Prevent Pilling — How to keep sweaters, bedding, and other items from pilling
February 4, 2019
No matter the age of a fabric, once it starts pilling, it looks old. And not in a good way.
Those little balls of fiber that party on your sweater (or workout pants or sheets) happen when fibers rub against each other (and other fabrics, zippers, buttons, etc.). Short fibers are more prone to pilling, because they become loose and tangle together, forming those little balls.
Pilling happens in the wash but also from everyday wear—which is why you’ll more often see them under arms and around cuffs or elbows or between the legs of knit pants. You can remove the fuzz (more about that later), but that can be tedious and deteriorate the fabric.
So how can I prevent pilling in the first place?
There are plenty of things you can do to minimize pilling, and they’re all pretty easy.
- Turn the garment inside out when laundering. This way, most pilling will happen on the inside.
- Hand wash if you’re serious about preventing pills (say, on a new, expensive sweater). Gently swish the fabric in the soapy water.
- When machine washing, use a short, delicate cycle (which has less agitation/friction and a shorter cycle than the one used for regular clothing).
- Use a gentle liquid detergent rather than powdered detergents, which can be abrasive. If you do use powder, dissolve it in the water before adding your garments.
- Avoid bleaches and harsh detergents, which can wear down fibers.
- Try an enzyme. Some experts suggest that detergents with enzymes (like cellulase, amylase, pectinase, and protease, which are used to break down stains) help because they eat away a bit at the fabric, removing some of those short loose fibers that are prone to pilling.
- Include a fabric softener or conditioner, which will smooth the fabric fibers and so limit friction.
- Sort your delicates. Don’t wash your sweaters with your jeans, which will rub against the sweater fibers big time.
- Don’t overload the machine. The more fabric in there, the more opportunity for mingling!
- Don’t scrub the fabric, even if it’s stained. Instead, apply a stain remover and blot the area with a clean cloth or towel.
- Close Velcro tabs when washing or storing items. That sandpapery Velcro can wreak havoc on fabric!
- To give a favorite item extra TLC, place it in a mesh washing bag before laundering.
- Avoid using the dryer. High heat can break down the fibers. And again, there’s another opportunity for abrasion.
- Give your clothing a break. If it seems your favorite clothing pills the most, you’re on to something. There’s more opportunity for abrasion when wearing something over and over, of course. But wearing something also stretches the fibers, which loosens the shorter threads, which then tangle and pill. Giving the garment a chance to recuperate in your closet can help.
- Avoid rubbing your sweaters in the same place repeatedly. Does your shoulder bag slide back and forth against your side? Do you lean on your elbows all day at your desk? That goes for other fabrics, too, of course. (This is why your bathing suit bottom pills when you sit on the side of the rough pool.)
Do some fabrics pill more easily than others?
Oh, yes. I bet your jeans aren’t pilling much. That’s because they’re woven—and tightly.
Knitted fabrics pill more easily than woven because the threads are looser. And loosely knit fabrics pill more than closely knit ones. Long fibers, like silk and linen, pill less than short fibers (even cotton and wool fibers) and most synthetics. Polyester, acrylic and nylon are all fierce pillers.
Clothing made of mixed fibers (cotton/poly, for example) pill easily because the weaker of the fibers breaks and knots around the stronger fiber, causing a pill.
What about sheets that pill?
Ugh. Do you feel like the princess and the pea when trying to snuggle in sheets with pills? You can use some of the tips above (don’t overload your machine, wash separately, use liquid detergent, etc.), but keep these extra tips in mind, too:
- When shopping for sheets, choose those made from high-quality fibers. Thread counts (how many threads the fabric contains per square inch) should translate into longer fibers and more tightly woven fabric, but it’s not at all a reliable gauge. For example, linen sheets usually have a thread count of about 80 to 150, while cotton starts at around 150 or 200. But it’s not because the cotton is more tightly woven, it’s because the linen thread is thicker. And sometimes manufacturers—in an effort to boast higher thread counts—will use thinner yarn or twist fibers into the weave (rather than actually weaving them in). All of which means that a very high thread count fabric may actually be more prone to pill.
So focus instead on fiber content and weave. When it comes to cotton, Egyptian, Pima, and Supima are usually good, long-fiber bets. Blends like cotton/poly are generally less expensive but more prone to pill. For weaves, percale is one good choice. Percale is strong, crisp, and evenly woven, while sateen has an uneven weave (there are more vertical than horizontal yarns), which makes it soft but more likely to pill.
- While sheets need to be laundered often, minimize washing wear by setting them for a short wash cycle (with gentle detergent, of course).
- Weather and/or space permitting, hang your sheets to dry. If the dryer beckons, don’t use the hottest setting.
- If you iron your sheets (some people do, I hear!), use a low heat iron setting.
How do I get rid of the pills?
Despite our best efforts, some pilling is inevitable. There are some handy gadgets for removing pills—like sweater combs and stones, and fabric shavers.
You can also (very carefully) use a sharp razor or little scissors to shave or snip off pills. Some people report success using a sandpaper sponge, Velcro rollers or a strip of Velcro, especially on delicate fabrics. (I’ve not tried this and wonder if it wouldn’t do more harm than good, in the long run?) Follow with a lint roller to pick up any strays. How do you remove pills from your clothing and sheets? Do you have any preventative tips to share?