Wool Pilling: Causes and Ways to Remove It

Smartwool Hiking Medium Cushion

Friction and static forces responsible for wool pilling

You went with wool because of its attractive natural appearance only to see it rapidly deteriorate wash after wash. You’re not alone. While wool’s many strengths make it a very popular clothing fiber, one of its few weaknesses is not apparent until after a few washes – I’m talking of course about pilling.

Pilling (often referred to it as fur balls, fuzz balls, or lint balls) are those unattractive clusters of fiber that appear on the surface of your clothes, most likely after machine washing and drying. The best way to minimize pilling is to follow the care instructions that came with the garment. If you still find yourself in a spotty situation, here are a couple of suggestions on how to remove pilling once it has formed.

Fabric shaver (aka defuzzer)

This is probably the easiest method to remove pilling from fabrics. A fabric shaver looks and works a bit like dry shavers men use on their beards. Here’s a good video demonstration of one in action: Using a fabric shaver to remove pilling.

Sweater stone (aka pumice stone)

Sweater stones require a little more patience and skill to use. They work by cutting (and sometimes pulling) the fibers that are sticking out. Learn how to use a sweater stone in this video: How to remove pilling from clothing with a pumice stone.

Shaving razor or scissors

I wouldn’t recommend using these methods unless you absolutely need to. Using a shaving razor or scissors to remove pilling can be quite meticulous and one slip up can put a hole in your clothes. You can see a shaving razor working on a pilling shirt here: Removing clothing pilling with a shaver.

For those curious to learn why pilling forms in the first place, I’ve summarized the main causes below. You can also read my previous post for tips on how to wash your woolens safely.

Top causes of pilling on wool fabrics

Excessive rubbing against other surfaces – This is the number one cause of pilling on all types of fabrics. When other surfaces rub against wool, as is the case when machine washing and drying, fibers tend to unravel from the yarn. The natural crimp in wool fibres causes these newly unraveled fibers to tangle with other unraveled fibres, thus causing pilling.

Static forces – Have you ever noticed that some clothes cling to others after machine drying? When wool is thrown into the dryer with other fibers, there’s going to be static forces at play. Think of it this way; the dryer is trying to tumble (or separate) your clothes to ensure even drying, but static forces are trying to keep your clothes together. The result is a constant tug of war in your dryer (the causality can be seen in the photo of my wool socks above).

So why do wool fibers pill more easily than other fibers? The inherent properties of wool make it more prone to pilling. A couple of these properties are wool’s microscopic scales (which can latch onto other surfaces more easily) and short length of fibers (which means there is less yarn strength). I won’t get into too much detail here but you can guess how these properties work to exaggerate pilling.

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