How do you start hand quilting?

This webpage will discuss the types of wadding (batting in the USA) that you will need.

The thickness and the density of the wadding makes an enormous difference to the ease of the quilting, and also to the finished appearance.

Feathered heart design using high loft wool wadding
Feathered heart design on low loft 80%cotton/20%polyester wadding

Compare these two pieces, showing the same design quilted on similar fabrics, but with very different wadding:

Wadding that feels very squishy will be comfortable to quilt through by hand, and will give a high “loft” to the finished item, while flatter wadding will give a low loft finish.

Don’t choose wadding that is really thick – it will be too hard to stitch through. Even if it’s thin, it could be difficult to “needle” if it is also dense.

Some makes (such as Quilters Dream) produce the same wadding in more than one thickness; the thinner ones will be easier to quilt, particularly if you are aiming for tiny stitches, but will give less loft to the finished quilt.

Wool wadding

Many experienced hand quilters love wool wadding, which is soft, light, easy to stitch through and gives a good loft. Good makes are Hobbs Tuscany Wool or Matilda’s Own.

It is, however, quite expensive, and not always easy to buy in smaller quantities for a small initial project.

You also need to wash a finished quilt with care to avoid shrinkage or felting.

If the wadding shrinks after quilting, the top fabric becomes puckered, as seen on this antique Welsh frame quilt

Polyester wadding

The modern polyester waddings are also nice for hand (or machine) quilting, particularly if the quilt needs to be easily washable.

Cheap polyester wadding

Make sure that you get a compressed polyester wadding such as Hobbs Polydown or Quilters Dream Poly, not the cheap, generic sort which, over time will squash flat and lose its loft.  Cheap wadding can also result in bearding.

Quilter’s Dream Poly wadding

This cheap polyester wadding is not worth wasting your time with.

Can you see how much more body the better quality polyester wadding has on the right? It will still be springy enough to maintain a good loft.

Some are thicker than others – of the three shown here, Soft & Bright has the highest loft, and is a bit too thick for fine hand quilting.

Quilters Dream Poly, shown on top of Hobbs Polydown, on top of Soft & Bright

Polyester wadding is a good choice if you have a white background fabric, as it will maintain the fresh, crisp look.

Hand quilted tulip motifs on “The Burglar”

I used Soft and Bright for this small quilt “The Burglar” which was inspired by my Rob Peter to Pay Paul antique quilt

Cotton wadding

Cotton wadding generally has a lower loft than either wool or polyester, and will give a flatter finished appearance. It tends to be creamy in colour, so if your quilt includes a lot of white fabric, test the wadding behind it before using, to see if it dulls the brightness.

Mountain Mist Cream Rose shown on top of Quilters Dream Cotton Select on top of
Hobbs Heirloom 80% cotton/20% polyester Fusible

Cotton wadding will also shrink a little on washing, which will affect the appearance of the finished quilting (you may or may not like the “antique” look!). The “needling” is very variable – some can feel almost “sticky” when you try to stitch through it. Avoid anything which has a scrim in it, which is very dense or which has visible seeds in it. Try needling it in the shop before you buy, or buy a selection of samples to try out from e.g. The Cotton Patch.

Mountain Mist Cream Rose is whiter than most, and shrinks less, so is a nice option if you can get it; another good choice is Quilters Dream Cotton if you like the flatter look of cotton.

80% cotton/20% polyester fusible

Hobbs Heirloom is a blended wadding which is 80% cotton and 20% polyester. Generally, I like this better than pure cotton – and for a quick quilt, I particularly like the fusible version, which just needs the top and backing ironing on to layer it, avoiding the need for pinning, spray glue or tacking.

Hobbs Heirloom 80% cotton/20% polyester black wadding

It is also available in a black version, which is a good idea if you have a lot of dark fabrics in your quilt and are worried about bearding.

I used black wadding in my Amish Squares lap quilt – the pattern for this is available in the UKQU Shop.

I haven’t tried either bamboo, soya or silk wadding; these are liked by some hand quilters but not by others.

Bearding

“Bearding” describes a problem which occasionally occurs, when fibres of the wadding work their way out through the fabric, and appear as little wisps on the surface.

Bearding is particularly noticeable from light wadding on dark fabrics

Bearding can affect machine quilting too

Bearding is more likely with loosely woven top fabrics, blunt needles or with stiff polyester fibres which are not bonded into the wadding well – but it can occur with good quality makes and other fibres too, and can be very annoying. Whatever you do, don’t pull at the little white fibres – more will come out…. Just trim them off.

To finish

Which wadding you choose is a matter of personal preference.

Consider the finished appearance, your budget, and what the project will be used for.

It is usually better value to buy larger pre-cut pieces (King/Queen size) or to buy from the roll, even if you are only planning a lap quilt, as it will probably be wide enough to use the leftovers for another project. Whatever you buy, try to spread it out and check it before they cut it. Occasionally you will spot an extra thin or thicker part, which you will want to avoid.  Personally I don’t bother pre-washing wadding; just spread it out at home to allow the creases to drop out before layering.

This page is part of a set about Hand Quilting Basics

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Responses

  1. Anne Burke

    Thank you for this very helpful guide. I am a great admirer of your beautiful work. I am a keen patchworker but a novice quilter – so every tip is very useful indeed.

    I just wanted to mention, as an aside, and I hope you won’t mind this, but now that we know more clearly just how very harmful polyester is to our environment, how it doesn’t break down organically (just like plastics) that perhaps it would be better not to promote it, no matter how useful and popular it might have been in the past. Naturally, it’s good to use up what we already have at home, but let’s not encourage the buying of it ? I really hope that you don’t think I am out of line for raising this, and there are lots of areas that I am looking at to see how I can reduce my harmful impact on the world with my hobbies and lifestyle. We could all do better, I know.

    1. Carolyn Gibbs Post author

      I’m glad you found the post helpful – and I hope you enjoy your hand quilting journey!
      Your comments about polyester are interesting – as a Chemistry teacher in my other life, I have been following the current surge of concerns about plastics. I agree that the pollution of our oceans by plastic waste is having a dreadful effect on wildlife – but when we are considering our own usage, it is the single-use plastics (such as food packaging) which are of most concern. Polyester wadding which is used in a quilt which is used and loved for many years is not going to contribute very much to the problem (unless it is constantly washed, in which case it will contribute micro-plastic fragments). Unfortunately, other materials are not without their environmental impact either – cotton uses large amounts of water in its cultivation, and often dangerous pesticides too. I suppose the benefits of hand quilting are that projects take much longer to complete, and so we are reducing the amount of resources that way!

      1. Anne Burke

        So true about the hand quilting – in fact any sewing for me lol – I am a slow sewer, so use my resources very slowly. Advantage is that it saves money and keeps me amused in a less expensive way

        How interesting to have been a chemistry teacher. I am fascinated by the sciences and would love to learn more – it wasn’t my area of interest when at school. Does your scientific background influence your artistic imagination and style, do you think ?

    2. Carolyn Gibbs Post author

      Slow sewing is a habit I enjoy far more as I get older in many ways, Yes, I do think my scientific personality means that my patchwork and quilting is dominated by order and precision – definitely could be described as a “nerd”!