When you’re making quilts of any kind, size, or shape, you need filler to poof them up. This filling, also known as batting, is the most important part of your quilt “sandwich.”
It can also get expensive and may be hard to come by if you’re in a rural area. Fortunately, it’s actually quite easy to make your own wool batting, provided you have some sheep farmers nearby to buy fleeces from.
What are the Benefits of Wool Batting?
Wool is a favorite type of batting for most quilters for several different reasons. For one, it has the benefit of being both very warm and breathable. Batting comes in both natural and synthetic options, and the most common types are cotton and wool.
Have you ever spent a night beneath a synthetic duvet, only to wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat? That’s because synthetic batting doesn’t allow for air movement.
Sure, it can keep you warm temporarily, but if you overheat and start sweating, you’ll end up marinating yourself.
In contrast, wool batting has lovely little air pockets throughout. It creates a mesh that will keep you warm but will allow for airflow, so you don’t sweat half to death.
Wool batting also doesn’t shrink over time, will keep you warm even when it gets wet, and doesn’t compact if squished during storage.
For maximum soft fluffiness, I’d use Qiviut or alpaca wool for my batting. Both of them have hollow fibers, which make them both ridiculously warm and super lightweight.
The downside to both of these is that they are crazy expensive. Making batting out of either of these would end up costing several thousands of dollars unless you’re shaving some friendly musk oxen or alpacas you’ve befriended in the wild.
Sheep’s wool, on the other hand, can be found much more easily.
In fact, low-grade wool—which isn’t usable by the textile industry because it can’t be spun into thread or yarn—is incredibly affordable. It’s often used as an insulating material in houses or chopped up finely and made into felt for crafting projects.
How to Make Wool Batting by Hand
You may be wondering why you’d bother making batting at all instead of just using this fleece as it is. In simplest terms, because you need a mid-layer that holds together and doesn’t scrunch or wad up all over the place.
Most commercial types of wool batting are either bonded into sheets via heat or by chemical means. The kind we’re going to make uses a combination of heat and gentle hand agitation.
The key is to make sure that you don’t agitate the wool into felt. Yes, this will be nice and warm, but it’ll also be completely flat.
We want the loft (poofiness) intact! This is what allows the quilt to be lightweight and breathable, and to also make all those delicious raised ridges and patterns when you stitch into it.
What You’ll Need:
- Washed and carded raw wool: If you’re really ambitious, you can wash and card raw wool by yourself. This is a long, involved process and really quite a pain in the backside. You can get it already washed and carded online, or let the farmers know what state you’d like it in, and they’ll do it for you.
- A sturdy spray bottle: Choose one that can hold hot water without melting.
- An iron that has a steam function
- Large bath towels OR large sheets of bubble wrap
- Clean, thin cotton towels or pillowcases
- Pet-grooming gloves: These have nubbly little spikes on their palms and are used for grooming long-haired cats, rabbits, and small dogs. They’re also called “de-shedding gloves” if you’re having trouble finding them.
- Hand carders or hair brushes
- Heavy-duty masking tape or duct tape
- Needle-felting tools (optional)
You’ll need a large surface to work on, so aim for your dining room table or the floor.
Create a mat with the bath towels that’s a bit larger than the batting you want to create. If you’re making batting sheets for bed quilts, use safety pins to attach the bath towels together so you have enough surface area.
Once that area is large enough, tape the edges down so the towels won’t slip all over the place as you work.
Next, take that wool and spread it out evenly all over the surface. You’re, aiming to create a mat of wool that’s several inches wider and longer than the batting you’ll need.
The fibers will condense as you work, so expect a fair bit of shrinkage. Use the carders or hairbrushes to sweep the fibers around. You’re aiming for even thickness over the entire surface, so you don’t end up with mountainous, lumpy batting.
After that, fill your water bottle with very hot (but not boiling) water. Spray an area that’s about a foot square with the water: just enough to dampen it a little, not soak it completely.
Shake it Up!
Next, put the gloves on, and place your hands on an area. Move them gently back and forth, as well as side to side. Then raise your hands, set them down again a few inches away, and repeat this process.
Don’t drag your gloved hands across the area! Always lift them, place them in the next area, and agitate gently. Spray the water just before agitating as you go along.
Also, try not to press so hard that you’ll bind the wool to the towels beneath. Some people use bubble wrap instead of towels just in case they get overenthusiastic with the rubbing.
You can go this route if you’re feeling cautious. I’d recommend doing some small experiments with hand towels and a tiny bit of wool first to see if you can agitate without binding into the fabric.
The key here is to agitate this wool JUST ENOUGH that it holds together. Remember that good quilt batting needs loft (fluffiness!). Batting that’s been compressed into felt will be a nightmare to sew through and will weigh down the project rather than warming it up as desired.
Once it’s been blended to a thickness and cohesion that makes you happy, it’s time to fuse it a bit more. Fill and heat your iron, and lay a clean pillowcase or dishtowel over an area of wool batting.
Once the iron is hot, move it gently all over the surface you’ve prepared while hitting the “steam” button enthusiastically.
This will help bind the fibers into place and keep them at the thickness you’re aiming for. The batting might squish down a bit as you’re doing so, but don’t worry: it’ll bounce back once it dries.
Lift and Dry
When you feel that you’ve created a batting that you’re happy with, lift it gently off the agitating area and move it somewhere else to dry.
If you’ve just created a small piece, you can move it to a dry towel on another table. You can even place it on a drying screen if it’s small enough.
Alternatively, if you’ve made a huge batting sheet, then lay some towels or clean bedding outside. Get help to roll the project up in the towels it’s been agitated on, and carry that outside. If your neighbors give you weird looks, reassure them that you’re not moving a body.
Then unroll it, gently lift and transfer the batting onto the clean sheet or towels, and let it dry in the sun.
Of course, this works best if you’re doing this on a warm, sunny day. Maybe check the weather forecast beforehand. Needless to say, it won’t dry out well if you’re laying it out in a blizzard or torrential downpour.
Once completely dry, roll it up in yet another clean sheet and store it in a cedar chest or closet until you’re ready to use it. Keep in mind that moths love wool, so if you’re not quilting with it immediately, keep it well protected.
Note: don’t worry if pieces break off. You can attach them back together with some simple felting needles. This is also a great way to make batting-making projects a bit less daunting.
Instead of making a large sheet all in one go, you can create smaller squares or strips. Then overlap their edges very gently, and use those carders or brushes to distribute the fibers around until they’re around the same thickness.
Then agitate them with the felting needles to bind the edges together into a single, usable sheet.
A Few Downsides to Wool Batting
Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there who are allergic to wool. As a result, if you’re making a quilt for someone in particular, find out whether they react badly to it.
It would be really sad to put thousands of work hours into a masterpiece, only to make your loved one break into hives the first time they use it.
Additionally, because wool has that aforementioned loft, that means it allows light through as well as air.
If the quilted items you’re making have light-colored top fabrics but a dark base, you’ll likely end up seeing the dark fabric right through the filling. This can dull the overall effect you’re going through with intricate patterns and stitch work.
As a general rule, try to choose quilt backs that are a similar hue to their tops. This will allow them to complement rather than compete with one another. If you’d like bursts of brighter or darker colors, use contrasting strips for your edging.
Sheep’s wool is a wonderful, renewable resource, and won’t introduce any harmful toxins to your body or home. Please try to source wool from farms where the sheep are treated ethically and aren’t subjected to mulesing.
If you develop a good rapport with the farmers in your area, you may end up getting charged less for the wool you’re buying.
Consider giving them a couple of jars of your best preserves the next time you make a purchase. You’d be surprised what a bit of neighborly generosity can do to help improve the local bartering economy!