By ELIZABETH HOLMES CONNECT
Jan. 28, 2014 6:59 p.m. ET
No matter what you spend on a sweater, it seems to develop those unsightly little balls of fuzz. Elizabeth Holmes takes a look at why even expensive sweaters aren't immune to pilling and what prevents it. Photo: Rebecca Greenfield for The Wall Street Journal.
Hoping to add some polished knitwear to her wardrobe, Denise Anker spent several hundred dollars last fall on two Vince brand sweaters.
One, made entirely of cashmere, has held up well and Ms. Anker wears it regularly. The other, a wool-cashmere blend charcoal-gray cardigan—and at $395 the more expensive of the two—has shown troubling signs of a vexing winter wardrobe problem: pilling.
Sean Cormier, Fashion Institute of Technology assistant professor, compares 'very severe' pilling on a blue, merino-wool swatch with a grading scale. Rebecca Greenfield for The Wall Street Journal
"After two wearings, it became a ragged mess," says Ms. Anker, a 55-year-old resident of Big Oak Flat, Calif. Now she wears it only for casual occasions. It's the "I want to roll around on the floor with my dogs" sweater, she says.
The pesky yarn clumps known as pills can form on garments of all materials and prices, from a high-end cashmere sweater to a bargain-priced acrylic blend. Pilling tends to get worse with more wear, which is why it always seems to occur on your favorite wool turtleneck and not the ones at the back of the closet.
F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas (10)
Pills form when yarn fibers in a garment break or become loose, or when the ends are exposed, and then tangle together. Sweaters commonly get pills because of their visible yarn, but nearly any knit or woven garment has the potential, says Sean Cormier, assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who spent almost two decades in quality assurance at the former Liz Claiborne Inc.
The unfortunate truth is that it's very difficult when looking at a garment in a store to predict whether it will pill. Pilling is what's known as a "latent defect," a problem that appears only after the product is in use. "You don't see it until you wear it," Mr. Cormier says.
Because friction begins or accelerates pilling, garment areas that are prone to rubbing, such as the side of the torso and the inside of the forearms, are likely to pill first, says Cathryn Lee, category manager of apparel care, at the Woolmark Co., which represents Australian wool growers. Men and women who carry shoulder bags will notice pilling on the shoulders. Seat belts may cause pilling across the chest.
Samples of cashmere (gray), cotton (light blue) and blends (green, striped) show varying degrees of pilling. Rebecca Greenfield for The Wall Street Journal
The material used in a particular garment may provide hints as to whether it will pill. Merino wool tends to be strong and when used in a tightly wound sweater would be less likely to pill than fuzzy, fine-gauge cashmere, says Gwen Whiting, co-founder of the Laundress, a New York fabric-care company. But nearly every garment, regardless of make or brand, is a candidate.
With natural raw materials like cashmere, the length of the fiber is particularly important. Longer fibers can be wound into tighter yarn, making it less likely the ends will come loose, says Karl Spilhaus, president of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute.
Mr. Cormier puts sweater samples through the Martindale Pilling Tester. Rebecca Greenfield for The Wall Street Journal
"Pilling is going to happen with any woven garment but there is a direct link to the length of the yarn thread used," Thomas Ott, senior vice president for men's apparel at Saks Fifth Avenue, says. "The longer the thread, the longer it takes to pill."
Today's extremely price-competitive climate is pushing many manufacturers toward shorter, less expensive fibers, Mr. Spilhaus says.
The finish of a garment also affects the likelihood of pilling. A cashmere sweater used to require several home washings before it "bloomed"—the industry term for the soft, full feeling of a broken-in sweater.
Retailers and shoppers are looking for sweaters with a "hand feel" of extreme, immediate softness. Mr. Spilhaus says manufacturers wash garments repeatedly to get the exterior that soft. The washing, along with shorter fibers, brings the ends to the surface more quickly, making pills more likely to happen sooner.
Retailers, regardless of price point, say they take steps to prevent pilling. Uniqlo, which sells moderately priced sportswear, says it uses a pill-reducing treatment on its worsted merino-wool sweaters. Luxury knitwear maker Brunello Cucinelli sends employees along with importers to meet with Mongolian shepherds when selecting cashmere for its annual production.
The Martindale Pilling Tester Rebecca Greenfield for The Wall Street Journal
Some retailers require suppliers to test sweaters for pilling, says FIT's Mr. Cormier. Certain stores require use of the Martindale Pilling Tester, a large, two-tiered oscillating machine that rubs two swatches of the same material against each another in circular and linear motions. Another option, often used for sturdier fabrics such as upholstery, is the Random Tumble Pilling Tester, a blender-like machine with prongs that rapidly spin three swatches in a cork-lined cylinder.
After testing, the samples are held at a 45-degree angle and compared under specified lighting with pilling images, and they are graded on a scale of 1 (total pilling) to 5 (no pilling whatsoever). Most retailers require a 4, which Mr. Cormier describes as "some pill balls beginning to form."
Once you buy the sweater, what can you do to prevent pilling? One option is to wear it sparingly—because the more a garment is worn, the more likely it is to pill, says Lorraine Muir, director of textile testing at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute. The Woolmark Co. suggests letting clothing "rest" at least 24 hours before wearing again so the fibers recover from stretching during use.
Gale Senseny, sales manager of Sweater Stone Inc., makers of a pill-removing device in Issaquah, Wash., has a once-a-year trick to help prevent pilling on the sweaters that fill her wardrobe. She conditions them with lanolin, an oil that comes from sheep and is removed in the fiber-cleansing process. Ms. Senseny breaks down a small bit of lanolin in a dish of hot water and then fills a sink with tepid water. She pours the lanolin in, followed by a just-washed sweater. She rinses the garment and lays it out on a towel to dry.
The process helps smooth the scales on the yarn's fiber, making them less rough and less likely to tangle with one another to form a pill. "It's just like putting conditioner in your hair," Ms. Senseny says.
To remove pills, Ms. Senseny, not surprisingly, uses her company's Sweater Stone. The pumice stone resembles a bar of soap. When glided over a garment it removes the pills, but it won't alter what Ms. Senseny calls the sweater's "halo" or "unique surface." An electronic pill remover, she says, can damage the halo of mohair and cashmere. "It's like shaving a beard," she says.
There are comb-like tools for removing pills, such as the palm-sized D-Fuzz-It Sweater and Fabric Comb. The Gleener has three different edges—for big, bulky clumps, for medium-size fuzz balls and for delicate pills. President Kim Cole developed it with new synthetic fibers in mind. "They are inherently strong, so the pilling is actually strong" and harder to remove, she said.
The Internet is littered with do-it-yourself ways to remove pills that involve disposable razors or sandpaper. The Laundress's Ms. Whiting doesn't recommend any of these because of the potential for further damage, including snagging, harming the yarn or making a hole.
For anyone tempted to pull pills off with your fingers, Ms. Whiting says don't. "You are yanking the yarn it is attached to," she says. "You could end up making it worse."