Pilling, the accumulation of small, balled fibres that gives clothing the appearance of fuzz, is an unwelcome sign of wear that you probably consider unfashionable. Typically, it occurs in high-use areas or in places where rubbing occurs. (Think: sleeves, arm pits, near pockets, thighs, gussets etc.)
Some fabric types are more prone to pilling than others; knits and athletic leggings immediately come to mind, but cotton blends like bed sheets and polyester blends aren’t immune either.
The good news is, preventive laundering can help reduce pilling and some clever tools will renew the finish of heavy knit and woolen items.
What type of clothes are most prone to pilling?
Pilling occurs when clothing fibres break so it really comes down to material composition and weave.
Wool tends to pill liberally because yarn is spun from animal hair fibres, and many wool fashions have somewhat of a looser weave. There’s simply more opportunity for fibres to break, snag or come loose. Cashmere (made from goat-hair fibre) is notorious for pilling.
Fabrics that blend different fibres (like bamboo-rayon or a cotton-polyester blend, for example) can pill because one type is stronger than the other. When the looser or weaker fibre snaps, with wear and washing, it can wrap and form a pill around the stronger fibre. This can be exasperated when natural and synthetic fibres are combined in a single garment.
If you want to shop to avoid pilling, it’s best to select fashions with a tight weave constructed from a single fabric type.
Laundry strategies for minimizing or avoiding pilling
Sort your laundry by “weight.” Sort heavier, hardier items like denim and towels from more delicate clothing like tops and athleticwear. Avoid combining items that shed fibres with garments that attract lint.
Choose a gentle detergent free of harsh chemicals, like Tru Earth laundry detergent eco-strips.
Wash garments inside-out. In addition to detergent, washing machines count on items to agitate against one another to achieve a good clean. Agitation can disrupt fibres and encourage pilling. Turn sweaters and other pilling-prone clothing inside out to reduce the degree of agitation they’ll experience in the washer, extending the garment’s lifetime.
Select the gentle cycle or hand wash to reduce agitation.
Skip the dryer. Opt to air dry or lay flat instead.
How to de-pill sweaters and clothing
Use a sweater stone. A sweater stone is a palm-size piece of porous volcanic rock (pumice) that collects loose fibres as it is swept across the surface of knit sweaters and other garments. The upside: it’s an affordable, all natural, zero waste solution. The downside: it may leave stone debris behind as the pumice ages. Also, it may not be the best option for very delicate/loosely woven knits.
Use a sweater comb. A sweater comb is a purpose-built tool for collecting loose fibres from knit items. Made with wire mesh, the comb offers some precision de-pilling compared to its stone counterpart. Use short, downward sweeping motions.
Trim the fibres. Lay the item on a flat surface and use a pair of sharp scissors to carefully trim any flyaway fibres and pilling.
Shave the item. Taking a razor to your clothes might seem reckless at first but consider that a high-quality blade does a good job of removing hair on our own skin. Place the item on a flat surface, pull the fabric tight and gently shave in the direction of the weave.
Use a battery-operated electric fabric shaver. This clever hand-held device can be used on a wide variety of fabrics, from blankets and towels to sweaters and leggings. Simply hold the fabric taut, select the appropriate “distance setting” (if your device has this feature) and get to work, buzzing off small pills and loose fibres for a totally renewed look.