I think everyone is probably familiar with what batting is: nonwoven fibers that are loosely collected together to form a layer of insulation between the top and backing of a quilt. When my Grampa Townzen was a kid during the Depression, he’d card to cotton into little pads he’d hand up to the women folk and they would stitch it in a bit at a time. This was batting in its simplest form! Nowadays, we have lots of options, from natural fibers to synthetics and everything in between.
Many times, we consider the quilt to be a success if the top is pieced just right and the quilting is just so, but batting plays a critical part in the overall structure of our quilts. I’ll walk you through some of the things I think about when I choose my batts, and what some of the terms mean, and when I choose certain fibers over others.
The first batting decision we need to make is what kind of fiber we will be using, the most common being cotton and polyester, or a blend of the two. There are other types of fibers available, as well: bamboo, wool, and silk are also potential choices for quilting. The packaging the batts come in will often have recommendations for quilting, and will have a suggested quilting density. I have written a bit about quilting choices here.
The most traditional and most easily found (I think), cotton batts are constructed in a variety of ways depending on how the quilter intends to use them. There are also a variety of densities for cotton batting, measured in ounces. A higher ounce per inch means the batting is going to be thicker. Manufacturers will often add treatments that allow for the actual quilting to be spaced further apart, and this can be either a scrim or from needlepunching.
A scrim is a sheer fabric that has been added to one side of the batting to help stabilize the fibers and keep them from pulling apart. If you don’t want to do much quilting and have it spaced far apart, then having a scrim is a good idea. I would not use this for hand quilting!
Needle punching does much the same thing, where the needles that punch the cotton fibers help mash them together a bit to help them stick together. Needle-punched batting has a right and a wrong side, and it is important to make sure that you have the right side facing your quilt top, and the wrong side should be facing the backing. To determine which side is which, look carefully at both sides: one side will have tiny bumps, and one side will have tiny dimples. The tiny indentations will be the side that the needle has punched through, and will be the top. The tiny bumps are where the needle has punched some of that cotton fiber through and will be the bottom.
While it often looks like a regular batt, polyester can be super puffy or super denser, like a cotton batt. It is often used for baby quilts, but I would be very particular about choosing your batting: a cheap one will often “beard”, which is where the polyester fibers work their way through the woven fabrics and look like a thing peach fuzz on the outside. Quality poly won’t do this, and it is worth it in the end to spend a little more and get one that you won’t have to shave. It withstands normal washings well, and also can be made from recycled materials.
Wool and Silk
Wool and silk are often the choice for when you want a loftier batting but still want natural fibers. They are ideal for a little extra oomph for applique, since they allow for a nice puff under the applique but then can be quilted down nicely. They are a dream to hand quilt, and also are less likely to crease after being folded away, and can be a god options for those who are looking to make show quilts, with one exception: the fibers can be bonded with something to keep them together and uniform in the quilting process, and which can be undone with exposure to heat (like steaming or a clothes dryer). This will break down the bond enough that the chance for creases will increase, so just a heads up, there, if not having a quilt crease in transit is your goal.
Bamboo is super soft and has a wonderful drape, and has the same properties as cotton. One of its selling points is that it is naturally antimocrobial, but take that with a grain of salt. They said that about bamboo baby diapers, too, and I am just not sure I am convinced.
Some Final Thoughts
When you are looking at batting, especially if it is on a roll, you can pull it out and check the quality while you’re there:
1) is the batting consistent throughout? Some battings have areas with more and less dense spots, and this will have an impact on what your quilt looks like, and it’s longevity.
2) If it’s cotton, is it natural (i.e. are there seeds?) or bleached? Tiny seed husks can actually stain your quilt top yellow or even brown in those spots, so be thoughtful about that as you are examining it. Visible seeds can be a real problem, and if your needle hits them, can potentially damage your machine.
3) What’s the end use? If it’s a quilt you’re going to use a lot, it will withstand the test of time better if your quilting is adequately dense, so plan for that with the batting you choose.
I’m happy to talk batting at any point: Drop me a line!
Of course, as I was typing out all of this is stuff I’ve picked up over time, I was talking tomy good friend Debby Brown who just told me about these charts by Debbi Trevino are literally the Ultimate Batting Charts, so I am sharing them with you!