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What Causes Fabric Pilling?

Angora, like other fuzzy fabrics, is particularly prone to pilling.
A fabric shaver is a handheld tool used to remove pilling from clothing.
Denim is resistant to fabric pilling.
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 December 2014
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Fabric pilling is the formation of small, fuzzy balls on the surface of a fabric. It detracts from the appearance of the fabric, making it look old and worn, and it is often difficult to restore a garment with fabric pilling to its original condition. Certain types of fibers and weaves are more prone to fabric pilling than others, but it is often a normal part of wear and tear.

Short or loose fibers on the surface of a fabric tend to tangle together, leading to fabric pilling. Fuzzier fabrics, like angora, are particularly prone to fabric pilling, since they are characterized by plentiful loose fibers. In other textiles, fabric pilling occurs either due to the natural tendency of fibers to migrate to the surface of a woven fabric or as a result of friction on the fabric surface, which loosens fibers and tangles them. This friction may be a result of wear and tear, or of improper laundering techniques. Fabric pilling is more likely to occur in areas of the clothing that experience more friction, such as under the arms and on the sides of a sweater.

To avoid fabric pilling, choose smooth, sturdy, closely woven fabrics. Poor quality cotton is more likely to experience fabric pilling than high thread count cotton, for example. Some fabrics, like denim or spandex, are particularly resistant to fabric pilling.

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In some fabrics, such as cotton, pills can fall off on their own, sometimes so soon after formation that they are hardly noticed. Other fabrics, however, have strong "anchor" fibers that keep the pills on the fabric surface. The only way to deal with fabric pilling once the pills are formed is to somehow remove them.

Fabric pilling can be prevented to some extent by proper clothes washing and care. Wash your garments inside out on a shorter wash cycle with gentle agitation and remove them from the dryer promptly. To remove fabric pills, stretch the fabric over a curved surface and carefully cut or shave off the pills.

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anon978591
Post 27

I agree with the all the other comments with respect to clothing not being the same as 15 years ago. I still have cotton t-shirts from years ago without a pill on them, and one season of recent buys are they are worth garbage. The Europeans would never settle for our disposable clothing in America. My thought is that most of cotton is now a genetically modified crop. I can't help but wonder that is part of the problem.

anon978481
Post 26

@anon954457: At no point in the article does it say poor quality clothing is a main factor. It says that poor quality clothing is more susceptible than higher quality cottons, which is completely accurate.

anon954457
Post 25

I'm not sure I buy the quality thing being the main factor. I've only recently run into a ton of my clothes pilling and it's been since I moved into a new place with an apparently evil washing machine.

At first, I thought it was the dryer ruining my softest shirts (some that had been through four different moves with me and never been pilled before.) But even air drying new shirts, they kept getting ruined in the wash. I started putting shirts in knotted mesh laundry bags (The cheap ones college students use and you can get at the dollar store. I usually daisy chain the drawstring down to the fabric and do two loops of the fabric before pulling the tail through the last loop so it doesn't completely come undone during agitation from the machine. About three similar shirts to a bag.) And this has kept the washer from pilling them.

I don't know if it was the washer or a combination of my washer and other clothing rubbing against them, and the water here or what, but problem solved so far. Anyone else have some ideas for why the same shirt would be fine in one washer and not another? My detergent and other habits haven't changed.

anon337234
Post 24

Very interesting. I have also noticed for some years now that clothes are not the same. I was wondering why I had some hoodies and sweatshirts and T-shirts that never pilled and the others pilled after the first wash. Those that don't pill are 100 percent cotton, but not all of them. I got some mixed that don't pill at all.

Here's what I do: I separate my clothes when I wash them. The socks go together, towels, face cloths, etc., then the nice stuff, and then the 'work stuff.' Never mix towels with shirts or sweatpants. A washing machine does not do much. Check you're clothes before washing them, for stuff like sand in the pockets, piece of kleenex, etc.

Next, I would like to say that guy is right with the fancy detergent -- Tide and cold water? Guaranteed pilling, but still some will never pill. If you want to take an educated guess while buying clothes, look for 100 percent cotton, but there's no guarantee and they are hard to find sometimes.

Since you're nice clothes aren't that dirty, they only need a soak and a gentle wash. I don't like the cheap fabrics because not only do they look like crap after a few washes, but they also feel different. They have kind of an itchy, sweaty, unpleasant feel. There are jeans that feel like you're wearing a box and shoes that hurt your feet after walking half a kilometer. It's comparable to the food we eat these days. Fewer nutrients sell more. It's just incredible.

anon295697
Post 23

In 1996, I had the opportunity to do a residency in Switzerland for six months. I lived on a shoe string, but managed to travel in Europe and buy a few clothes. I still have those clothes (mainly tops and shoes) and after 16 years, they are still wearable, with practically no pilling! I remember, I laughed when a French friend said "they send all the junk clothes to America, because Americans will buy whatever the market tells them to buy." I'm not laughing, now. As long as we are satisfied with poor quality goods, that is what we will get -- regardless of cost.

anon294588
Post 22

@anon141223: People who work to manufacture clothing in the likes of China, India and so on work as hard as their American counterparts -- probably harder, given the levels of poverty experienced by these evil wage undercutters is far closer to survival -- thus farther away from "keeping up with the Joneses" style poverty).

The reason our clothes these days are pilling more, and our white-goods aren't lasting as long and so on is simple. It's the neoliberal economic theory about "progress". Poor quality items that don't last as long means people must buy newer and even worse quality items to replace them. It is a cycle that becomes shorter every time we are increasingly forced to repeat it. It's a false economy.

Blame the market manipulating politicians, media and multi-nationals rather than those much more desperate than you are to make an honest living. I am sure pilling is the last thing on their minds.

I say: Amen to that!

Now products are mixed with others to lower costs and create the additional effect of people buying once again in a short period of time, creating a circle of people trying not to notice that it is now impossible to have the lifestyle we one had many years ago.

Now you can buy fewer things with your salary than years ago, but the curious thing here is that salaries don't rise at the same rate as the cost of living, or inflation. Oops. I've mentioned the forbidden word. Sorry! So we need to buy cheap things that last a pair of uses, clothes with pilling problems and with less weight (compare the number of ounces in old denims with the actual blues) and so on.

I propose to the big companies to raise the salaries according to the real cost of living, so people could buy better goods and pay a fair price. For that, of course, you big companies will get less money, but there will be more people with purchasing power to buy your products.

anon287134
Post 21

@anon141223 People who work to manufacture clothing in the likes of China, India and so on work as hard as

their American counterparts (probably harder given the levels of poverty experienced by these evil wage-under cutters is far closer to survival- thus farther away from "keeping up with the Joneses" style poverty).

The reason our clothes these days are pilling more, and our white-goods aren't lasting as long and so on is simple. It's the neoliberal economic theory about "progress". Poor quality items that don't last as long means people must buy newer and even worse quality items to replace them. It is a cycle that becomes shorter every time we are increasingly forced to repeat it. It's a false economy.

Blame the market manipulating politicians, media and multi-nationals rather than those much more desperate than you are to make an honest living. I am sure pilling is the last thing on their minds.

anon276623
Post 20

What is this phenomenon of pilling clothes? Seems like in the last 15 years or so the textiles have been pilling more. It seems that the clothes that I have from 20 years ago and longer pilled less. Whether I purchase an item from a designer label or inexpensive clothing from Target I get the same result: pilling! It's very frustrating to say the least. I purchased a $65 designer T-shirt and it pilled after three washings!

If it’s going to pill, I may as well just purchase the cheapest T-shirt and be done with it and save myself some cash! I have to add that I do wash many things by hand. It seems to be the industry standard that most textiles will pill, no matter the price point.

anon276574
Post 19

What are the top pros and cons of wool, for example, versus polyester? Also, is one more durable than the other?

anon258435
Post 17

I lived in Thailand and India for two years, and washed shirts every time after wearing them only once. The washers are either top-load budget wonders that have paddles on the bottom that rotate back and forth a bit causing the water with the clothes to slosh about, or people with basins, sometimes concrete floors on which the clothes were kneaded like bread. The detergent was any combination of cheap, ubiquitous Unilever powder.

The clothes were cheap, $6-10 cotton Ts, mostly. One was a sweet, authentic Seven Tenths hoodie. They were all super clean and smelled great. Never, ever did they pill!

I liked my enduring shirts, and brought them home with the intention of wearing them. One wash in my mom's brand new, high end front loading washer on short gentle cycle, cold water, Tide liquid detergent, hang to dry: pill central!

Forget washing machines and fancy detergents. I'm happy to save power and money to squish my clothes in a basin. Takes 10 minutes and it's a good workout, too. Hang to dry for ultimate longevity and non-shrink.

anon250700
Post 15

Thanks for the comments about pilling. I feel that reading these comments helps me to understand the problem with which I'm dealing.

anon243037
Post 14

Pilling is disgusting, and what I've observed is that the cheaper clothes are more durable than the branded ones. No washing technique can ever protect your clothes against pilling. The only thing you can do is to avoid any friction, like if you are carrying a handbag on your shoulder, it will slide against your top or sweater and lead to a huge amount of pilling. Shaving it off is the only known solution right now.

anon189869
Post 13

This is why those mini fabric shavers are so valuable to own, especially for winter sweaters.

anon181106
Post 12

i don't believe it's cheaper clothing or wear and tear. I have brand new tops that I have worn one time and they are peeled and not even washed yet.

I paid a good amount of money for them. I never had the problems with pilling the way i have over the past six months. Just our society, you can get away with anything. Very poor manufacturing.

anon171010
Post 11

Pilling seems inevitable if, like me, you love cotton knit tops. In my case, the pilling is result of friction, e.g., long sleeved cotton top rubs against cotton or stretch lace cami, and pilling will occur. No special washing technique has ever worked for me. Use a pilling device and accept it is price we pay for cotton.

anon154599
Post 10

I've noticed a dramatic decline in the quality of clothing over the past few years. Jeans were once a reliably durable product. Now the cloth is so lightweight and poorly made that it literally comes apart after a few wearings and washings. Time was when a pair of Levi or Lee jeans would last forever. I've got sturdy ten-year-old jeans that only faded with the passage of time.

Have you tried to buy a good cotton sweatshirt lately? All that the big retail stores carry now are poorly made products bearing a once trustworthy brand name. Even the more exclusive brands are no longer to be trusted. You can no longer count on getting what you pay for.

anon150755
Post 9

I have a Prada sweater that was $450 and it's worse than a cheap Ralph Lauren sweater. Can you say sucker?

anon145586
Post 8

It is disgusting, with the economy like it is. I try to look nice, do my laundry with special products that claim to extend life and looks of clothing, but there is still small pilling. Guess I am just too compulsive, but it bugs me big time.

anon141223
Post 7

Obviously the pilling I am discovering comes from most of the clothing I purchase which are made in China, India, etc. It matters not that the high class designers who order their clothing to be made abroad are aware that the fabric is not of a quality which would eliminate pilling. They know full well but won't manufacture clothing in the U.S.A. Instead, they are making millions due to the low overhead by using asian workers and we tolerate this!

anon121018
Post 6

It is possible to make non-pill acrylic - but it's hard to find. The acrylic, cashmere-like sweaters that came out in the Sixties never, never pilled, despite years of washing and wearing. I think it was called Luxelon, but not sure I remember. Whatever the process was, it's obviously seldom used anymore. - Jan from NC

anon65782
Post 5

The pros of polyester or acrylic are that they are cheap, easily washable, and (usually) soft. But beware that if you're ever caught in a fire, polyester clothing will melt to your skin because it is essentially plastic. Acrylic sweaters also pill like there's no tomorrow.

Wool on the other hand, is much warmer, and much more durable. 100 percent wool is also self extinguishing.

Cons of wool: it's more expensive, some kinds are itchy, and you can't just throw it in the washing machine. You can definitely avoid the dry cleaner and hand wash wool though, if you know what you're doing.

anon42725
Post 4

what are the top pros and cons of wool for example versus polyester? also, is one more durable than the other?

maymak
Post 3

is there have any garment hangtag to specific the pilling?

anon21192
Post 2

hi, I am weighing the pros and cons of natural fiber versus man-made fabrics in women's knit apparels. Could you please let me know what are some of the top pros and cons of wool for example versus polyester? also, is one more durable than the other? Thank you! Curious mind

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