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.


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