Wadding (called ‘batting’ in the USA) is the layer between the fabric back of your quilt (blue/green tartan in the photo below)and the top fabric (polka dot in the photo below). The top fabric could be a single layer of the same fabric (to make a ‘whole-cloth’ quilt) or two colours (for a ‘strippy’ quilt), or a pieced patchwork and/or appliqué. Whichever it is, a quilt has to be made up of three layers (or else it is just a coverlet) and you need to think carefully about what goes in the centre!
There is perhaps no perfect wadding and you will need to weigh up the various considerations before making your choice. You might make different choices for different quilts. The fibre used to make the wadding will make the difference. Popular choices include: polyester fibre, cotton, a cotton/polyester mix (for example 80% cotton and 20% polyester), wool and a recent addition to the fibres on offer: bamboo. 100% bamboo fibres do sometimes ‘beard’ (this is when whiskers of fibre work their way through the top layer of fabric). A 50% bamboo/50% cotton wadding like this one is a good compromise.
Starting with the look of the quilt, different types of wadding will have varying amounts of ‘loft’ (puffiness). This is an important consideration for a quilt, because you might want all your quilting lines to have a slightly raised area of quilt between them or you might want them to lie flat on the quilt surface. Cotton, polyester/cotton and bamboo will give you a flatter quilt. Wool will offer a medium loft. Polyester’s loft varies according to its weight. A 2oz (two ounce) polyester means that a square yard of that particular polyester fabric weighs just two ounces, so the fabric will be thinner – and flatter – than a 4oz (four ounce) polyester, which will be puffier. Either 2oz or 4oz would be a suitable thickness for quilting. This type of wadding may of course be sold in metric measurements: grams per square metre or gsm, but the same principle applies.
Next, think about the warmth of the quilt. In a warm country, a lighter-weight quilt may be preferable and 100% cotton wadding would be the obvious choice. In the chilly North-East of England, there is a quilt made with wool wadding on my own bed. Polyester offers warmth, but is not as ‘breathable’ as wool or cotton.
Then consider shrinkage. What will happen to the wadding when the finished quilt is washed? Both cotton and wool will tend to shrink. Some manufacturers offer the shrinkage as an advantage, saying that the wadding should be used straight from the package, the quilt should be washed on completion and that a pleasing vintage look will result. I dislike this idea as I want a quilt to look exactly as I designed it, including the final size. The option here is to pre-shrink your wadding, which is troublesome, but effective. Soak the cotton or wool wadding for ten minutes only in cold water and then squeeze gently (do not wring). I usually soak the wadding in the bath and then let out the water and press the wadding gently against the sides. Handle the wet fabric gently. Then dry it as flat as possible. One option is to dry it in a warm place, folded in half lengthways on an airer like this one.
Next, is the question is how the quilt will be laundered. This is closely linked to the paragraph above. You might decide to use a wool wadding and only ever dry-clean it, which means no shrinkage issues at all. If you use wool and give the quilt as a present, make sure to write instructions to dry clean on the label, to avoid future disasters! How do I know this is a tricky area? I made a super-king sized quilt, washed it in the washing machine and shrunk it to such an extent that I had to re-make it, including creating a new backing fabric, un-picking every single hand-made quilting stitch and re-quilting it (by machine this time). That was a lesson learnt the hard way.
Also think about ironing. You can press a finished quilt that has cotton wadding in the centre without any harm coming to it and you will be able to ease out any creases or fold lines that might have appeared. Apply an iron to the top of a finished quilt with a polyester wadding and you will melt the wadding into a thin plastic–y layer that has bonded to the top and bottom fabrics and ruined the quilt. I learnt this lesson the hard way too, though fortunately, it was only on a seat cushion!
Who will use the quilt? This links to the laundry question. A polyester-wadding quilt will wash and wear easily. Polyester does not absorb any water so it will dry more quickly than other fibres. Polyester is robust and hard-wearing so it will stand lots of washing. For a child’s quilt, which might need to be washed very frequently, it could be a good choice. For a baby quilt, however, you need to be especially careful. Babies should not sleep under a quilt before the age of 12 months. After that, a cot quilt can be used. Here, a cotton wadding (that you have pre-shrunk!) might be a good choice because of its breathability and for the importance of small children not over-heating.
Safety? Since quilts are used on beds and in sitting-rooms, it is also important to consider flammability. Cotton fabric and wadding will flare up and burn quickly. Polyester fibres will melt in a flame and can inflict very bad burns if molten polyester adheres to the skin. However, you can buy polyester wadding (like this one here) which has been treated with fire-retardant. Wool tends to smoulder rather than burn and has naturally fire-retardant properties, so is the safest choice if fire risk is a consideration.
How much quilting do you intend to do? Each wadding will vary according to how closely you need to place your lines of quilting on the finished quilt and often, manufacturers will declare on a label what the minimum distance is, for example, this 100% cotton wadding I used recently needs quilting at least every 3″ (7.5cm),
whereas this polyester wadding does not specify the quilting distance, but I quilted successfully at about 5″ apart. It had a nice smooth finish.
What colour is your quilt? You may be making a quilt with lots of white and pale fabrics and might choose a pure white wadding to make the whites glow, as opposed to the creamy-neutral colour of say, un-bleached cotton wadding. (Alternatively, it might be a quilt with plenty of black or very deep-dyed colours. In this case, some quilters search out specialist black wadding (like this one here).
Are you planning to make a quilted bag? If you are making a bag, there is a specialist wadding which I have used and found very effective as it helps to hold the parts of the bag in a stable manner (just as it says on the packet!)
What is the cost? Synthetic (man-made) fibres are cheaper to produce than natural fibres (grown in the soil or from an animal). So, roughly in order, polyester is cheapest, then polyester/cotton mix, then bamboo, then cotton, then wool. Another economy consideration is how easily the wadding can be joined. 80/20 cotton/polyester wadding is fairly easy to join, either with stitches or with specialist tape, so you can use up off-cuts. There is a post about this here.
What is the cost to the environment? Interestingly, the list then goes in a rather different order to the one above. Polyester is made from coal and oil, which are non-renewable resources. In addition, if the fabric on the outside of the quilt wears out or the quilt is thrown away for any reason, the polyester will not bio-degrade for a very long time indeed.
Cotton breaks down easily, but it’s a labour-intensive crop, which usually needs insecticide sprays to protect it, damaging the environment and directly affecting the health of the farmers. Bamboo is quite an environmentally-friendly choice as the plant grows extremely rapidly and it does bio-degrade when discarded.
Wool is very environmentally friendly. Sheep can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing food crops and the animal is not harmed by having its fleece removed.
As you can see from this post, I have used many different kinds at different times myself. If money was no object and I was up for pre-soaking, I would have to say that my favourite was wool wadding. Your quilting needle (whether hand or machine) will slip through your quilt like a knife through butter.
If you are new to quilting, I recommend that you try out different brands of wadding and test the different fibres for yourself.