Sweater Pilling: Why does it happen?

Pilling is a pet peeve for lots of knitters. When your finished objects start to pill, they begin to look old and the beauty of the yarn, the design, and the workmanship is diminished. Why does sweater pilling happen?

Tightening your stitch is the fastest, easiest way to beef up a yarn. Here, just two needle sizes was enough to do the trick.
If you dedicate a little yardage to swatching, you’ll learn a lot about a yarn. Here, I began by swatching at this yarn’s recommended needle size. Then, I introduced some ribbing before going down a needle size, both of which pulled the fabric together nicely.
Using a seed-stitch pattern, or any alternating knit-and-purl stitch pattern,
can reduce pilling

When bits of fibers separate from a strand of yarn and then are agitated repeatedly (such as in the underarm of a sweater), they turn into small balls, called pills.

Pilling bothers some people more than others, but I would venture to say that it bugs us all a little bit! There are some pretty neat pill-remover tools out there these days, such as the Gleener, but what if you could cut down on pills from the get-go?

In the Winter 20113 issue of knit.wear, yarn expert Clara Parkes (who’s also known as the “Yarn Whisperer”), tells us how to choose yarns that might not pill as much as others, and how to knit them to avoid pilling even more! And she also gives us some tips on what to do when your garment pills anyway.

Tips for Identifying Pill-Prone Yarns

Does the label list a high percentage of luxury fibers? That’s your first clue to look at the yarn more closely. How many plies does the yarn have? (In luxury fiber blends, the more plies the merrier.) How tightly are they plied together? (Do you see a barber pole of plies, or do they barely have any twist?) Twist is energy. The less twist in the yarn, the more help it’ll need on your needles.

Does the skein have a high nap along its surface? If so, pinch a few ends of fluff and pull. Do they pull out easily, or does the yarn put up some resistance? The latter is what you want, but if the ends pull out, don’t despair—you can still give the yarn a boost later.

Do you still have doubts? Then, swatch. Knit yourself a 6-by-6-inch (15-by-15-cm) square, changing needles to smaller sizes as you go along. Once you’re done, bind off and make it your mission to destroy this swatch. Wash it, thrash it, and watch what it does. If you’re going to invest in a sweater’s worth of yarn, you deserve to know what you’re getting into, right?

Techniques for Beefing Up Vulnerable Yarns

Tighten your gauge. Loose stitches are the number-one enemy of vulnerable yarns. The easiest, most effective way to add longevity to any fabric is to go down a needle size, even two, if the yarn will let you.

Obviously, you don’t want to create bulletproof fabric, but the more dense and cohesive it is, the better equipped it is to handle abrasion.

Choose your stitches wisely. An open stockinette can push vulnerable yarns too far. But the minute you alternate knits and purls, either in ribbing or any of the staggered seed/moss-style motifs, your fabric will immediately snug up and gain dimensional stability. The more stable the fabric, the less likely it is to pill.

Come-hither yarns, with their elusive halos, can be the biggest concern for pilling. The more fibers protrude from the fabric, the more potential enmeshment that will inevitably become pills.

What to Do When Your Garment Pills

Some initial pilling is completely normal. It’s a sign that the more vulnerable fibers are working their way out of the mix, leaving the rest to settle in for the long haul.

Remove as many of the pills as you can, either by plucking (if they come off easily) or by snipping (if they resist). That first batch of fibers doesn’t want anything to do with the fabric, so let it go.

Fill the sink with lukewarm to warm water and wash the garment. If your yarn’s care label allows for it, and most will, add a slosh of wool wash, and drop the garment back in for another wash. The immersion in warm water will cause the fibers to swell and mingle, settling them in the fabric and creating more permanent enmeshment that won’t be so easily disturbed by abrasion.

If the pilling never slows, perhaps it’s best to adjust your expectations downwards. But if it does slow and eventually stop . . .

Give your garment a big hug, and enjoy a lifetime of happiness together.

—Clara Parkes, from knit.wear, Winter 2013

I think Clara’s last line is important, love your knits! You worked hard on them; a few little pills definitely won’t ruin them. Just follow Clara’s advice, and keep a pill remover around (I just bought a Gleener, and it’s amazing!).

Chances are, you’ll notice them much more than anyone else will!

For more on avoiding pills, not to mention fabulous patterns and more, get your copy of knit.wear Winter 2013 today!


P.S. How do you feel about pilling? Leave a comment and let us know what you do about them.


Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


Knitting Daily Blog, Yarn Info & Tips
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

12 thoughts on “Sweater Pilling: Why does it happen?

  1. I just finished a beautiful aran knit for my man. He’s worn it maybe 2-3 times and already it’s pilling EVERYWHERE. It’s driving me nuts! It’s 100% washable wool~~lovely yarn~~I’m going to make a matching one for myself, but now I’ll go down a needle size and go up in pattern size.

  2. I have a slightly different question – when yarn amounts are given in a pattern, does that make allowance for swatching?

    I always worry that I will run out of yarn or have to get an extra ball or skein to have enough to both swatch and make the item. Since getting extra can be rather expensive (not to mention adding too many odds and ends to one’s stash) it would be great to know what a pattern writer’s standards are.

  3. Hi, to avoid pilling I use nearly always 100 % wool yarns and prefer Merino Wool.
    They come in lovely variegated colour ways , too, if you want that effect. If I want sparkle effects I combine the wool with a fine lurex thread, available in many colours.no pilling there!
    Have fun knitting and long lasting pleasure with your knitwear, Christa from U.K.

  4. Ah, my kingdome for a hyphen! Let’s try that title again: Is Your Yarn Pill-Prone? I thought you were asking me about some wooly pill I needed to ingest!

    I have a sweater knitted last year that pilled kind of badly, but now that I’ve removed many of the pills by hand, there aren’t too many coming back. It’s a pain, but I figure this is a hazard of knitting and there has got to be a point where it simply stops. In this case, it has slowed down a lot, and that’s enough to keep me happy.

  5. I think that a way a person moves or perhaps their own “electricity” may cause more or less pilling. I know that I tend to cause pilling. Someone will make the same sweater, same yarn, same gauge, and on them, no pilling, but on me, it pills like crazy.

  6. The shorter the fiber, the more prone to pilling is the yarn, I “full” all my hair fiber yarn before I work with it, and this really cuts down on pilling, though places like armpits may still pill a bit with the shortest fibers and bulkier woolens. .
    2 years ago, I knit a big merino/ cashmere cardigan for my 6’4″ husband. I used more than 3 pounds of yarn. To both of our dismay, it is still pilling like crazy. The one time I didn’t bother to thoroughly treat the wool before I knit it up. He was in a hurry to have it, the power was out due to a storm, and I was bored. . . .
    Before you write the following method off as hogwash, read on, try it yourself on some leftover wool yarn, The wool won’t shrink or felt as long as you follow directions and DO NOT AGITATE!!! this is really important- not even on gentle cycle for less than a minute.
    I’ve been doing this for about 40 years and It works on any hair fiber. Not sure about the wood and cellulose based fibers like rayon, bamboo cotton and linen, But if you buy commercial yarns on cones, you need to do the washing part of this for any fiber anyway.

    How to full yarn:
    1, .Unwind your balls of wool and make loosely formed hanks. If you have a knotty noddy, use that. Or, you can loosely wind it onto a piece of doubled corrugated cardboard, Or, make a noddy with a couple of feet of 1 to 1,5gauge PVC and 2 “t connectors”.
    2. Loosely tie off each hank off yarn
    3. Fill a top-loading washing machine with the hottest water available, enough to allow your hanks of yarn to drift around loosely in without being crowded in the basin. Be sure you have set the machine so that it won’t agitate or do anything when you close the lid. Add a small bit of laundry detergent, You can use Dawn or even shampoo, but I am happy with my environmentally safe laundry detergent with lavender essential oil.
    4. Gently lay each hank of yarn on the surface of the water and allow it to sink. close the lid to keep in the heat, and allow to soak for 30 minutes or so. Don’t allow the water cool. Don’t allow the yarn cool.
    5. Drain the basin then spin out the yarn. Gently remove your hot/ warm yarn from the machine and re-fill with your hottest water. DON’T allow the machine to fill without removing the yarn or it may partially felt from the force of the spray. Replace the warm yarn in the basin and allow to soak, but only for 10-15 minutes. If your rinse water is cloudy, Spin out and repeat, otherwise, this step is done, 6. As you take each hank out of the machine,hold it in one place and swing the loop around your head 10 or 20 times and then thwack it hard a few times on a clean, hard, and reasonably smooth surface like the top of the washer, a table, porch column, etc. You may feel silly, but this is an essential step to help lock in the fiber/ prevent pilling.
    7. Hang up your yarn and weight it, with something like a can of soup. I use plastic hangers to hang the yarn, and a second at the bottom of the skeins with the can in a plastic grocery bag suspended from it, If you have a lot of yarn, you can “chain one batch off another, with the weight at the bottom. You don’t want to stretch the yarn, just have it dry straight.
    That’s it. If you followed directions and used HOT water, your yarn has been fulled.

  7. I agree with Ann about fulling your yarn before you knit with it. Judith MacKenzie recommends doing this with all yarns, not just handspun. She is super agressive: takes very hot, soapy water in a bucket and uses a sink plunger to agitate it, then puts it in ice-cold water, then back in the hot, etc. — It was horrifying the first time I saw it, but this yarn will not shrink and will have minimal pilling.

    Commercial yarns are often way underplied for softness. This makes them much more likely to pill, especially merinos.

  8. As a hand spinner it is important that yarn wears well and low twist in the plying is the main fault. BUT please carefully cut off any pills in a finished item because pulling them just raise a pile/brings more fibre ends to the surface so they can pill again.

  9. As a hand spinner it is important that yarn wears well and low twist in the plying is the main fault. BUT please carefully cut off any pills in a finished item because pulling them just raise a pile/brings more fibre ends to the surface so they can pill again.