Pilling is a Pill

Yesterday I posted a picture of a sweater, now 39 years old, that my grandmother made for me. To the left is another picture of that sweater – a close up.  Notice that there are no “pills” on the sweater.

Compare this to close up below (best I could do :() of the cabled sweater I knit from a worsted weight 3- or 4-plied yarn (llama or alpaca) some 15 years ago.  It pills.

So why do some sweaters get pills and other sweaters don’t?

Usually shorter and/or weaker fibers of will protrude above the fabric.  When subject to friction (e.g., rubbing), these fibers catch and create little clumps of fibers called “pills.”

Here is a close picture of a sweater knit from a bulky single ply (lopi).  See how hairy it is?  It pills.

Variables:  How much your fabric pills generally depends on a combination of variables, including: type of fiber (soft yarns pill more), fiber length (short staple-yarns pill more), fiber quality (poor quality yarns will break and pill more), and/or twist of yarn (the tighter the twist, the less pilling).

What to do with pills: You can remove pills from your knit, crocheted or woven fabric by using: a sweater stone that acts like sandpaper; an electric hand-held de-fuzzer; a piece of fine sandpaper; a disposable razor; or a sweater comb like the d*fuzz*it I’ve used for years.  (When I wash and pack my heavy sweaters away at the end of winter, I remove any pills that I find.)

Selecting Yarn:  If you plan on knitting something durable that will get a lot of wear (e.g., socks or certain sweaters), use a smooth yarn with a tight twist.  Here is a close up of Peer Gynt; it is a tightly spun five-ply 100% wool yarn.

Look closely at Peer Gynt.  Notice you cannot see any fuzzy ends sticking out of the yarn.

Testing for pilling:  “To test for pilling or abrasion, hold your hand as if to snap your fingers. Place two strands of yarn between the snapping fingers and quickly roll them back and forth several times. If the yarn begins to separate or peel apart, it will likely pill under normal body abrasion in a garment, such as where the arms rub against the body.”  (Shirley Paden, author of Knitwear Design Workshop)

Generally speaking:  Most knits (more so than crocheted fabrics) will pill to some degree.

  • Coarse long-stapled wools pill less than fine, short-staple wools
  • Loosely spun yarns tend to pill more than plied or tightly twisted, smoother yarns
  • Protein fibers tend to pill more than cellulose or bast (e.g., cotton, linen) fibers
  • Generally silk pills less than wool
  • Acrylic pills

More:  Check out The Knitting Harpy‘s discussion on yarn texture and ply.

Back to my grandmother’s sweater:  My grandmother knit my sweater out of Peer Gynt, a tight spun wool, long-staple yarn by Sandnes Garn.  No pills on the outside.  However, as shown in the picture to the right, on the inside of this two-colored sweater are floats … and thus there are longer lengths of yarn exposed to friction from being rubbed against my hip.  That said, there are scant few pills inside the sweater.

Now, Peer Gynt does not come to mind when I think about a soft cushy wool.  It pops to mind instantly, however, if I think about knitting a traditional Norwegian ski sweater or cardigan that will last for decades and/or generations!


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Crocheting, Fibers, Knitting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Pilling is a Pill

  1. Thank you! You may also enjoy my post on “True Cost.”


  2. Pingback: Slow Fashion October Week 2 – Small | Colibri Homestead

  3. You are most welcome. I am pleased you find them useful!


  4. I’m so thankful for this post! When I get to making garments, I want to select yarn that will help it to really last. I appreciate these tips so much!!


  5. Marilyn says:

    I have knitted so many cardigans for my 11 month old Granaughter,They look lovely for the first few weeks,but look shabby after a couple of washes as they become hairy and bobbly,Please can you recommend a good quality yarn that does not go bobbley or,Thank you


  6. Pingback: When Yarn Behaves Poorly … | The Sweaty Knitter, Weaver and Devotee of Other Fiber Arts

  7. I know the feeling … Those soft, single ply loosely spun yarns that call out to our fingers! >


  8. Stephanie says:

    I love your grandmother’s knit! Intuitively, I’ve always known what pills and what doesn’t, but it is rather difficult to resist some of those softer yarns. 🙂


  9. Because I knit so much, I am very careful about using yarn that won’t pill badly. I learned my lesson many years ago when I knit a heavily cabled sweater out of a soft multi-ply yarn that didn’t have a good twist. It pills madly so tends to look sloppy. It has become the indoor sweater to be worn on those damp days when I want to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea!



  10. fabrickated says:

    Well I am British and have always called it pilling. I just pull the bits off my cashmere jumpers in boring meetings. Its a bit like dealing with split ends. Thank you for the scientific information.


  11. A good reminder as to why it is so important to carefully check the yarn to ensure it is right for the project you have in mind.


  12. caityrosey says:

    Yeah, I struggle with this. I’ve learned that some of the cardigans I had hoped to live in just can’t take much wear.


  13. Reblogged this on G-Ma Ellen's Hands – Adventures in Crochet and Knit and commented:
    A wealth of information. Thank you!


  14. Most of the time I just use my fingers to pull off pills (called bobbles in the UK, so I’ve learned!). Good to know about polwarth … lopi too.


  15. Excellent post!! I’ve seen the electric de-piller and the sweater fabric comb, but I’ve never picked either up. I still have yet to come across a sweater stone. I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one. I do know I’m such a sucker for softer yarns though…the one that I’ve found that pills the most is polwarth. LOVE the texture. HATE the pills, lol!


  16. Thanks! I hoped people would find it useful!


  17. grimdreamer says:

    I’m from the UK, so if you hear anyone complaining about “bobbles” and things getting “bobbly”, you’ll know what they’re talking about 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Where’s “over here”? 🙂 I haven’t knit with that before. I have knit with bulky weight wool that didn’t pill because it was a multi-plied very tightly spun wool. (I think the final jacket could stop an arrow.) Thanks for the addition to my fiber lexicon. I like “bobbly” better than “pills!”


  19. I haven’t used that yarn. I will have to take a peek at it. Thanks for telling me about it.


  20. I knit some experimental patterns with that wool … I didn’t like its loose spin though I liked its feel.


  21. I am glad you found it useful! Thanks for reading my blog. 🙂


  22. I am glad you found it useful! Thanks for reading!


  23. Yes – so much easier than removing them one-by-one by hand!


  24. I am always amazed that people will select expensive acrylic that is supposed to look like wool, over real wool! Ah well.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I always got so sad when my favorite soft, fuzzy sweaters would pill almost immediately. I knew they would, but I kept (keep) using the awesome soft yarns anyway. Investing in a sweater stone has gotten me so much more wear out of my favorite sweaters…


  26. bamboo#1 says:

    This was really interesting and informative, thanks for taking the trouble to write this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Pilling is so irritating. I think I’ll give Deborah Norville’s anti-pilling yarn a try. Enjoyed the post.


  28. I have a sweater made out of Lion’s Brand Fisherman’s Wool that pills like CRAZY…but I love it so much that I can’t stop wearing it 😉 maybe I’ll invest in a de-piller.


  29. grimdreamer says:

    I didn’t know what you meant by “pills” straight away; we call them “bobbles” over here! But it makes me wonder how long my knitted wares will last, depending on the yarn I select. Have you knitting with Sublime Chunky Merino? Does that “pill” / “get bobbles” / “get bobbly”??


  30. Patricia says:

    A great post – I didn’t know any of this information.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. jenyjenny says:

    great information!


  32. Good stuff, always use 100% wool, a blend of wool and acrylic will pill as the synthetic fibers cut the wool into shorter fibers. So much yarn in craft shops is not wool!

    Liked by 1 person

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