Pilling - what causes it and what can you do about it?

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Pilling - it is so frustrating! You have spent hours knitting or crocheting and your item is perfect, and then, over time, little balls or fluffy strands of fibre appear on the surface. Unfortunately, it can happen to anything that has been made with yarn. And despite a common perception that acrylic fibres are worse, this is not actually the case - natural fibres such as woollen yarns or bamboo are just as likely if not more so to pill. 

What causes pilling?

Firstly, you may need to change your expectation. Every yarn pills - and buying more expensive yarn does not prevent pilling.

The truth is that pilling is a fact of life for knitters.

Pilling is caused by friction. And that means that jumpers or cardigans are far more likely to pill than, say, a shawl, as they are subjected to more friction through the way you wear them. As you wear your jumper, you are likely to rub your sleeves against the side of the body or you may wear a jacket over your jumper and rub against that, so that’s where the pilling will be most obvious.

There are some factors that will cause more pilling - if there is more room for the fibres to move and rub against each other, more pilling will occur. This could be through a more loosely spun yarn or through a loose tension when knitting.

Here is an interesting fact: ‘ply’ - which is often used in Australia to indicate the thickness of a yarn - does not necessarily tell you how tightly plied a yarn is. You can have a thick yarn which is lightly plied or you can have a lace-weight yarn that is tightly plied. The thicker the individual strands in the plied yarn are, the more likely is the yarn to pill.

For that reason, you will find that high use items like socks, for example, often use tightly plied yarns in lower yarn weights, which makes the yarn a bit less likely to pill.

Certain stitches also show up pilling more than others. Stocking stitch with its smooth surface makes pilling quite obvious, whereas ‘bumpier’ stitches such as garter stitch or purl stitch will hide pilling a bit more. They will both still pill, it’s just a matter of whether it becomes more visible or not.

So what can you do about pilling?

You can either embrace pilling as a fact of life, or you can try to de-pill your garments every now and again. Be aware that de-pilling needs to be done carefully and not too often, as you remove more and more fibre over time. You don’t want to thin your yarn too much!

There are some gadgets you can use to de-pill, but if you don't have any of those at hand, you can also either pull off the bits of fibre by hand or very carefully remove them with a disposable razor or the blade of a pair of scissors. Just make sure you don't cut into your garment!

Alternatively, you can apply a pumice stone to remove pilling. You can use a fancy one designed for de-pilling knitted items, but the simple one you may already have in your bathroom is made from the same material and could be used in a pinch (success depends on the quality of the pumice stone, so try in a hidden spot first). Lightly run the pumice stone along the outside of your knitted item and it should come back to its former beauty.

Hand-washing is usually best to prevent pilling, as there is less friction when hand-washing compared to machine washing.

If you are using super-wash yarn and want to machine wash your items, turn them inside out and use the most gentle spin cycle your machine offers. 

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