How To: Keep Your Clothes from Pilling

That feeling you get after buying new clothing that fits perfectly and looks perfectly stylish is unlike anything else. You’re so pleased with your finds, you want to wear them all at once to show everything off!  

With new clothing comes great responsibility–that’s how the quote goes, right? Keeping those pristine pieces looking like new can be an arduous task. Reading the care instructions is imperative to washing them correctly, but that’s only part of the battle. The battle against pilling requires its own unique approach.

How pills are formed

These little mounds of fuzz are formed when broken or short fibers tangle together to form a small round mass, i.e. a pill. And what a pill they are!
Pilling is instigated by wear and tear from day-to-day use, namely fabric rubbing against fabric. Areas that are especially pill-prone are shirt cuffs, collars, and underarms, the butt of your pants, and between the thighs. Ladies with thick thighs will understand the trouble with crotch-pilling like few others can. (Not to mention the rips that unfailingly follow.) 

That being said, pilling can happen anywhere on your clothing or bed linens.

Fabrics prone to pilling


Knit fabric is prone to pilling.

Ascertaining which varieties of fabric and fiber are prone to pilling is no easy task, but some are known to be extremely vulnerable.

An easy well-known fabric is knit. Knitted fabric has a high susceptibility to snags and pilling because the threads are loosely woven together. Further, knits are made with one continuous thread (like yarn with hand-knitting) and once part of the garment stretches, the entire piece stretches, thus making it far more vulnerable to damage.

On the other hand, fabrics such as linen, silk and basically any other made with long fibers are more immune compared to those of cotton, wool, polyester and other synthetic threads. So, when the more pill-prone fabrics are combined with a stronger variety, this actually does not make the weak fabric stronger; the weaker fiber breaks, clings to the stronger fibers, and thus a new pill is formed.

Even worse, pills attract other loose threads like moths to a flame. The pill gets bigger and new ones are create. Fabrics are particularly prone to this situation when in the wash, which explains why pills are sometimes various colors, like why your favorite black tee shirt ends up with contrasting shades of fuzzy mounds; they’re drawn from an entirely different fabric.

How to keep the pills at bay

Woven fabric is less likely to pill.

  • Hand washing or using the washer’s gentle cycles protects clothes particularly prone to pilling. Using the gentle cycle isn’t always reliable though, depending on what kind of washing machine you have. Hand washing is the safest washing method to avoid pilling. 
  • Minimize damage from zippers, buttons, and other clothes themselves by turning the garment inside out before washing. 
  • Pair the correct clothing together when washing. Black with black, white with white, delicates all together, and wash new clothing separately. Jeans shouldn’t be washed in the machine with delicate fabrics, as they’re likely to cause more pulling and pilling on the sensitive surface. It’s also a no-no to mix lint producing fabrics such as terry cloth with other clothes as the lint has a tendency to attach firmly on the surface of polyesters with broken fibers. 
  • Don’t fill the washing machine to the top. There’s usually a line in the machine that shows you where to stop loading. Over-filling the machine can damage clothing because it leaves insufficient space for everything to move around in the machine. 
  • Bleach and harsh cleaners tend to damage fabrics and can break fibers, which leads to pilling. 
  • Including a fabric softener in the wash cycle adds a protective layer to fabric that can minimize or prevent damage to fabric. 
  • Instead of throwing your clothing in the drier, dry knitted garments on a flat surface and dry woven ones on a line. Follow the directions on the clothing tag for best results. 

While there is no guarantee that a fabric will never pill, here are a few important pointers to help you select clothes that afford you the best chance:

1) Avoid blended fibers! For instance, woven or knitted fabrics that fuse a variety of threads—particularly those that merge synthetic and natural fibers—are certainly going to pill hence be wary.
2) Always go for woven fabrics over knits since they tend to pill less. If knits are your cup of tea, then opt for a tighter knit and stay clear of loose variations

Tips for getting rid of pills on clothes

Two highly effective tools to get rid of lint and pills on clothes are: a battery-operated lint and pill remover and a fabric comb. They neatly extract the knotted fibers leaving the surface almost brand new.
A pair of sharp scissors or a safety razor can also get the job just as well. Simply hold the fabric firmly in place over a curved surface before shaving or cutting off the pills. Extreme caution however is advised with this method and you ought to gauge the garment’s value to determine if it’s wise to venture down this path!