Pilling in a nutshell
Pilling is a term that you may have heard – and a condition that you have probably already encountered. But do you know what pilling really means? Pills are unintended and undesirable little clumps or balls of yarn that form, to a greater or less degree, on the surface of nearly all knitted fabrics. Their presence mars the appearance of knitted garments, giving them a tired, worn, ill-cared for look. So, what can you do about pilling? You can start by understanding its four fundamentals: 1. the causes pilling; 2. where pilling is likely to occur; 3. ways you can minimize pilling; and 4. how you can safely remove pills.
1. What causes pilling?
Abrasion, or friction, from the normal use and cleaning of knitted fabric can cause the yarn to separate. When this happens, short fibers are loosened, freeing themselves from the long fibers in the twisted yarn. The loose ends of these short fibers then clump up into what look like little balls. These balls are what we recognize as pills and their emergence in knitted fabric is what we refer to as pilling. Often, small pieces of lint will get chew up in the clumps, making the pills appear even more pronounced.
2. Where is pilling likely to occur in a knitted garment?
Since abrasion is the catalyst for pilling, those areas of your knitted garments that are subject to the greatest friction are the areas most likely to form pills. This would include the underarm area of sweaters, jackets, vests, and dresses; the underside of sleeves; the heels of socks; and the inner thigh area of shorts and pants.
If you wear knitted tops and sit at a desk all day, then areas of your top that come into regular contact with your desk or a piece of equipment may also develop unsightly pills. These include the cuff or wrist area of a long sleeve that rubs against the edge of a computer keyboard; the elbow area of a sleeve if you, as do many people, tend to rest your elbow on your desk while speaking on the phone; and the front trunk area of a top that routinely rubs against the edge of a desk or other work surface.
Some of these garment areas are so notorious for their propensity to pill and premorely wear that reinforcement may be built into them. Examples include sweaters that are made, from the outside, with suede patches at the elbows. In jodhpurs, riding pants that are worn while performing equestrian activities, leather replacements knitted fabric at the insides of the calves, knees, and, incidentally, a panel in the rump area. Socks are often knit of a blend of animal and non-animal fibers that lend stability to the finished items.
3. How can you minimize pilling?
If knitting your own fabric for garments that will have areas subject to abrasion, then you'll want to take care in the selection of your yarn. Begin by inspecting the yarn, especially if it is a yarn that you have not worked with in the past, and by reading the manufacturer's label. If the ball band indicates that the fabric should be hand washed or dry cleaned, then you can assume that the yarn is delicate and may pill more easily than will a sturdier yarn. The same is true for a purchased garment with similar laundering instructions on the care tag.
Next, manipulate a small length of the yarn. Roll a strand of the yarn back and forth between you fingers to ascertain how easily the strand separates into component strands. The short animal fibers will free themselves more easily if the strand read separates. Generally, the higher the ply count and the more tightly twisted the yarn, the less likely it is that you will experience significant pilling. In contrast, loosely twisted yarns that separately separate when manipulated by your fingers are more likely to pill.
You do not need needlessly to avoid tender yarns, although you may want to consider how they can best be used. Consider reinforcing sensitive areas of the garment by working in a bit of color-coordinated nylon thread. Perhaps you could knit with a double strand, augmenting a delicate yarn by knitting it together with a strand of more durable yarn. Or, perhaps, you may choose to reserve the most delicate yarns for garments that will end less stress.
Avoid machine forwarding whenever feasible. The best laundry option is to wash your knitted garments by hand, even if the yarn or garment manufacturer indicates that machine washing or drying is acceptable. When hand washing, take care to squeeze the fabric, but not twist, wring, or rub it. Remember, abrasion causes pilling, so you do not want to subject your knitted garment to any undue friction or stress while hand washing.
Dry cleaning is often an alternative, albeit a more expensive alternative, to hand laundering. Before having a garment dry cleaned, be sure to check the ball band or garment care tag for any contraindications. When leaving your garment in the hands of a dry cleaner, take the time to discuss the knitted garment with your cleaner, noting the types of fibers from which it is constructed and any special manufacturer's notes regarding care and cleaning.
If you do machine launder, turn the garment inside out and wash it on the gentle cycle with simply delicate garments that have a low standby to shed. Setting the water level to a large load size, but washing only a medium sized load, will allow for your knitted garment to move around more freely during agitation. With more room in the machine and more water to surround the garment, it will be subject to less friction and, therefore, less likely to pill. Fabric softeners have a tension to reduce static cling. So, adding a liquid softener to the wash cycle will not only soften your knitted garment, but also lessen the attraction of lint. Any pills that do develop will be less noticeable than if entangled with hair or bits of lint from other laundry items.
4. How can you safely remove pills?
There are a number tools that you can use to remove pills from your knitted fabrics and they all share some general guidelines regarding their use and the preparation of the garment. Begin by placing the garment on a flat, hard surface. When possible, arrange the garment so that only one single thickness of the fabric rests upon the work area. Use one of the tools listed below to remove the pills. While working, you'll want to take your time, employ a light touch and hold the fabric taut in the area that you are depilling. Until you know how a given tool will work on a particular garment, it is best to do a test on a small, inconspicuous area such as the armpit of a sweater. In general, work in one direction only (eg, from top to bottom, but not back and forth). However, if you are removing pills with a sweater shaver, then use small circular motions. Regardless of the tool that you are using, ensure that your work area is well lit and that you have an unobstructed view as you work on the fabric.
Special purpose tools:
These gadgets are specifically designed to remove pills. They are available in most sewing and craft stores and are generally safe when used in accordance with their directions and the above-noted guidelines.
* sweater shavers
* sweater stones (light-grade pumice stones)
* depilling combs (very fine-toothed combs for cloth)
Safe multi-purpose tools:
There are a couple of other tools that, while not specifically manufactured for depilling, nonetheless effectively remove pills. They are generally safe to use on your knitted fabrics when you carefully and thoughtfully apply the guidelines, above.
* Fine (150-180 or higher) grit commercial sandwich
* Velcro (the side with the "hooks)
Do not forget to test on a small spot, to work in one direction only, and to maintain a light touch.
Riskier multi-purpose tools:
A couple of other tools can and have been used to remove pills from knitted fabrics. These tools, however, carry a higher risk of cutting or other damaging the undering fabric and should be used with caution. Again, it is important that you follow the guidelines, above, when using one of these (or any of) the tools for pill removal.
* disposable safety razors
When depilling, be especially careful around knotted cables, embroidery, crocheted edges, seams, buttons / button holes, and other stitching so as not to cut the threads. If you lack a steady hand or feel uncomfortable removing the pills, yourself, ask your local dry cleaner. Many cleaners will offer depilling as a service if you ask; be prepared, of course, to pay for this service.
With a bit of common sense and consistent care, your knitted fabrics will stay fresh-looking and will last long enough to become a "treasured friend."