Pilling is tiny knots of thread or ugly bobbles of fuzz that appear on clothes. Pills can turn your favorite top into an unsightly mess. Learn how to prevent pilling from happening and what you need to do to remove the little nubs from your clothing.
What Is Pilling?
Pills appear on fabric when groups of short or broken fibers become tangled together in a tiny knot or ball, otherwise known as a pill. The pills form due to rubbing or abrasion during normal wear and use.
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What Causes Pills to Appear on Clothes?
The pills are usually found on the areas of clothing or linens that receive the most abrasion in day-to-day use, such as center of bed sheets, under the arms of clothes, around the collar and cuffs of a shirt, and between the thighs and on the rear of pants; but can happen anywhere on fabric.
While it is difficult to predict which fabrics will pill, there are some types of fabrics and fibers that are more prone to pilling. Knitted fabrics tend to pill more than woven fabrics because the threads are looser. Fabrics made of long fibers like silk and linen pill less than wool, cotton, polyester, and other synthetic threads. When fibers are mixed in a fabric like a cotton/polyester blend, one fiber is usually much stronger than the other. The weaker fiber will break, knot around to the stronger fiber, and a pill is formed.
The pill, unfortunately, becomes a magnet for other loose threads in a wash load and the two become entangled. That's why a black fabric ends up with little white knots. That white knot is fuzz from another fabric.
How to Prevent Pills on Clothes
- For clothes that you suspect will pill, use the washer's gentle cycle. The slower agitation and shorter wash cycle will protect your clothes. Or, choose hand washing which is even more gentle.
- Before washing any garment, by hand or in a washer, turn the garment inside out. This prevents excessive abrasion to the surface of the fabric from other clothes, zippers, and buttons.
- Sort laundry properly before washing. Washing delicate items in the same load as jeans will cause more abrasion and harm to the surface of fabrics. Avoid washing lint producing fabrics like terry cloth with other clothes. If there are broken fibers on polyester, the lint from terry cloth is going to cling tightly to the polyester surface.
- Do not overload the washer tub past its capacity. Cramming it as full as possible does not leave room for clothes to move easily and causes damage to the surface of clothes.
- Skip harsh cleaners and damaging bleach which can weaken fibers causing them to break and pill.
- Choose a laundry detergent that contains the enzyme cellulase. The enzyme will help break down cotton pills and remove them.
- Add a commercial fabric softener to the rinse cycle. The ingredients in fabric softener coat the fibers of the fabric so that abrasion is lessened.
- Avoid the clothes dryer. Line dry woven fabrics and dry knitted garments on a flat surface. If using the dryer, remove delicate items as soon as possible to lessen abrasion from other fabrics.
How to Select Clothes That Will Not Pill
While there is no promise that a fabric will never pill, there are some tricks that will keep your clothes looking their best longer.
- Avoid fabrics that are fiber blends. Knitted or woven fabrics that combine different types of threads, especially those that combine natural and synthetic fibers, are more likely to pill. Check the label before you purchase an item.
- Choose woven fabrics over knits. Woven fabrics pill less than knits. Of course, we love our knits, so choose one that is tightly knit over a looser knit.
How to Remove Pilling From Clothes
One of the most effective ways to remove pills is to use a fabric comb or a battery-operated pill and fuzz remover that shaves the pills from the surface of the garment. These will pull the knotted fibers away from the surface of the fabric.
You can also pull the fabric taut over a curved surface and carefully cut off the pills with small, sharp scissors or shave the fabric surface with a safety razor. You must be extremely careful and weigh the value of the garment before tackling the job!
When a Pill Becomes a Snag
On occasion, a small pill can become a snag if one of the longer fibers gets caught in the mix. If that happens, follow these tips to fix the snag and save the garment.
Wang R, Xiao Q. Study on pilling performance of polyester-cotton blended woven fabrics. Journal of Engineered Fibers and Fabrics, vol. 15, 2020. doi:10.1177/1558925020966665