Batting (or padding/wadding as it is also known in other regions of the world) is one of those utilitarian items that just about all quilts have but seldom is any importance placed on it to - after all, it's just the "fluffy stuff" that makes your quilt poufy and warm, and no one sees it once the quilt is finished, so why pay it much mind? Okay, so you're half right. Batting is nowhere near as important as your fabric choice, or how you choose to quilt your quilt. But batting does dictate to a certain degree how your quilting turns out, and it determines the look your quilt will have three-dimensionally. Not all battings are created equal for your purpose! This time, I'm going to discuss from the group up what batting is exactly, what it's made of, the types and what kind of batting is (in general, there is always variation in opinion about it) better suited for which kind of project.
Batting is the middle, fibrous layer of your quilt that no one sees. It can vary in fiber content and in weight, but it is what gives your quilt its warmth and thickness.
Batt is another word you'll hear tossed around, more often colloquially than not. It is just a synonym for batting.
Bonded Battings are held together by a glue-like material that has been fused to the fibers to keep everything together.
Needle Punched Battings are held together by the scrim, and are felted toegther using hundreds of tiny needles. There is no glue-like bonding agent.
Scrim is a very loosely woven netting used in needle punched battings. It can either be synthetic or natural in composition, and helps to keep the batting more stable and durable than a fusing agent alone.
Natural Batting is comprised of one or more natural fibers like cotton, wool, bamboo, or silk
Synthetic Batting is made from "unnatural" (meaning, not occuring in nature) fibers. Polyester and Poly-Blends are the most common in this category
Drape describes the feel and how your quilt will lay after it is finished. Your batting choice and how much quilting you decide to do determines whether your quilt has a stiff or soft drape. Thicker batting and more quilting equates a stiffer drape; thinner batting and less quilting constitues and softer drape.
Loft is how thick or poufy your batting is. High loft is thicker, low loft is thinner. Many battings come in various loft choices, but some only have one loft style.
Bearding is the batting fibers coming through the front and back of your quilt, and is definitely not a good thing. It occurs when a batting is poorly constructed and there isn't much you can do about it once it happens other than deal with it or rip our your quilting and replace the batting with something of a better quality.
Batting Types and Their Attributes
Cotton is used most commonly out of the natural fibers. It is generally a low loft batting that is usually needle punched, but bonded can be found as well. White it is low loft, it is a pretty dense batting so at a low loft you'll stay warmer than you'd expect. It breathes well, meaning you'll stay warm but you won't overheat, and it does wick away moisture. That being said, cotton can mildew and retain smells if not taken care of properly. It shrinks on the initial wash, so after washing it will give quilts a more aged and used look (it wringles around the quilting stitch). As it is used though, it gets softer and softer, so it will drape very nicely over the bed and therefore over you. It can handle heavy quilting, so it is usually the batting of choice for show quilts, because it'll show off that wonderful, intricate quilting. With cotton, there is the option to find batting made with cotton free of pesticides and petroleum based fertilizers ("organic"). If the whole "organic" craze is important to you, then cotton is a good choice because you have that option. In terms of cost, it is middle of the road - not the spendiest but not the most inexpensive either.
Cotton-Poly is a blend of Cotton and Polyester, so it isn't fully natural or synthetic and has the benefits of both; typically it is ~80% Cotton to ~20% Polyester. It is a higher loft than cotton, but a lower loft than Polyester. It is less prone to shrinkage like Polyester, but it is more breathable like cotton. It too can handle quite a bit of quilting, but not as well as cotton does. It has the warmth of Polyester without the weight of cotton, and it drapes very nicely. Generally speaking, it is roughly the same cost as 100% cotton batting.
Polyester is the most popular and widely available synthetic batting on the market. It generally is a high loft batt, but several different lofts are available. It quilts nicely, especially for hand quilting, but it can't handle heavy machine quilting like natural fibers can. It's not a heavy batting, so that's a plus, but on the flip side of that coin, Polyester batts are subject to bearding because they aren't fused or needle punched as thoroughly. Unlike cotton, it is fully machine washable and dryer safe, won't retain mildewy smells and since it's synthetic it'll go back into shape after washing (no wrinkling around the quilting stitches). Polyester is definitely the way to go if you suffer from any kind of fiber allergies, because it is hypoallergenic by nature. However, it is a petroleum based material, so it isn't a renewable resource and it's not as environmentally friendly as other battings, if that is a concern of yours, then Polyester batting might not be for you. Of all the battings, Polyester is the least expensive option.
I have to say, wool is my batting of choice. It is generally a mid-loft, though thin wool batts are easily available. It natually regulates body temperature because it breathes and insulates at the same time, ensuring that you're not too hot or too cold. A neat thing about wool is that it can absorb 1/3 of its weight in water without feeling damp, so it'll still keep you warm even if it gets wet. Plus, wool quilts by both hand or machine very smoothly and really accentuates the stitches well. The downside to wool is that is not dryer safe because it can felt and get ruined by the heat of the dryer - air dry is the way to go. Moths also love wool batted quilts, just like they do wool sweaters, so it is important to keep an eye out for moth damage if you are storing the quilt. On the other hand, wool is naturally flame resistant so it is a good option for baby and children's quilts. However, if you're a fiber allergy sufferer, wool is not the fiber for you as it is the most common fiber that people are allergic to (it's the naturally occuring oil in the wool that is generally the culprit) and it has a tendency to beard if it's a lower quality wool batt. It is on the upper end of cost of the battings - less expensive than silk but more spendy than cotton or Polyester.
Alpaca batting is a type of wool batting. It is lightweight and very warm and breathable like wool, but it has a reduced allergy risk because it isn't oily the way sheep's wool is. It is usally blended with other natural fibers, and it is a needle-punched style batting. It does have the pitfall of felting and bunching in the dryer, and it is also susceptible to moth damage. It is the most expensive of the battings available simply because it is a specialty batting.
Bamboo is a truly wonderful, low loft batting. Bamboo is a fast growing plant, so it is a sustainable resource. It isn't as warm as wool, but it breathes like cotton and is perfect for summer quilts and throws. It is naturally hypoallergenic and antibacterial, so it's a good bet if you're an allergy sufferer. It doesn't beard because it a pretty flat, smooth batting. It is needle punched, so it doesn't have any bonding agents, but it makes it harder to hand quilt because it's fairly dense for being thinner. Bamboo tends to be on the expensive side of the spectrum, more comparable to wool, and it is more difficult to find than cotton is.
Silk batting is used less for quilts and more for quilted garments. It drapes the best out of all the battings, and it is incredibly warm for its thinness. It doesn't cling well to fabric, so machine quilting can be tricky as the fabric may slide over it.
Choosing the "Right" Batting for Your Quilt
The truth is there is no "right" choice, other than buying quality batting that won't clump or beard. Otherwise, it's all about the effect you want, the feel you want and what you enjoy working with. for myself, I stick with wool, cotton and bamboo....cotton and bamboo for tablerunners, wool for wall hangings and throws, and cotton for bedquilts. But here are a few guidelines to help you if you don't all ready have a batting in mind:
Hand Quilting - Wool, Polyester quilt the smoothest
Machine Quilting - Cotton, Wool, Alpaca, Cotton-Poly, Bamboo and Silk show off machine quilting well.
What size is your quilt? Low loft battings are perfect for tablerunners. Higherloft battings are great for wallhangings, because the thicker the batting, the straighter the piece will hang.
When will you use your quilt? Lower loft and breathable battings are best for summertime or warm climates - think cotton, bamboo, cotton-poly batts. Higher loft, less breathable battings are more suitable for cold weather quilts or cooler climates - think Polyester, wool or alpaca.
* Consider your budget and cost of batting. Plan to spend between $20-$40 on batting.
* Always follow the directions on your package of batting. It will let you know whether it can be used straight out of the package, how heavy or loose the quilting can be, the washing instructions and the fiber content.
Trial and error plays a big role in finding the right batting for you. I hope these tips and guidelines help you on your search!
Additional Information and Sources
Day Style Designs
Christine Mann's Batting Tips
As always, Google searches are great things!