Thursday, January 28, 2010

Apple #435: Sweater Pills

This morning I got out one of my old favorite sweaters that I haven't worn in a long time.  As soon as I unfolded it, I remembered why: it's covered with hundreds of little sweater pills.  The pills make it look old and raggedy and generally unappealing.

But I really like this sweater.  It's a very soft wool, it's a darkish gray color that sometimes I am just plain in the mood to wear, and I've had it so long, it's like a good old friend.  So I spent too much time this morning de-pilling it.  I thought I'd gotten off most of the pills, but when I got to work where the light is brighter, I saw that there were many more I had missed.  Aggravating.

A few pills sticking up from this person's gray sweater. They make a nice sweater look icky.
(Photo from Lark About)

  • All sweaters are made of some sort of fibers that have been twisted together to form a thicker strand, or yarn.
  • Some of those individual strands that make up the yarn will poke out from the yarn, like lots of little hairs standing up.
  • The technical term for the little hairs is "short staple fibers."  When a sheep is sheared and the wool is carded, the fibers are gathered into groups called staples.  The fibers within the staple are considered to be more or less equal in length, but in reality, some of the fibers are slightly longer or shorter than others.
  • When the wool is spun into yarn, those fibers of varying lengths -- usually the shorter fibers -- will poke out from the sides of the yarn.  That's how you get "short staple fibers" or a lots of little hairs standing up.
  • So now that yarn has been made into a garment -- a sweater or a poncho or what have you.  Those little hairs that were sticking out of the yarn are now sticking out from your sweater.
  • When you rub something over the fabric, with many types of yarn, the little hairs aren't strong enough to withstand the friction and they'll break off.
  • In other cases, though, the little hairs won't break.  Instead, they hang on and the friction rubs those little hairs together. After enough time, the little hairs will wrap around each other and form a ball, or a pill.
  • The types of fibers that tend to poke out but don't break off with friction -- the ones that get pilly -- are synthetic fabrics like acrylics, or softer wools like merino and cashmere, especially if the cashmere is inexpensive.
  • Because the pilling action takes place with friction, the pills tend to accumulate in places on your sweater where friction happens the most: under the arms, where the strap of your purse or backpack rubs, where you cart your child around on your hip all day, where the monkey bounces on your back as you walk, etc.
  • So how do you get rid of sweater pills?
  • But most of us are not spinning our own yarn and knitting all our sweaters ourselves, and we're stuck with the fact that our sweaters are developing pills.
  • Lots of people say that hand washing the sweaters inside out will help prevent pills.  Other people say dry cleaning results in fewer pills.  But I have only ever dry cleaned this sweater according to the instructions, and it still made pills like mad, so obviously these suggestions don't solve the problem.
  • The only other thing I can do is to remove the pills after the fact.

Pills and fuzz that I removed from my sweater this morning. That's a lot of fuzz.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

    • There are a lot of different products available to remove sweater pills.  The fact that there are so many different types of products suggests to me that none of them really does the job as completely as we'd all like.  Here is a list of those pill-removing products.
    • Electric shavers -- no, I don't mean the face-shaving kind, I mean the clothes-shaving kind.  The blade is behind a metal grid pocked with holes.  As far as I can tell, when you run the shaver over the fabric, the pills pop into the holes and the blade behind the grid slices them off.  Most of the shavers include a receptacle to catch the shorn pills.  In general, lots of people who've tried clothes shavers say they like them, though some versions seem to be cheaply made and don't work very well. Depending on the variety, they may run on batteries or be plugged into the wall.  They range in price from el cheapo $3 to fashionably designed $50.

    This is one kind of clothes shaver, the Remington RPFS-100 Fuzz Away Fabric Shaver.  It sells for $12 on Amazon and it got 4 out of 5 stars from people who've bought one.

      • Sweater Stone -- pumice stones with a label stuck to them.  Pumice stones naturally have pits and sharp edges, which grab onto the short fibers and cut them off.  I've never tried one of these for this purpose, but people who have say that the stones crumble as you use them so you get crumbly bits all over your sweater.  You can brush those off, but that means the stone will eventually need to be replaced.  Pumice also smells like sulfur, so after using a pumice stone on your sweater, it'll probably smell like sulfur too.  So you'll want to use a Sweater Stone before hand washing or dry cleaning, not after.

      Sweater Stone, available for $4.99

      • Sticky lint roller -- I've tried these in the past and though they do a good job of removing lint from lighter fabrics like cotton shirts or twill trousers, I don't think they're strong enough to deal with heavier material.  Fuzzy fabrics tend to gum up the works before it can pull off the pills. They also tend to tug on more fibers and leave them sticking up, which will result in yet more pills soon enough.
      • Masking tape -- you can wrap some masking tape, sticky side out, around your palm and pat the fabric so that the tape picks up unwanted stuff.  Like the sticky lint roller, this works well enough for lint but usually isn't up to the job of pill removal. 
      • Sweater comb -- this is what I used.  It's a plastic semi-circle and the flat edge of it has a very rough criss-crossed surface.  Briskly comb this rough edge over the sweater and it will collect the pills. I had to stop frequently and pick off the wads of fuzz and it took quite a while, but it did pull off a lot of the pills.  It's possible that, like the sticky lint roller, it also combed up more short fibers and left the fabric susceptible again to further pilling.  Or I may have only missed a lot of them.  

      The D-Fuzz-It comb.  One user found it too hard on her clothes.  When I used a non-brand-name sweater comb like it, it didn't damage my sweater but rather I had to go over and over the same territory and I still missed some of the pills.
      (Image from Knitter's Review)

      • One person also tried a D-Fuzz-It comb, which is essentially what I used, on various hand-knitted fabrics, and she reported that the comb pretty much pulled the yarn apart. I would say reserve this tool for sturdier, manufactured sweaters.
      • Disposable razor -- people like this solution because it's cheap and readily available.  But you do have to be careful you don't accidentally cut the fabric.  People say you have to go slowly and take your time, but that it works.  These razors get dull pretty quickly, but I don't know how quickly they turn dull when used on a sweater.
      • Pick them off by hand -- this is the most obvious and least damaging, but also the most time-consuming method.  If you've got some OCD anxiety to burn, this might be the best bet for you.
      • One sweater owner used a combination of pumice stone, sticky lint roller, and hand-pulling.  She doesn't say how long it took.

      Some of these pill-removal methods are more dramatic than others, but all of the methods remove fibers from your garment.  Which means you can't keep removing pills forever because eventually you will have scraped away so many pills you will have thin spots instead of pills.

      Yes, I know I'll need to say good-bye to this sweater someday.  But I think I'm going to try my sweater comb on it again and keep it a while longer yet.

      M. E. Williams, DIY Life, Why fabrics pill, December 28, 2007
      Llyn Payne, BellaOnline, Pills!
      Marjorie Colletta, BellaOnline, Removing Pills on Sweaters
      Vintage Vixen, Save Your Sweaters! How to Prevent Pilling & Pulling
      Knitter's Review, Knit Tool: D-Fuzz-It Sweater and Fabric Comb
      Lifehacker, Use a Disposable Razor to Remove Sweater Pills


      1. I just went through this with something: tried the lint roller and it didn't do anything so I reverted back to hand picking. I do have a De Fuzz It comb around here somewhere....

      2. I had a couple of sweaters that were mostly silk and that material holds up well and is actually warm, but acrylic is the worst. I will try the comb, though.

      3. Give them away to a thrift store and buy new sweaters every couple of years.

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