpaca, angora, and other animal fiber batts online.
  • Each of these little cocoons is one continuous silk thread.

  • Silk: Silk batting can be expensive, but is perhaps the best choice for using in quilted garment made of silk. It is extremely soft, drapeable, and quilts easily.  Silk fibers are extremely thin and strong, making a batt durable enough for wearing, but sometimes bearding occurs.
  • Organic: All natural fibers from plants or animals may be grown and processed using organically certified procedures. They will be clearly labeled. Some may be grown organically, but not processed that way.  Items marked “all natural” may NOT be organically grown.  If truly organic batting is important to you, take time to research the product online before you buy. When you make the effort to quilt with organic fabrics, threads, and batts, I encourage you to also use natural organic laundering agents. Note: polyester, which is a plastic polymer the same as plastic bottles, will never be considered organic.

Check out The Curious Quilter’s Quilt Batting Selection Chart, on  on my Tutorials pages. Drawing from my own experiences, batting reviews from friends, and hours spent annoying quilt store staff while reading every detail on every quilt batt label, I have created a chart showing various qualities of seven types of batts.  You can click here  to read it, or to download a copy for yourself. 

Quilt Batting Basics can be learned at a Batt Testing Party.

Why not hold a “Batt Testing Party!” A few years ago three quilty friends and I decided to each make a set of batting samples.  We each bought two different types or lofts, in crib quilt size, so we had a total of eight different batts. Before we gathered, we cut each batt in four pieces, sandwiched each piece with nice prewashed muslin, pin basted, and serged the outside edges.  Each one was labeled with a permanent marker as to the type and loft of the batt inside.  We also each brought a treat to eat or drink.  While quilting each of our eight samples, we chatted and ate and laughed a lot.  Some people wanted all hand quilted samples, others all machine, some a mix.  I found it really valuable to actually try hand quilting and machine quilting each for myself, and having them to take home.  The wine consumed definitely meant the stitching was not perfect, but the sampling was great!    


 ©2010, The Curious Quilter, thecuriousquilter.net, maryeoriginals.com.  

About these ads

About thecuriousquilter

Quilter, sewer, writer, gardener, mother, sister, friend, always learning, always curious.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Quilt Batting Basics – Baffling No More?

  1. Love the idea of a Bat Testing Party!

    Some great information for beginners …. and the rest of us. Thank you.

    Judy B

  2. Martin says:

    Lucky nightowls like Judy and me get to read these first. I think a Batt testing party is a smashing idea!

    A lot of great information in this post, I need to digest it. I downloaded the chart – nifty difty!

  3. Donna says:

    I am a nightowl! A great read, I too will have to sit and read parts of it again. The list of questions seems so obvious once you see it in writing. How helpful!

    But the seductive picture of the purple flowers REALLY drew me in! Is Andor one of your children? Lovely picture. Is it from your garden? I am full of assumptions here!

  4. Pingback: Quilt Batting Basics – Baffling No More? | The Curious QuilterQuilt patterns | Quilt patterns

  5. Dana says:

    Wonderful, thank you.

  6. J. Johnson says:

    Soy batting? I can hear my Dad groaning from his grave! As a corn, soybean, and sugar beet farmer, he preached to us that food should be grown for, well , food. Food for humans, food for their animals. He left a strip of corn outside the fences for the deer. It is a crazy world we live in, when we grow more and more food and feed crops for non edible uses.

  7. Jennifer C. says:

    You always have great pictures, but the flower shots by “Andor” are amazing.

  8. Pingback: Quilting Trivia: 10 tidbits about bamboo and bamboo fiber | The Curious Quilter

  9. M'laine says:

    I been quilting for 35 years I used polyester batting. If you are going to use polyester don’t waste your time with quilting. None of my quilts have batting left in them, the fiber migrated right out of the quilt. Needless to say at some point I realized the problem and switched to cotton.

    • I have learned that there is a BIG difference in quality between the bargain brands and the more pricey ones, and personally I have the best success with poly blends if I quilt closely. I also notice that a high loft, high quality poly batt seems to hold up for several years in tied quilts, where cotton would not be appropriate..

  10. Cheryl Barsness says:

    Do you know how to cut polyester medium loft batting easily? We make quilts at church and cutting lots of batting is difficult.
    Thank you,
    Cheryl

    • I have a few thoughts, but welcome other readers to comment as well. First off, you need a really sharp scissors, with the longest blade possible. Expect to have to sharpen it after a few quilts, as polyester dulls the blades fast. If you are rotary cutting a lot of nearly-finished quilt edges, I suggest dedicating one cutter just for batting, and expect to need a fresh blade every few quilts. I confess that I do not like using scissors on polyester batting, but sometimes it is just simpler. I remember when a coworker at a fabric store tried one of the electric scissors on the batting, but between the short blade length and the fact that she had to weigh it down to keep it from shifting on her, it was more effort than she wanted.

      I see two times you may be cutting long cuts in the batting.

      The first is when you are rough cutting, for instance cutting a 120″ batt down to 96″. I have sometimes spread it out and cut around the topper, but found it tedious, and that the tip of the scissors caught in the loft. Now when I do this, I make sure I am leaving ample for quilting, but make the first cut before I completely unfold it, as it is a rough cut. I lay it out on my cutting mat, and actually use the ruler and rotary cutter, pressing it down as compactly as possible. If I need to cut some off in the other direction, I open it, refold for that cut, and slice through all the layers at once again. Since it will later be trimmed before binding, this can be a tad bit askew without causing trouble, as long as you are leaving the minimum 6 extra inches beyond the topper size.

      For the more careful cuts required before binding, I use my rotary cutter whenever possible. I lay the quilted piece out on the table (or floor, but I sure hate crawling around to cut!) I line up the finish edge a couple of inches inside the table edge, slide my cutting mat in under and cut that 2-3 foot section with the ruler and rotary cutter. I then slide the mat down the table and cut the next section. When I run out of table, or need to turn a corner, I rearrange the quilt sandwich so I can repeat the steps of cutting and moving the mat until I am done.

      Now, if you are more inclined to use a scissors for this step, I would line the edge to be bound up on the edge of the table and use the table as my cutting guide, letting the excess fall away as I cut along the table edge. For a group project, be sure to assign this to someone with no hand or wrist issues!

      Well, I am not sure if any of this is particularly helpful, but hope so!

  11. hollyalair says:

    If I want to make a baby quilt that will pucker and I plan to machine quilt it, is there a batting you recommend? I am leaning towards bamboo. Suggestions? Thanks! (I am a newbie quilter)

    • Welcome to the quilting community, Holly!

      When doing a puckering quilt. like in my Feb. 2011 posting A Very Cozy Quilt Gets Finished, I start with fabric that has not be prewashed (otherwise I always prewash.) A cotton, 80/20 cotton/poly, or even a wool batt will shrink, but I would use the 80/20 for a baby quilt. Poly will not shrink. Bamboo fabric or batting should NEVER be used for baby quilts or quilts for people prone to allergies, as dust mites adore it, and the washing and drying of bamboo batting does not always eradicate them as it does in cotton or poly. Check out my posting Ten Tidbits About Bamboo and Bamboo Fiber. Also, bamboo shrinks very little, so the puckering would be minimal. After preparing your quilt sandwich, be sure to quilt very evenly, and pretty closely, to get the best puckery effect. A meander or crosshatch works well.

      Then, bind it, and run it through the washer and dryer on the warmest temperature that you dare. Then, do that again! Puckering should be nicely started. And you know now that it will stand up to the frequent washings that baby blankets usually need. Also, it gets all the chemical residues out of the materials. I never use fabric softener liquid or sheets on baby items, too many chemicals.

      Best of luck on your project, and thanks for stopping by with a great question! – Mary

      • hollyalair says:

        Thank you so much for the info! I am allergic to dust and would have never thought of that as a reason not to use bamboo. I will pretty much never use it now! :) Anything I can do to cut down on allergens I will.
        Is there a reason I would want to use the 80/20 instead of 100% cotton? Does it provide a benefit?
        Is there a trick to the meandering stitch? Do I just start in one corner and work out? Is it difficult?
        Thank you for your help. I really appreciate it!

        Thank

      • My apologies for only noticing your question at this late date! The 80/20 batting tends to be tons more stable than 100% cotton. The 20% poly is largely in the scrim that is the base on which the cotton fluff is attached. This helps to keep the cotton from shifting, and makes it stronger and easier to handle.

        If you look at many vintage quilts, the cotton batts have migrated over time, and each quilted section has high and low points where it collects or is missing.

        - Mary

        (Hours later) OOPS! AND my brain seems to be really fried by the heat! Goodness me, I DO APOLOGIZE… and as to the REST of your question…

        Meandering is not hard, but you should practice on some scraps. Crosshatching or stitching in the ditch are great ways to quilt simply as well. There are some great demos on YouTube, and other tutorials online. Be sure to drop your feed dogs, or the pressure on the pressure foot will shift you sandwich and cause puckers.

        When you quilt, the sandwich naturally puffs up between quilted areas, which is the goal of quilting! If you start in a corner, the quilt might distort as you progress. That is more easily controlled when you start near the middle and work out. The looser your basting, or the further apart your basting pins are, the more it will shift as you quilt. But many people do start their meandering at a corner. Just keep a close watch on the areas next to the quilting, to see if you are shifting the fabric. Peek at the back from time to time too, checking for puckers or folds in the backing. The smaller the quilt, the less chance of distortion.

        If that all sounds intimidating, I think most people who machine quilt at home will tell you that the prep is the key, and that means the basting. It may be the most tedious step of the process of making a quilt, but it is crucial to getting a nicely quilted piece. Check out the links on my Tutorials, Main page to see some demos of good basting methods. Personally, I have quit pin basting anything larger than a baby quilt, and hand baste instead.

  12. Pingback: Lousy gardening weather = good sewing weather | northerngardeners.com

  13. karen richardson says:

    I usually use cotton batting but have recently been using high loft polyester batting as I like the puffiness of the finished quilt. I machine quilt. My questions is the polyester batting in a bag is usually very wrinkled when you sprend it out. How do you get the wrinkles out so it lays flat?
    Thanks, Karen

  14. Pingback: Quilting Up a Postage Stamp Quilt | The Curious Quilter

  15. Pingback: Batting for Machine Quilting – Kathy K. Wylie

  16. Pingback: Family advantages | Tesseract

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s