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Middle Layer Key to the Look of Your Quilt

By Addy Harkavy


Batting, the part of the quilt that doesn't show, performs several roles. The first is structural. A batt's composition and structure determine much of the final quilt's drape, texture, and weight. The second is functional: the batt has a lot to do with washing and drying characteristics as well as drape or suppleness. For hand quilters (and I plead guilty to this) there is another important consideration: ease of needling.

One can make some generalizations about batts: Cotton batts generally dry more slowly than polyester batts. Some polyester batts may, over time, lose their loft, whereas cotton ones become more and more supple. Cotton batts "breathe", permitting heat to escape. Wool batts, like cotton batts "breathe", yet they trap air to keep you warm. Poly batts tend to be "sweatier" than their natural-fiber counterparts, yet cotton batts are tend to weigh more than poly ones. Polyester batts (unless treated to prevent it) have a tendency to beard, which shows up as tendrils of white fabric on the surface of a quilt. These are all important considerations when choosing a batt. Keep in mind that though polyester batts have many fine qualities, I tend to prefer natural fibers in most things, including quilts.

Although neither cotton nor polyester is "fireproof," cotton does not melt when exposed to high heat. If you are in doubt as to the composition of a batt, put a piece on an old dish and put a lit match to it. A poly batt will melt or bead; cotton or wool will char.

A puffier batt or one that shrinks (causing the quilt to pucker) when washed provides greater relief (hills and valleys) on the surface of the quilt; a flatter back may have a more traditional, old fashioned look.

All batts are suitable for machine quilting. Those to which the top and back "stick" (such as cotton, wool, and some poly batts) may be easier to machine quilt than others. All poly batts are relatively easy to hand quilt, though various hi- and extra-loft batts can present more of a challenge. Cotton (or mostly cotton) batts are highly variable in ease of hand needling.

Cotton Batts

Some cotton batts are bleached, others are not. If a quilt top has white in it, then you may want to use a bleached cotton batt. Most 100% cotton batts need to be quilted at fairly close intervals. Typically this means approximately 2" between quilting lines. Some "cotton" batts actually contain a scrim -- a thin sheet of synthetic material that lends stability to the batt. Such batts are said to be "needlepunched" to make hand needling easier.

Expect from 2% to 5% shrinkage from cotton batts.

100% cotton batts:

Examples include Morning Glory Bleached and Unbleached, Fairfield Soft Touch, and a new Unbleached Organic Heirloom Cotton (from Hobbs) None of these batts require prewashing.

All can be machine washed and dried (I have tested them). All are wonderful for machine quilting, and all should improve with age and repeated washings. Fairfield's Soft Touch and the new Unbleached Organic Heirloom cotton are a pleasure to hand quilt, whereas the Morning Glory batt is considerably more difficult to hand needle.

In order of ease of hand needling:

  • Easiest: Hobbs 100% Cotton Organic
  • Mid-range: Fairfield Soft Touch 100% Cotton
  • Don't bother: Morning Glory 100% Bleached Cotton

Recommended quilting intervals:

  • Hobbs Organic Heirloom Cotton and Fairfield Soft Touch*: No farther apart than 2".
  • Morning Glory -- No farther apart than 4 - 6";

* One can probably get away with up to 3" on the Soft Touch, but I would not be comfortable recommending that.

Finished loft:

  • Flattest: Morning Glory
  • Midrange: Fairfield Soft Touch
  • Least flat, but still pretty flat: Hobbs Organic

Suppleness of finished quilt:

  • Most supple: Hobbs Organic
  • Midrange: Fairfield Soft Touch
  • Least supple: Morning Glory

Recommended needles and tips for quilting cotton batts: For hand quilting these batts, I recommend a #10 between, J. James, S. Thomas, or Foxglove Cottage; Hemming's size 10 between is also a good choice.

The Foxglove Cottage seems to glide best through the sandwich, bends less than the JJames, is thinner than the Hemmings, and I just plain like it! All are excellent needles, however. A needle grabber is good to have on hand.)

Cotton/Polyester Battings

Examples include Hobbs Heirloom Cotton, Fairfield Cotton Classic, and Warm & Natural batting.

Heirloom Cotton and Cotton classic are made from 80% cotton, 20% polyester fibers. The polyester provides stability. Both can be difficult to hand needle unless presoaked, and both are easily quilted by machine without presoaking. Warm & Natural and Hobbs Organic with scrim are made from cotton that has a polyester "scrim" on one side. The batts are then needlepunched to facilitate needling. Batts with a scrim tend not to be quite as supple as batts without.

Recommended quilting intervals:

  • Cotton Classic -- 2" - 3"
  • Heirloom Cotton -- 3" - 4"
  • Warm & Natural -- up to 8"
  • Hobbs Organic with scrim -- up to 10"

Instructions for prewashing are included on the bags in which these batts are supplied. In general, presoaking involves soaking the quilt in a tub or washer for 5 to 20 minutes, squeezing out the water by hand or spinning gently in the washer, and air drying or drying in the dryer on "air fluff".

Warm & Natural is very popular for tied quilts; all the cotton/poly batts are ideal for machine quilting.

Ease of hand needling: All three of these batts are more difficult to hand quilt than Fairfield Soft Touch and Hobbs 100% Organic. They are, however, all easier to hand quilt than Morning Glory 100% bleached cotton.

Wool Batting

Some wool batts, usually those available from local mills, contain lanolin. Others have been washed free of lanolin and, sometimes, treated with resins to improve functional characteristics.

The most commonly available wool batt is Hobbs Heirloom wool, which hand needles as easily as polyester, and can be machine washed and dried (I do it, anyway, on warm wash and warm dry). This batt produces supple quilts that breathe. Though warmer than cotton in cold weather, it also "breathes", reducing the risk of sleepers' overheating. Cost-wise, this batt is a good buy for an all-wool batt.

Polyester Batting

The major advantages of polyester batting is that it is easy to wash and quick to dry. Lofty ones also give quilts the relief many quilters want. The downsides, though, are that though light, most polyester batts offer relatively little warmth, and the batts tend to be "sweaty" because they do not breathe. Light color polyester batts tend to beard and may be undesirable for use in dark quilts. (See Poly-Down below for one possible solution.)

There are two general types of polyester batts: bonded batting, needlepunch. Bonded batting is a fluffy sheet of fibers, needlepunch batting is more dense. Both types are easily machine quilted and are -- to varying degrees -- easy to hand needle. Ease of hand needling depends mostly on loft or thickness of the batt.

Bonded fiber batts include: Hobbs Cloud Lite, Hobbs Cloud Loft, Hobbs Poly-Down, Fairfield Extra Loft, Low Loft, and High Loft. For dark quilt tops, Hobbs' Poly-Down dark not only adds depth to the darkness of the top, if bearding should occur, the fibers that beard are charcoal and are thus less likely to show.

Fairfield's Traditional typifies needlepunched polyester; other examples include Pellon Fleece and Hobbs Thermore.

Pellon Fleece is unique because it takes some heat and can be used for placemats and table runners. Though only 45" wide, it is sold by the yard, enabling quilters to get exactly the length they need. Hobbs Thermore is lightweight, supple, and easy to hand needle. Although Hobbs initially positioned it for clothing, it gives an elegant supple quality to quilts, too, and is ideal for lap throws and wall hangings. Thermore should not beard.

For Tied Quilts:

The puffiest batts are Hobbs Cloud Loft and Fairfield High Loft, followed by Hobbs Cloud Lite. All three are ideal for tied quilts.

For Hand and Machine Quilting: Hobbs PolyDown (white and charcoal), Hobbs Cloud Lite, Fairfield Traditional, and Hobbs Thermore are perfect hand and machine quilting. Hobbs Thermore gives the flattest finished product whereas the others yield a traditional but slightly puffy appearance.

To Prewash or Not to Prewash?
Hobbs Organic 100% Organic

A quilter (Lynda Piper, of Tokyo, Japan) recently reported to me that she had prewashed a Hobbs Organic 100% Cotton and that her results were great. I asked her what she had done, and for a description of the batt after presoak and drying. The following details her results, my repeating that test, and subsequent tests of quiltability on presoaked and "from the package" pieces of Hobbs Organic 100% cotton. After soaking and drying, I conducted a limited "ease of quilting" test. Results of that test follow, too.

Lynda's method: Soak batt, spin in washer, dry. The resulting batt was somewhat fluffier than the original, no damage done.

Experimental method: I cut two 12"-squares, one atop the other and put one in almost boiling water to soak for 20 minutes and left the other alone. After soaking, I dumped it into my washer, in which a few old towels had been through the rinse cycle and were ready to spin. After spinning, I put one hand towel and the batt sample into the dryer and dried on hot. Result: I smoothed the dryer-dried batt upon removal from the dryer and placed it atop the control. There was virtually no shrinkage. This suggests to me that the batt had already been prewashed by the manufacturer.

Ease of quilting soaked and "from the package" batt samples

Method: I placed both samples side by side between two pieces of muslin, numbered the samples and marked straight and curved quilting lines. The resulting sandwich then went into a Q-snap frame. Luckily for me, I know a lot of quilters who humor me when I thrust a frame into their hands and say, "Give this a try!" Only quilter #3 knew at the outset which batt was which (that was me.)

  • Quilter 1: SThomas 10 between, conventional, recessed top thimble
  • Quilter 2: SThomas 10 between, coin thimble
  • Quilter 3: Foxglove Cottage 10 between, conventional thimble
  • Quilter 4: JJames 10 between, conventional thimble
  • Quilter 5: (Beginner) Conventional thimble, unidentified needle (it was in her bag, and she didn't remember what it was).

Quilters 1,2, and 4 thought the "from the package" batt was very slightly easier to quilt than the soaked and dried one. Quilter 3 thought that the presoaked might be just slightly easier to quilt. Quilter 5 didn't think there was much difference.

Conclusion: Admittedly, this is a very limited test. First, presoaking probably doesn't make a lot of difference with this batt. Second, though experienced quilters noticed some difference in ease of quilting, the difference was minimal and apparently not evident (if there truly was a difference) to a beginner.

So many batts, so little time! I hope the above helps quilters narrow down their choices!

(c) Copyright 1996 by Addy Harkavy. All rights reserved.



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