How to Remove and Prevent Pilling from Your Clothes

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Here's everything you need to know about pills, those pesky lint balls that end up all over your favorite textiles, including how to remove pilling on clothes.

Your coziest sweater, warmest blanket, most-used bed sheets, and favorite workout pants all have one thing in common: They may be prone to small, firm balls of lint known as pills. Pilling on clothes is caused by normal wear and tear and can happen even while a garment is being worn.

“For example, when arms swing against the body of a shirt, that can result in pills forming on both the body and the sleeves or cuffs,” says Mary Gagliardi, aka “Dr. Laundry,” Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert. “When the fabric is rubbed against another portion of the garment or another surface, fibers are pulled from within the garment and combine to form a ball on the surface.”

The tendency to pill varies by fabric and often occurs (or is made worse) in the washer and dryer. Yet even if you vow to only hand-wash clothes (and who has time for that?), you won’t eliminate pilling entirely. But, hey, if you can learn how to unshrink clothes, surely you can learn to avoid pills. Thankfully, there are ways to sidestep the pesky balls (like knowing how to separate laundry properly) and remove pilling on clothes.

How to remove pilling on clothes

You’re ready to bundle up in your favorite sweater, but with so many pills, it looks a little worse for wear. (Is that a forest of pills under your arm?) Don’t toss it into the “donate” pile just yet! There are a few ways to remove pilling on clothes. Put in the effort, and clothes once showing serious signs of age will look good as new.

You can use a fabric shaver or pill remover

removing pills from clothing using fabric pill remover deviceHelin Loik-Tomson/Getty Images

Everyone deals with pilling on clothes. In fact, it’s so common that companies have created specific tools that gently remove pills from fabrics.

“If any of the pills remain after your clothes are washed and dried, you can carefully remove them by using a fabric comb or battery-operated pill/lint remover,” says Shawn Ashby, a spokesperson for Whirlpool. If you’re willing to shell out money for the relatively inexpensive device, you’ll appreciate how easy and effective this method is.

You can use a razor

If you don’t have a fabric shaver (and don’t want to buy one), you can also use a razor to remove fabric pilling. A simple disposable razor will do. Here’s how to shave your clothing without causing rips or tears:

  1. Place the fabric on a flat surface.
  2. Pull the fabric tight.
  3. Shave away the pill, pulling away from the fabric.

You can use laundry detergent with cellulase

De-pilling clothing and linens can be a tedious task, depending on the extent of the pilling. For a passive form of pill removal, look to your detergent. No, we’re not talking about switching to one of the best laundry detergents. Instead, use a laundry detergent with cellulase.

Cellulase is an enzyme that breaks down fibers to remove stains. You’ll find it in products (often labeled “enzyme detergent”) such as Persil ProClean. But this ingredient goes beyond stain-fighting. “This particular enzyme can help loosen and remove pills in the wash,” Ashby says. “Combined with a gentle, cold-water cycle, this type of detergent may help reduce or even solve your pilling problem.”

How to prevent pilling on clothes

Knowing how to remove pilling on clothes is a useful skill—and will come in handy when you notice pills on your sleeve as you’re dashing out the door. But you can save time by preventing pilling in the first place.

Before you begin the laundry process, be sure to read the clothing labels and check the laundry symbols to make sure you’re caring for your clothes in the right way. They’ll guide you on how to wash, whether you can dry clean at home or need to take it to a pro, the ideal way to dry, and more. Once you’ve done that, take the steps below to avoid (or at least reduce) fabric pilling and keep your clothes looking new.

1. Buy sturdy fabrics

When you’re out shopping, opt for sturdy fabrics that are tightly woven and made from more durable materials, suggests Ashby. “Knitted fabrics tend to pill more than woven ones, and clothes made from wool, cotton, polyester, acrylic, and other synthetics tend to develop pills more readily than silk, denim, or linen.”

2. Sort laundry carefully

To avoid pilling on clothes, it’s important you understand how to separate laundry. And, no, that doesn’t mean tossing all semi-dark clothes in one pile and whites in another. Sort clothes not only according to color but also by fabric type. This way, heavier fabrics will be less likely to damage lighter ones in the wash.

3. Turn garments inside out

Another way to prevent pilling in the wash is by turning garments inside out and fastening zippers, buttons, and hooks. Remember, pilling is a result of abrasion. Friction between fabrics isn’t the only thing that can lead to pills. “Rubbing against these hard objects can damage clothing fibers,” says Ashby.

4. Don’t overload the machine

You know that when clothes rub against each other in the washer or dryer, pills can form. And if an item has already started to pill, it can attract other items in the dryer. “The pesky pieces are broken clothing fibers on the surface of clothes that become tangled together and attract loose micro-threads during the wash cycle,” says Ashby.

That’s why it’s so important you know how to do laundry the right way. We’ve all been there: cramming clothes into the washing machine to avoid doing a second load. You’re going to want to avoid that. Instead, make sure the washer and dryer aren’t overloaded. “If your clothes can’t move easily in the machine, they’ll rub together and cause more friction,” he explains.

5. Use fabric softener

person pouring liquid fabric softener into washing machineAePatt Journey/Getty Images

Ashby suggests using fabric softener to help protect clothing fibers. What does fabric softener do beyond that? It’ll make your clothes feel soft and smell fresh.

6. Choose the right washer settings

What temperature you wash clothes makes a difference, as does the cycle you choose. “Opt for a cold-water wash, using the gentlest cycle possible, or even hand-wash your clothes,” Ashby says.

7. Dry with care

Remember, pills don’t just form in the wash. They can develop in the dryer, too, so pick your dryer settings wisely. “When the wash is done, use a gentle, low-heat dryer cycle, or hang your clothes to air dry,” says Ashby.

What fabrics are most likely to pill?

A garment’s fabric type and construction both affect how likely it is clothes more likely to pill. Shorter fibers that can be pulled from a garment are more prone to pilling. That’s the case with wool knits, polyester blends, cotton, and cashmere. Longer fibers—including silk and linen—are less likely to pill, says Gagliardi.

“Less tightly twisted yarns made of staple fibers that are loosely knit into a fabric are much more likely to pill than tightly twisted yarns tightly woven into a heavyweight fabric,” she explains. “Woven fabrics, as long as the yarns are more tightly twisted, are less likely to pill, especially if loose fibers were removed during fabric production.”

Here’s another laundry fact: Some fabric manufacturers include a singeing step during fabric production, in which any protruding fibers are burned away before the fabric is printed or dyed.

Is pilling a sign of bad quality?

Piling on clothes is not considered a desirable attribute in a textile, Gagliardi points out, and can be a sign of low quality. “Since garment construction techniques like using longer fibers and more tightly twisting yarns can increase the cost of an item, it is reasonable to assume that if an item costs more, higher-quality construction techniques were used and it should be able to withstand pilling,” she says.

Sources:

  • Mary Gagliardi, scientist and cleaning expert with Clorox
  • Shawn Ashby, spokesperson for Whirlpool

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Leah Groth
Leah is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, mother and product junkie. Her obsessions include old houses, home design, fashion, beauty, books and anything that makes her life — which includes working full-time and taking care of two "spirited" children and a Vizsla puppy — a little bit easier. Her work has appeared on a variety of publications and websites, including Glamour, Prevention, Business Insider, Livestrong, Mindbodygreen, Fatherly, Scary Mommy, Wonderwall and Cosmopolitan.