Wadding, aka batting, comes in many types and fibres. There are at least fourteen different fibres/blends to choose from and it seems there are more added each year. You now have the long-established cotton, polyester and a blend of the two: also you can get wool and wool blends and such fibres as silk, bamboo or soya. Every wadding has its own characteristics and depending on your project, can make or break your quilt.
Different waddings have different properties: some are easier to hand stitch, some drape better, some give you an antique look and some look nothing in the raw but are beautiful in a quilt. Some waddings are better for lighter coloured quilt tops, others for darker fabric.
How are waddings made?
Today most waddings used in quilting are needle-punched and are technically around 4oz although this gives no indication of loft or thickness. Needle-punching is pretty well the same as felting although instead of using needles with barbs, the fibres are sometimes punched through a very fine scrim (netting), normally of polypropylene where they get tangled up. Needle-punching holds the fibres together. There are a wide variety that don’t use scrim. It gives the wadding a softer handle but does allow the wadding to be pulled apart more easily. Other ways of keeping the fibres together include glue sprayed onto the layers of wadding or inserting a low-melt fibre into the wadding which is then passed through a heater; the low-melt content softens and then, as it cools, it sticks to the other fibres. While more economical to make, the downside to these two methods is that it gives the finished product that crunchy feel.
So, if you want your wadding to be stable, for example for quilts that will often be washed, choose one needle-punched with scrim. This can be stitched up to 10” apart (always check any instructions if you are unsure). The same wadding but without the scrim should be the choice if you are looking for a softer drape where stability is not so important; these waddings can normally be stitched up to 6” apart. Or, if you want to hand quilt your project, choose a soft hand quilting wadding without scrim, which can be stitched up to 4” apart.
Which fibres to use?
Not only do we find polyester and the traditional favourite of cotton, we see wool, bamboo, soy, silk, natural, bleached white and black.
Perhaps the easiest decision to make is which colour to use. Essentially, it depends on the predominant colour of the quilt top and the weight of the fabric. The lighter or looser the weave of the fabric, the more important it is to select a compatible colour for the wadding. That is when black comes into its own: dark fabrics work better with dark waddings. At the same time, light fabrics will become discoloured by having black wadding underneath. The choice of white or natural will again be driven by the main colour on top. It is best to take your fabric to the quilt shop and have a look.
So, what are the characteristics of the various fibres that will work best in different situations?
Cotton – the traditional choice for quilts has the great advantage that it is the same raw material as the fabric. This means that there is an inherent compatibility between the various elements. The main drawback is that cotton has a tendency to “drag” on the needle; not a problem when machine quilting but when stitching by hand, it does make it harder work than, for instance, polyester. Cotton also has fire retardant properties.
Make sure you choose cotton wadding that is made from fibre that has been manufactured using the UltraClean process. This is a unique dry process, removing over 99% of foreign matter, using neither water nor chemicals. It allows the natural waxes and oils to remain on the fibre, leaving the cotton naturally hydrophobic (water repellent). Removing the husks etc also avoids hard spots when quilting and oils from the husks leaking through to the surface of your quilt.
Polyester – this is a cheaper alternative to cotton and has much better washability properties than any natural fibre. This makes it the preferred choice if the quilt is likely to find itself in a washing machine or sink on a regular basis, such as a changing mat. It is also easier to needle by hand. There is a great variety of qualities of polyester out there so be sure to buy a reputable brand!
Wool – has great thermal properties and so lends itself to bed covers and lap quilts. In some rare cases a user may have an allergy to wool and so, although the wadding is totally encased between the other layers it may be worth checking if in doubt. Like cotton, it is naturally fire retardant and so, along with its thermal qualities, may be ideal for cot quilts. However, it won’t stand up to frequent washing so if it is likely to become soiled on a regular basis, better think of a different wadding!
Bamboo – the one great attraction about bamboo is that it is very environmentally friendly. In essence it is a weed and so requires no special cultivation, pesticides or fertilisers. On top of that, the fibre is extracted using primarily water and a lot of pounding, no harsh chemicals. To the touch it is silky soft and drapes beautifully in the quilt; in fact, it is so soft that it is common to find it blended with cotton to achieve a bit more “body” and so make it more sewable. Bamboo is also said to have antibacterial properties.
Soy – very similar to bamboo to the touch, soy is a cultivated crop and so does not have the same green credentials.
Blends – there are a wide assortment of blends available. The most common one is the 80/20 cotton/polyester mix; then the 50/50 cotton and bamboo; and cotton and soy. They are all designed to bring together the best of the properties of the different fibres. As mentioned already, the bamboo/cotton mix does add substance to the silky texture of the bamboo. Similarly, the cotton/poly blend does bring some of the polyester durability and ease of stitching to the cotton fibre. For the environmentally conscious quilter, there is a blend of 70% recycled cotton and 30% recycled polyester, a truly green alternative!
Insulating wadding – a relatively new arrival, this wadding feels more like felt and contains heat-resistant properties, often Mylar fibre which is used in the space programme or the wadding has a thermal layer that looks like aluminium. It is ideal for such projects as lunch bags, wine coolers, oven gloves etc. where it is important to keep things hot, keep them cold or protect surfaces from extreme temperatures.
Foam wadding – a soft but stable polyester foam for wall hangings, bags and totes. It is very easy to machine stitch but doesn’t lend itself to hand quilting. On the plus side, it gives you very distinctive quilt lines, which can look very attractive.
With so many types, fibres, blends and colours, how do you decide what to use? Inevitably we all have our favourites that we tend to stick to. But sometimes it is just worth branching out and being a bit adventurous.
Hand or machine quilting?
Not every wadding lends itself successfully to both techniques. As previously mentioned, standard cotton wadding is not very easily needled. However, if you are a keen hand quilter, you can get special “light” hand quilting waddings, which are lighter than standard wadding and absolutely perfect to stich by hand up to 4” apart. These are available both as 100% cotton and as an 80/20 variety. Hand quilting waddings have no scrim and thus a softer drape and they give the quilt a flatter, more antique look. Both waddings are very well suited for machine quilting too.
Most wadding will shrink at least 1% when washed, some, especially cotton waddings, can shrink up to 5%. If you don’t want this to happen, you can wash the wadding prior to use. Soak for fifteen minutes in a mild detergent. Squeeze out excess moisture by rolling in a dry towel and dry naturally by laying it flat. Do not tumble dry. Do not machine wash or tumble dry.
If you desire an antique look for your quilt, wash the finished quilt and you’ll get the wrinkled look that goes well with classic quilt designs.
Bearding happens mostly when you use low quality wadding. The fibres are not properly bonded and every stitch picks out a bit of wadding, so that is shows on the surface of your quilt. Bearding can spoil the loveliest quilts, so be sure to choose wadding that is of good quality.
The quality of the fabric can also have a marked impact on whether bearding happens or not. A good quality fabric will generally be more closely woven which gives the wadding less gaps to work through. Economising on fabric quality is not always a real saving!
Finally, given the wide variety of fibres, constructions and finishes, the one tip that may save a lot of anguish is ‘always read the instructions‘. Once a quilt is stitched and finished, finding out, for example, that it should not have been washed in the machine when you have done so is a bit late!
By Graeme Wright