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Why Does Fabric Pill and How to Deal With It

Why Does Fabric Pill
Fabric pilling can totally destroy the look of a particular fabric, and can be a very bad sight. Read this post to find out what causes fabric to pill.
Gauri Huddar
Last Updated: Feb 28, 2018
Pilling in fabrics indicates the formation of tiny balls of fiber, that appear on clothes due to wear and tear. Fabric pilling can totally ruin the look of any garment, and make it look old and overused. To avoid this, we have to find out what exactly causes pilling in the first place, and then we can see what measures can be taken in order to reduce or avoid it. Fabric pilling is interlinked with fiber strength, extensibility, and the type of the fiber. The following paragraph deals with a few more details.

There are three stages in the process of evolution of the "pill" as it is called.
  • The first is the formation of the pill. This mainly occurs due to the abrasion and wear and tear of the fabric. Wear and tear of the fabric, in turn, occurs due to the friction caused when the fabric rubs against itself, against another fabric, or even against our skin. This loosens some of the fibers of the fabric, which migrate to the surface.
  • The second stage, is the formation of tiny balls of the fibers that have collected at the surface. The pills which have formed, cling to the fabric with fibers known as "anchor fibers". If the anchor fibers are weak, then these pills fall off easily and quickly after formation, and go unnoticed. But in those fabrics where the anchor fibers are really strong, these pills remain stuck, and have to be manually removed.
  • The third stage is the actual falling off, of these pills. When the anchor fibers are weak, the pills cannot cling to the fabric for long, and eventually they fall off. This stage of the evolution is termed as removal/ depletion of pills. Depletion occurs due to weakening of the anchor fiber's ability, to hold on against the constant friction and abrasion.

So what causes fabric to pill? Let us take a look at factors which cause pilling of a fabric.
Causes of Pilling in Fabrics
Type of the Fabric
Colorful clothes
When it comes to cotton and wool fabrics, pilling isn't such a nuisance. But in synthetic fibers, pilling is more prominent, which is why it has become an issue. The tendency of pilling in natural fabrics is generally less, and even when pills do form, they tend to fall off by themselves. Also, in natural fabrics they fall off almost as soon as they are formed, unlike in synthetic fabrics. Pilling is more in synthetic fabrics, and because the anchor fibers are very strong in synthetic fabrics, the pills do not fall off on their own. They have to be removed manually, by shaving or plucking. So natural fabrics like linen, cotton and wool, pill less and the pills fall off, whereas synthetic fabrics containing fibers like polyester and nylon, tend to pill more.
Fabric Construction
Blue jeans on wood
The construction of the fabric is a very important factor affecting the pilling of the fabric. Compact fabrics like denim are less prone to pilling, than loose fabrics. When the fabric is tightly bound, there are less chances of the occurrence of loose fibers in them. Compact fabrics have no gaps between their fibers, so if there happen to be any stray/ loose fibers, they have no path to migrate to the surface. So they remain in place, and do not travel to the surface to pill, which is why we never observe pilling in jeans. But loose clothes like shawls, sweaters, etc., undergo a lot of pilling, since there are loose fibers and enough gaps in the fabric, for them to migrate to the surface.
Degree of Twist
Woman with fabric
The 'degree of twist' of a fabric indicates the tightness of winding of the fabric. Tightly wound fabrics have a greater degree of twist, whereas loosely bound fabrics have a lower degree of twist. Then it follows, that the tighter a fabric is wound, i.e., higher the degree of twist, the less likely the fabric will pill, and the more loosely it is wound, the more it will pill. So basically, lesser the space between adjacent woven fibers of the fabric, the better, because that is what will reduce the pilling. A lot of loose space between the fibers is what causes fabric to pill.
Improper Laundering Techniques, and Weaving/ Knitting
Washing machine with colorful clothes
Improper laundering techniques include laundering the garments outside in, instead of inside out, avoiding the use of fabric softener all together, loading the washer heavily, laundering for an unnecessarily long time, and leaving clothes in the dryer for a long time. Avoid all these things if you want to reduce the pilling in your garments. The way a garment or piece of clothing is made, can also affect the ability to pill. Woven garments are better than knitted garments, because knitted garments tend to undergo more pilling. Keep this in mind when you have to choose between a knitted and woven garment.
Compromises to Reduce Pilling
Scientists are working on finding a way of reducing the piling effect in fabrics. But they have revealed, that reduction in pilling will come at the cost of other necessary factors being compromised greatly. If the pilling has to reduce, many other things require to be modified, which will make the fabrics very expensive. Also, the softness of the fabric will lessen, if heat setting is used to treat the fabric. If the twists are increased to make the fabric compact, the comfort factor is compromised in resin-treated fabrics. Similarly, many other qualities of fibers were lost, when they took on the challenge of creating a non-pilling fabric.
Garments need to be taken care of, if you want them to keep looking fresh and pretty. Pilling takes away from the overall look of a garment. Trying out various fabric pilling removers available in the market may curb the amount of pilling, and make your clothes last longer and look better.
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