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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.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.