Jumper with pilling

How to Prevent Pilling on Sweaters

Pilling, also called bobbling or lint fuzz, is the occurrence of small balls of fiber on items of clothing, linens, and other materials. It can make your clothing look worn, old, and untidy, and is something most people would very much like to avoid if they can.

Pilling is the result of broken fibers knotting together with each other, or with fibers from other garments, as a result of abrasion during wear and washing. However, there are many reasons why some fabrics pill and others don’t, and knowing how to choose and treat your clothing is the only weapon you can have against pilling.

Why should you worry about pilling? you ask. Well, allowing your clothing to keep pilling doesn’t only affect the appearance – which is important to many people, but not all – but it also affects the lifespan of your items. The more your clothing’s fabrics are allowed to pill, the more they will deteriorate, eventually causing them to tear at the weak points caused by the constant knotting of the fibers.

What Causes Pilling?

Child with pilling on jacket

Everyday wear and tear is the main cause of pilling, followed closely by the washing method used. You may notice that your sweater pills most around areas like the elbows and sleeves, the armpits, and the sides of the torso – this is because these areas of a sweater constantly come into contact with each other or with other materials. The back of your sweater may come into regular contact with the rough material of your chair back, too, so that is another area that could see some excessive pilling.

However, all parts of a sweater are prone to pilling, especially if the garment is not washed and dried with care. Washing your sweaters with heavy, rough items, such as towels or denim jeans, is a sure way to cause pilling, and drying them in a tumble dryer is even worse.

All fabrics are prone to pilling to some extent, but there are certainly fabrics and fabric types that are far more susceptible than others. Fabrics with short fibers and loose weaves tend to pill far more easily than fabrics with longer fibers and tight weaves. Mixed fabrics are also very prone to pilling, because of the combination of strong and weak fibers – when the weaker fibers break, they tend to wrap themselves around the stronger fibers, causing knots and eventually pills.

Clothes and towel in washing machine

Pills caused by daily wear and tear can be further exacerbated by washing, when stray fibers in the machine attach themselves to the tiny knots, making them larger and more obvious. This is mainly because the loose fibers in your washing machine are likely to be of different colors to the color of the individual clothing item, so they start to stand out more as they grow.

How to Prevent Pilling on Sweaters

There are a number of ways in which you can minimize, or even prevent, pilling on your sweaters, though some of them require you to choose the correct garments at the buying stage. Follow these tips for less pilling on your sweaters:

When Buying

Sweater with tight weave
  • Choose clothing made from fabrics with long fibers. Since silk is the only natural material with a long fiber, it may be difficult to find sweaters in this category. Synthetic sweaters tend to be less breathable and less comfortable.
  • When buying knitted sweaters, choose tighter weaves or twists. The tighter the weave, the less likely a fabric is to pill.
  • Stay away from blended fabrics, as these are the most likely to pill from everyday wear and tear. Choose sweaters made from a single type of fiber, such as wool.
Woman wearing loose knit sweater
Woman wearing loose knit sweater

Regular Care

  • Read and obey the care instructions – each garment has its own requirements for care and maintenance. Do not assume you know how to treat your clothing without checking the care label first.
  • Minimize abrasion during daily wear – try not to rub your sweater against rough surfaces, such as a canvas chair back or raw wood.
  • Minimize abrasion when washing – do not wash your sweater with heavy or rough materials, such as towels or denim.
  • Before washing your sweaters, turn them inside out. This is good practice for all clothing, as it protects the outside and preserves the appearance.
  • Sort your washing, not only by color, but also by fabric types – try to always wash similar fabrics together.
  • Hand wash your sweaters, or machine wash them on the gentlest cycle – the more agitation there is, the more your sweaters will rub against themselves or each other.
  • Choose a detergent that contains enzymes – specifically cellulase – as it can prevent pilling by making fabrics smoother. Do not use bleach or other harsh chemical cleaners.
  • Do not overload your washing machine – if it is very full, there will not be enough space for the clothing to move around, and the items will rub against one another, causing pilling.
  • Use fabric softener, as it is known to coat the fibers, making them slide past each other, rather than rubbing abrasively.
  • When drying your sweaters, do not tumble dry them, as this will cause extreme friction and lead to pilling. For synthetic or light fabrics, you can hang them on the washing line, but for heavy fabrics, like wool, you must lay your sweaters out on a flat surface to dry, or they will lose their shape.
  • When packing your sweaters away in your cupboard, do not hang them, but rather fold them neatly away on a shelf. Not only can hanging cause a sweater to stretch, but it also allows for more movement against other items, which will lead to pilling.
Folded sweater

Conclusion

Although most fabrics are prone to pilling under the right (or wrong) circumstances, it is possible, with proper care and maintenance, to minimize or largely prevent pilling, especially if you have carefully chosen the right types of fabrics to wear beforehand.

Choosing fabrics that are less prone to pilling, and making sure you use a gentle wash cycle and air-drying methods, will allow you to wear your special garments for years to come, without the nasty buildup of fabrics balls all over them.

Andrea Soke

Andrea has a background in economics and finance, but she's also passionate about gardening, sustainable living, and finding new ways to maintain a clean and orderly home. She believes in quality over quantity.

18 High-Quality Clothing Brands That Are Affordable

Review: Tradlands Lily Midi Wrap Dress