How to Deal With Those Annoying Pills on Your Fabric

Is your favourite sweater covered in pills? We’ve all experienced those unattractive, fuzzy balls on the surface of sweaters and other textiles. These balls of fibers are called pills. Pills are the short fibers or fibrils entangled on the surface of a textile, that are caused by abrasion or friction. Abrasion occurs in areas of heavy wear, such as jacket cuffs, inner side of sleeves where the arm rubs against the body, or the heels of socks. Pilling is a frustrating problem, but there are some preventative measures to reduce pills, and some nifty tools for removing them.

How to Reduce Pilling

Firstly, a little fabric knowledge and some practical steps help to reduce pilling.

  1. Check fabric labels – all knit items pill to a certain degree. The degree of pilling is affected by the fiber type, yarn construction including its twist, tightness of the knit fabric, and the pattern stitch. I have some very old sweaters knit in a durable, tightly twisted wool, with absolutely no pills. Pilling is common with softly spun, single ply yarns, regardless of the fiber type. Acrylic, nylon, and other synthetics pill more than natural fibers. Because synthetic fibers are so strong, the pills don’t break off the surface, whereas pills are easily removed from natural fiber surfaces. Many knitters prefer natural fibers for this reason. An acrylic item can look like “pill central” in no time, and they can’t be removed. I have a wool coat with a small percentage of nylon, and much to my dismay it pills, and I’m constantly removing them. For garments made of woven fabrics like coats, shirts, and bed sheets avoid 100% polyester, polyester blends, and microfibers. Natural fiber fabrications made of cotton, wool, or silk perform better, and any pills are easily removed. Also choose woven fabrics with a tight weave. Denim items never pill, because they are made of tightly woven cotton yarns. That beautiful silk blouse maintains its luxurious surface because silk fibers are long, have high strength, and don’t break off like shorter fibers.
  2. Remove any pills before cleaning. Preparing the surface of the textile before cleaning helps to stave off further pilling.
  3. Wash smarter – sort your laundry by colors, as well as by fabric types. Don’t wash towels with your delicate items. Turn sweaters and other clothing inside out, to prevent abrasion caused by contact with other items. Hand wash knits and other delicate items and fabrics, because the washing cycle is not that gentle, particularly with top loaders.
  4. Dry carefully – a dryer full of clothes will rub against each other, causing abrasion and eventual pilling. Limit the dryer time, and hang clothes to finish drying. Don’t dry synthetics in the dryer. Lay sweaters and other delicate items flat to dry.

Pill Removers

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De-pilling works best on natural fiber surfaces. Synthetic fabrications that are heavily pilled will also have a matted looking surface, and the pills can’t be removed without damaging the textile. Have you ever tried to remove pills from microfiber tights after a season of wear – doesn’t work, the balls are there forever. Here are some common pill removers available, and include some you many not have heard of.

  1. Fabric Shavers – these devices shave off the pills from the textile surface. I’ve never used one, but I think it would work best for woven fabrics. I probably would avoid them for hand knits.
  2. Sweater Stones – these are blocks of pumice that are rubbed along the fabric surface to remove pills. I’ve tried a stone, and was not happy because of the pumice residue left behind. There are different brands of stones available that may work better, particularly the ones from The Laundress; they manufacture some excellent fabric care products.
  3. Fabric and Sweater Combs – I’ve had one of these for years, and it works great on fine gauge sweaters. It’s gentle and doesn’t damage the knit fabric. I’ve also used it on woven fabrics like wool coats, with good results.
  4. Personal Razor – recently I tried a disposable razor on my wool coat and it worked well. Don’t use a razor with many blades, or those infused with lotion. I probably wouldn’t use a razor on a hand knit; the knit fabric may be damaged.
  5. Lice Combs – this tool was a surprise, but with its widely spaced metal teeth, it works for bulky knits with large pills. Simply comb through the pills to remove. That being said, if you have nothing better to do while watching TV, you could remove large pills by hand!

Pills on the fabric surface can range from none to a matted, unsightly surface. However, with some preventative measures, avoiding synthetic fabrications, and using a pill remover, your garments will look better, and you’ll wear them much longer.