3 Ways To Wage War Against Pilling Clothes

Anyone who hasn’t been annoyed by pilling clothes must have a sense of zen that is beyond me. Few things irritate me more that those little balls that appear on your precious pieces. They’re a sure fire way of making something look old and tired, and – oops – making us want to throw them out and buy something new.

Why are they there, and what can we do to prevent them?

to pill or not to pillThere are a few different factors that add up to those annoying bobbles, but first, let’s look at how they are formed.

The fabric is rubbed against itself, other fabric or our skin, making fibres come loose. These fibres get rolled up in little balls that are attached to the fabric by ‘anchor fibers’. Depending on what these fibers are made of (eg. wool, nylon etc.) these anchor fibers might resist breaking, or allow the pill to break off. Bam, we have ourselves a pilly situation.

What plays into this process, and what can we do to prevent it?

Fiber Content

grey black knit

As you can see in the photos above, what a fabric is made of is a biggie. The grey acrylic/wool blend cardigan is looking rather worse for wear, while the black merino cardigan I’ve had for over a year is still looking great (despite the fact that I have NOT always followed the ‘handwash only’ instructions that I patiently dole out at work). In order to understand why the fiber content of a garment affects pilling so much, we need some basic fiber knowledge.

Fibers can be grouped into the following two types:

  1. Fibers that have a limited length (usually a few centimetres long), called staple fibers. These are most often natural fibers such as wool, cotton and linen, where the length of each fibre depends the plant or animal it came from. These individual fibres are twisted together to make yarns.
  2. Fibers that have an unlimited length (up to several kilometers long), called filament fibers. These are most often man-made fibers such as polyester, acrylic and nylon, and can be made to any desired length (Silk is an exception in that it is a natural filament fiber).

Okay, cool, so we have short fibers and long fibers. How does this result in pills or no pills?

When the fabric rubs together, shorter staple fibers are able to break free from the yarn easily. This makes those balls less likely to form, and allows them to break off the fabric easily if they do form (This is why garments made from wool, a short staple fiber, can pill to begin with, but then get better over time as the pills break off). Long filament fibers, on the other hand, form tight little balls that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. This is reinforced by the fact that many filament fibers such as polyester are very strong – that pill is stuck on for life.

Structure Of The Fabric

black and black

Here we have two garments that are both 100% polyester (a shameful choice of yesteryear that I am reminded of every time I wear these to uni – the people there will fondle your clothes and they will judge you if you’re wearing polyester), but only one is displaying those horrible little pills that polyester is known for. Why?

The way a fabric is constructed has a big impact on how likely it is to pill. Two of the main ways of making a fabric are:

  • Knitting, where yarns are looped together.
  • Weaving, where two sets of yarns are interlaced at right angles.

The gaps between yarn crossings are bigger in a knit than in a woven fabric. In other words, knitting is generally a looser way of constructing fabric. The cardigan on the left is knitted (look closely and you can see the loops) while the top on the right is woven.

Looseness = fibres pull out of the fabric more easily = pills form more easily.

This does, however, also vary between knits – think of certain cardigans with holes so big you can put your finger through them, and then think of a t-shirt. While both are made of knitted fabric, one is knitted much more loosely than the other. But both are more likely to pill than a woven garment.

Washing & Care

blue bronze knit

This bronze top is knitted quite loosely, whereas the indigo cardigan is made of a much finer, tighter knit – and yet it’s the bronze top that’s coming out on top. What’s going on here?

Pills are formed due to rubbing. There is no place that clothes get rubbed more than in the washing machine. It becomes obvious, then, that one way to prevent pilling, even when all the odds are stacked against you (a.k.a the eternal question of Why Do They Make Such Pretty Tops In Polyester) is to gently handwash. Minimal friction = minimal pilling.

As I mentioned above, there are times when I just don’t have the time to handwash, but with this bronze top I have been extremely vigilant. Gentle hand wash and drying flat, every time. (I had a bit of a moment when I thought my boyfriend had chucked it in the wash with his jeans… He looked rather relieved that he would live another day when I found it under the bed)

If you enjoyed this post, stay in touch!

Subscribe to This Kind Choice

17 thoughts on “3 Ways To Wage War Against Pilling Clothes

  1. Love your blog, Emma! I found you via your wonderful and inspiring post on Choosing Raw. What a a great article- pilling is definitely one of the most frustrating aspects of my wardrobe, when good pieces go bad and become seemingly unwearable because they just look shoddy. I was hoping you might have a bit more advice re: battling pills after the fact? Obviously, with the items like poly/acrylic that are unlimited length you can’t just pull them off – have you tried any of the ‘tools’ out there for removing pills? Do you ever just sit there with tiny nail scissors and cut them off? Basically, any triage tips? thanks!

    • I will sometimes, painstakingly, use a shaving razor on the fabric. You have to go slowly and softly, especially around hems, otherwise the blade will slice the fabric. I’ve used a disposable as well as an electric razor and the disposable one works better and is faster. Regarding the “disposable” factor of the razor, search online for the ways to keep it sharp so you don’t have to throw it away.

    • Thank you Shayna! Nice to hear from a fellow Choosing Raw reader and I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog.

      I haven’t tried any tools to remove pills, but I’m happy to see other readers chiming in with suggestions (thanks guys!) and I will be trying some these myself. I would say a word of warning about cutting pills off with scissors – I have tried this with tights and it’s VERY important to be sure it’s a pill and not a pull, in which case cutting it off would unravel the knit and cause a hole.

      • Hi Emma, I’m interested in knowing how you can tell a pill from a pull? I’ve just bought a pair of lovely PJ pants and there seem to be a few pills already – it’s a cotton/modal/elastane blend. I’m tempted to cut the pill off but it looks like it’s attached to some fibers?

  2. Very interesting! In relation to this, I was hoping you would continue your series on fibres at some point.

  3. This is very interesting Emma. I’m currently knitting a beautiful Jo Sharp yarn which is 75% extrafine merino and 25% mulberry silk. The ribbing (basque) pulled a little as I was knitting it, not badly but enough that I noticed it. But the important thing is it’s a pull not a pill! I think it may have happened because the yarn is so fine.

    It’s very interesting to have this all explained, I hope you’ll do more about fibres.

    • Nice to see you commenting again, Rose :)
      That sounds like a lovely blend, and you’re probably right that it pulled because it is so fine. Some yarns are twisted very loosely, which can look nice but it quite delicate. What are you making with it?
      It sounds like a few people are keen to learn more about fibres which is great to know!

  4. Thanks for the post, Emma, good to know how to avoid pilling – though I’ve read with some fabrics, like cashmere, you can’t reallly avoid it, and it is not always a question of quality. I recently bought a (very inexpensive) wool comb and it works really well. It takes a while, but then again, it’s a great way to keep your hand occupied during your favorite podcast.

    • Hi Dina,
      Some things do have that tendency to pill more easily, although cashmere should get better over time as the pills fall off. Thanks for sharing the wool comb idea, I haven’t heard of that but it sounds very useful :)

  5. Pingback: Lovely Links: 3/28/14 - Already Pretty | Where style meets body image

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>