batting basics

One of the questions we ask when customers drop quilts off at our shop to be quilted is what kind of batting they’d like to use, and more often than not they don’t know what to use or why. Or maybe you’ve never thought to ask your quilter what kind they use. So I thought a post on some common batting questions was in order so you’d know why to care and what to choose.

What brand do you like? The short answer to this is Quilters Dream, hands down. We also love the battings from Moda/United Notions, especially Kyoto Bamboo and Soy Soft. As a shop owner and longarm quilter I have seen lots of not-so-great battings which makes me even more loyal to QD’s amazing quality. It’s so sad to see a well-loved quilt whose innards have become a total mess, when it would have held up much better had it contained better batting. I believe in being picky. I’ll break it down for you.

Why I love Quilters Dream:

  • They use high quality materials, like longer fibers, and methods, like thorough needle-punching. This means those fibers don’t come apart so easily, the batting is stronger, stretches less and doesn’t distort.
  • It has the most consistent thickness and density. Have you ever opened up a batting and noticed that light shines through more at some places and in others it’s more opaque, like in the photo? I won’t say what brand it is, but it’s a very popular one. I’d rather not have a quilt that’s part thin and part thick. QD are so evenly needle-punched or bonded (depending on the content), which also makes them very easy to work with.
  • It has the smoothest and softest texture. No rough or crunchy spots and no little brown bits of the cotton boll left in. And they don’t use thick scrims or yucky bonding chemicals.
  • The price is competitive with budget brands.
  • They are an independent company and sell only to local quilt shops.
  • It is made in the U.S.

Batting up to the light to show unevenness. The dark area is thicker/denser

We have samples of the variety of battings QD makes that you can keep, so feel feel to ask for one the shop or request one with your order. While it also comes packaged, we like cutting it off of large rolls because it hasn’t been folded as much so it’s nice and smooth, and you can get the exact amount you need.

What’s the deal with “drape”? When explaining batting in the shop, we often talk about drape. That just means the way a quilt with that batting in it will fall, hang, or move. A “nice drape” means it will move more fluidly, which implies an especially cozy quilt. If you make show quilts, you actually might not want it drapey, you may prefer your quilt to hang straight and square. I usually refer to battings that are good for that as “stable.” I wouldn’t quite call them stiff, they just aren’t flowy.

Why does fiber content matter? There’s no fiber that’s better than others, it all depends on personal preferences. Be picky about the quality, and then choose the fiber that’s right for your project. Here’s a quick run-down of the qualities of the different types that can help you choose what to use when.  While I have learned a lot of this in the context of using  QD, these traits should apply regardless of brand. Most of these are appropriate for both machine and hand quilting.  Consult your specific brand to be sure, and check the instructions for how far it can be stitched and washing recommendations.

Polyester

  • synthetic fiber
  • stable
  • can be washed and dried
  • dries quickly
  • no shrinkage
  • lowest cost
  • does not hold creases as much as cotton
  • made in a variety of lofts, including very high loft
  • stitching can usually be further apart than cotton or blends
  • are now much better in quality compared to the poly batts of decades past
  • popular for show quilts, wall quilts, or frequently washed quilts

Cotton

  • 100% natural
  • drapes more nicely than polyester
  • can be washed and dried
  • some shrinkage, can give that soft, worn-in look
  • moderate cost
  • made in a variety of lofts but not the highest lofts
  • popular for all types of quilts, heirloom quilts

Cotton/Poly Blend

  • has both the stability of polyester and the softness & drape of cotton
  • can be washed and dried
  • minimal shrinkage
  • lower cost
  • the most popular type of batting, common for all types of quilts and especially machine quilting

Wool

  • natural fiber
  • can usually be washed and dried
  • no shrinkage
  • extra warm
  • breathable
  • lightweight
  • usually a fluffy, high loft
  • does not hold creases
  • popular for bed quilts

Soy, Bamboo, or combinations including either

  • natural fibers
  • may require more delicate wash
  • some shrinkage
  • extremely soft
  • beautiful drape (soy seems to be a bit drapier than bamboo)
  • naturally anti-microbial
  • environmentally friendly
  • temperature regulating (particularly bamboo–cool in summer, warm in winter)
  • higher cost
  • popular for throw and bed quilts, gifted quilts, and heirloom quilts

There are all sorts of variations on these–flame-retardant batting, polyester batting made from recycled plastic, fusible batting and on… but we’ll leave that for another day.

Why is that batting so thin/puffy? We can the thickness of batting “loft,” and everyone has different preferences for it. I have seen people be shocked at both the use of very thin battings and very thick battings.  Here’s what we’ve observed.

Low loft or thin batting

  • was popular in the immortalized eras of quilting like the 19th century and the early 20th century. Think of those beautiful antique quilts from the 30s–pretty thin.
  • is popular again today because of the more common use of machine quilting vs. hand quilting or tying. Thinner batting is easier to machine quilt with, whether you’re working on a domestic machine or a longarm, because it’s not a struggle to fit it below the presser foot/hopper foot.
  • actually comes in a a variety of lofts, and could be called “high loft” (like QD’s Deluxe loft) but still be thinner than the puffy variety
  • aren’t cold just because they’re thin–there are lots of fibers in there, they’re just packed more densely.
  • can be layered for extra thickness, and to show off the texture of machine quilting

High loft or puffy battings

  • might make you think of the 70s or 80s, but they are having a comeback. May also have associations with comforters rather than quilts.
  • have more air space between the fibers, which can make them especially warm
  • may stretch more easily
  • harder to baste
  • not available in cotton and are usually polyester (QD’s wools is also lofty)
  • shouldn’t be quilted too densely, or they’re just smashed thin and defeats the purpose of having fluffy batting
  • can be accommodating for stretchier or wavier quilts. When a quilt doesn’t lay flat, that can be hidden by the body of the puffy batting and you may be able to avoid tucks or folds.
  • can’t be used on a longarm if they are too puffy. 1/2″ loft is about the max that can be accomodated (but varies depending on your longarmer and their machine).

Tips for max batting satisfation!
Avoid bearding and poking (when fibers creep through the fabric), and get the best possible results in your finished quilt.

right side

wrong side

{Click photos to enlarge.} I put my hand behind the batting here so you can see the texture better. Notice the smoothness of the inward needle holes on the right side, and the roughness of the outward needle holes on the wrong side.

  • Keep the right side up. Did you know batting has a right and wrong side? Yup. Unless it’s a high loft bonded batting, it was probably made with a method using some sort of needle-punching.  The side that the needles went into is the right side. Look closely at both sides of the batting, and you can probably tell which is which. The right side will be a little smoother, and the wrong side looks like the needles came out through that side. When you quilt, you want your needle to be going into the batting the same direction that the needles did when it was made, otherwise you’re just pushing those fibers back out the direction they shouldn’t be going.
  • Use quality batting. The fibers in good batting, regardless of their content, are fine, thin, long, soft, and resist bearding. Cheap batting can be uneven, and more easily pokes through the fabric weave or stitches.
  • Use quality fabric.  A cheap loose weave might allow batting to beard through. Longarm quilting needles can break the threads of a cheap “crunchy” weave, poking a hole, rather than cleanly passing between the threads.
  • Use the right needle, and a sharp needle. Larger than necessary needles can leave bigger holes, but once the quilt is washed & dried these holes should close up and the fibers should settle back into place. Dull needles can poke holes in fibers of the backing fabric rather than pass between them. Change the needle often and use a nice sharp one for your domestic machine, like a Mictrotex or topstitch needle.
  • Use quality thread. Good, smooth thread won’t grab the batting fibers and pull them through the fabric, but cheaper, rougher thread might. Brands like Aurifil, Superior, Gutermann, Mettler, and others found in your local quilt shop are excellent. Also avoid old, dry thread.
  • Use the same size batting as backing, if you are providing your own to a longarm quilter.
  • Avoid static. In certain conditions or climates, or with certain colors of fabric (because of the types of dyes used–I had no idea! This fact via QD), you may want to rub a dryer sheet or spray Static Guard on your quilt & batting. Use fabric softener or dryer sheets when you wash & dry, or hang dry.

Was that more than you ever wanted to know? I thought about creating a simple decision tree for choosing batting to simplify this. Would that be helpful? Tell us how you like your batting in the comments!

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One Response to “batting basics”

  1. Idaho Gal Says:

    Great batting information! Thanks for the thorough review.

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