Why Did My Sweater Pill?

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Dear Home-Ec 101:

It’s cold! Well actually it’s 68 right now – but yesterday it was in the 40’s and I wanted to wear my nice, warm, fluffy white wool sweater. It has not seen the light of day since last winter (February-ish). I pulled it out of the dry cleaner bag and it is covered with little white balls, I guess they are lint balls? Anyway I did a quick once over with a lint brush and it didn’t’ seem to make much difference so I put it away and wore my fleece jacket most of the day at work. Last night I did a more through ‘de-linting’ and I still can’t get rid of the balls. I also tried using some packing tape but that did not help either.

Any suggestions?
Pilled in Pillager
Heather says:

You are describing a phenomenon known as pilling. The yarn used to create your sweater is comprised of fibers of various lengths twisted together. Over time the weaker fibers break and tend to twist back onto themselves creating tiny balls or fabric pills anchored to the material by unbroken fibers. The threads anchoring the pills to your sweater are the reason the usual lint brush or packing tape trick didn’t work.

Fabric pilling happens, it’s a normal result of wear and is most noticeable after cleaning, as the pills form when the broken fibers stretch and shrink during the cleaning process.

[pullthis id=”storage” pullshow=”outside”]Don’t store your clothing in dry cleaner bags. Dry cleaning does involve moisture and leaving your clothing in the bag can cause damage over time. [/pullthis]

[pullshow id=”storage”]Transfer your sweaters to a padded hanger, wire hangers often create weird little lumps in the shoulder of your garment. If you want to prevent dust from landing on the shoulders of the garment, cut the bottom off of the bag to allow air to circulate. White garments will often yellow if left in dry cleaning bags for too long.

I do have good news, wool fabrics tend to pill less over time as the shorter and weaker fibers work their way out of the yarn. So hopefully you still have a lot of life left in your sweater.

To fix the problem you’ll need one of a few items:

A razor – only good if your sweater isn’t very textured

A fabric shaver – you can also find these at almost any big box or fabric store

A sweater stone – this is a pumice stone that will snag the pills more firmly than tape or a lint brush and break the anchoring fibers.

If you choose to shave your sweater with a razor, it’s very important to use a light hand or you risk cutting the undamaged fibers and creating more wear or a hole. Fabric shavers have a guard over the blade to help prevent damaging the rest of the material. Sweater stones should also be used with a fairly light hand, as you don’t want to create unnecessary wear, which leads to a vicious cycle of further pilling.

There’s really no way to completely prevent pilling and other than storing in the plastic bag, it sounds as though you have taken excellent care of your garment.

With washable garments, you can help reduce pilling by turning the item inside out before laundering.

Good luck!

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

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8 thoughts on “Why Did My Sweater Pill?”

  1. My sweaters come back from the cleaners folded over the hanger. Is there any pro/con to leaving them on the hanger folded (after removing the dry cleaner bag of course) vs hanging on a padded hanger or storing in a drawer?

  2. If a sweater is knit it should not stay on the hanger for any length of time. If this comfy white sweater was knit, Pilled Pillager would do much better to keep the folded sweater in a box during the warmer months.

  3. I find that synthetic fibers pill more than natural fibers AND I’ve been using a razor for years to shave off pills.

    Wow, thought I was the only one. : )

  4. The yellowing caused by leaving clothing inside plastic bags is a form of mold. It stains the fabric and is usually not removable. Most people don’t realize that their garments are in danger when they think they are protecting the item.

    Polyester is notorious for causing pilling if combined with natural fibers. The polyester is much stronger and usually a continuous thread rather than shorter threads twisted together. The strong polyester will gather up the bits of broken natural fibers and hold on to them making the pills on the fabric. (This is exactly why I NEVER purchase sheets that have polyester in them!)

    Sweaters are best stored clean, dry, folded in a breathable container. They can develop strong fold marks if they are left for l-o-n-g periods of time. If that is the case then it is wise to unfold and refold them in a different fold pattern every once in awhile. (That is EXTREMELY true for quilts as well. The batting inside quilts will actually begin to deteriorate at the folds breaking the batting causing permanent fold marks. So if you have heirloom quilts stored put it on your calendar to refold them periodically.)

    Just my two-cents worth of fiber knowledge!

    • ALWAYS wash clothes that are to be stored. If you have worn the garment even once the perspiration, oils from lotions and aluminum from deodorants will yellow and stain clothes as well. (And there is always a random oil/food stain that you didn’t realize was there, too!)

  5. I bought a sweater shaver from Brookstone over 15 years ago and it’s still going strong. It probably cost me about $15 or $20 at the time-but even to this frugal gal it was a worthwhile investment. I’ve probably had to put new batteries in about twice 😉 I just keep it in the laundry room and use it when I notice a sweater is getting pilly!


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