Pilling – what to do when your outdoor clothing starts to lint?

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It is not just hikers, climbers and cyclists who are regularly annoyed by these little balls that form on their favourite clothes. This “little fluff”, or pilling, does not stop at jackets and trousers – it even creeps into our T-shirts, socks and underwear.

For most people, pilling is a sign that textiles have grown old enough for their second life in the clothes collection box and the time has come for new wardrobe. Only a few people know exactly what pilling is, how to prevent or slow down pilling and how to make pilled textiles look nice again.

What exactly is pilling?

Pilling in fabrics refers to the formation of small fibre nodules on the surface of various textiles. Pilling can differ in severity and usually starts with single small nodules that are only about 1 mm in size. Depending on the fabric and the wear and tear, pilling can spread over entire areas as it progresses. This makes pilling on the textiles particularly noticeable and often makes the garments look very old and worn.

Left jumper with pilling, right without pilling
Pilling is not always a sign of poor quality.

How does pilling develop on outdoor clothing, leisurewear, sportswear and everyday wear?

A fleece jumper or jacket that pills quickly is not necessarily a sign of poor quality or cheap products, although it is more common with such products. Pilling also occurs in high-quality fabrics, and is not limited to fleece and synthetic fibres either. Cotton, wool and a wide variety of mixed fabrics are also affected by pilling. However, there are differences in terms of the material and quality of the textiles with regard to how quickly and how intensively the pilling occurs.

Factors that favour pilling are not only poor quality yarns and fabrics but also lack of care and intensive wear. Mechanical stress increases pilling. It is caused, for example, by continuous friction from backpacks, repetitive movements, such as when cycling, or heavy strain on certain areas, such as knees, elbows, thighs, forearms and buttocks.

Depending on the garment and the use, pilling therefore often occurs in different places. Fleece jackets worn by walkers are often affected on the shoulders and sides where the backpack’s hip belt rests. With socks, it is mostly the toe area and heel and with jeans, pilling often starts in the thigh area.

Fleece and many other sport shirts are made of polyester or with a high proportion of polyester fibres. They are light, easy to work with, breathable and dry very quickly. Their fibres are also very short. As pilling occurs at the fibre ends that detach from the fabric surface, synthetic fibres are generally more affected by pilling than fabrics with longer fibres.

However, it is also possible in principle to make polyester and other synthetic fibres into non-pilling or almost non-pilling fleece fabrics, as Polartec demonstrates with its high-quality fleece products. While pilling is not a reason for complaint for many manufacturers, Polartec fleece jackets are considered “Anti-Pilling-Fleece”. That’s why almost all renowned outdoor brands trust in the excellent quality of Polartec.

Avoid pilling through correct textile care

Washing machines are often a key cause of increased or very early pilling. However, this is usually not because the garment is not suitable for machine washing, but because of simple and common washing mistakes. There is a reason why every jacket, every pair of trousers and every T-shirt have washing instructions sewn into them, providing more detailed information about optimal care. The approach of “opening the washing machine, putting everything in and letting it run” does not really help to avoid pilling.

What does help reduce pilling and make textiles last longer:

Choosing the right wash temperature. It is rarely necessary to wash at more than 30 °C or 40 °C. Some textiles even need a cool wash (e.g. many jumpers made of wool).

Spin drying clothes is not essential. Although clothes dry faster after spinning, they are also subjected to greater mechanical stress. Spinning at a low speed or not spinning at all prevents pilling. A gentle wash cycle or an extra laundry bag also allow for gentler washing.

The appropriate detergent depends on the fabric. However, there is no need for softener. This increases pilling. As liquid detergent does not rub against fabrics like a dry powder that has to be dissolved first, liquid detergent has a slight advantage in lint prevention.

For dryers, it’s the same as for washing machines. Regular drying increases pilling. Pilling can be reduced by washing infrequently and preferably not tumble drying at all.

It is very important to prepare clothes for washing in the machine, which means that all zips must be completely closed and all hook and loop fasteners, press studs, etc. must be closed. Hook and loop fasteners cause pilling so much and at such a speed that just one wash can ruin the whole garment. Last but not least, to protect delicate items from mechanical stress, turn them inside out.

If in doubt, always check the manufacturer’s instructions on the care label.

Mountain friends Christa and Seb hiking
The friction of the backpack often causes pilling on the shoulders and back of wool jumpers first.

What can you do to stop pilling?

Even with perfect care and the best materials, textiles can eventually become pilled. It is not a good idea to pick off the small nodules by hand. At first, you may be able to remove a few matted balls, but as the fibres are torn out, small areas of pilling will form again very quickly.

Instead, textiles with pilling can be shaved. While it sounds and definitely feels strange when you shave the sleeve of your jacket for the first time, it is actually very efficient and prevents pilling very effectively.

Lint razor to remove pilling

The most effective way of combating lint on textiles is to use a lint shaver. As the name suggests, it is designed precisely for this task so it does it very well. You can buy a standard lint shaver for around 10 Euros, making it the quickest and easiest solution in the fight against pilling.

Use scissors to cut off the large lint nodules. Be very careful to make sure you don’t cut your clothes themselves.

A disposable razor can also be used to remove pilling. After cutting off the large pieces of lint with scissors, the delicate work should be done with a disposable razor, which, ideally, should be unused and have a new, sharp blade.

Shaving pilling” requires patience and care. If you apply too much pressure or try to shave off all the lint in one go, you run the risk of having to use a needle and thread or an adhesive repair kit. With a little pressure and short strokes, you can shave pilling on larger areas very well and without damaging the material.

A lint roller, which can also be used to remove lint and hair from textiles, can be used to conveniently pick up the cut lint and lint residue. Alternatively, you can use some sticky tape or masking tape to dab the lint off the surface. Very adhesive textile tape, on the other hand, is not suitable because it sticks to the fabric and loosens new fibres. Therefore, adhesive tape should only be used with little pressure and for small areas. A lint roller is clearly superior to adhesive tape and can also be used in everyday life.

Smooth surface after pilling removed

There are of course limits to repair options for pilling. Depending on the material, age and condition of the textiles, reasonably good results can be achieved and with an expensive hardshell jacket, fleece jacket or softshell jacket, the effort is definitely worth it.

The best case scenario is a smoother or even smoother surface on the affected areas and while the affected garment will not look brand new, it will not look old either.

The formation of the nodules, however, naturally also causes material to be lost at the pilling points. This means that the material becomes thinner there and is therefore less resistant. This becomes a particularly problem in areas that often come into contact with hook and loop fasteners and the fibres tear out. Whether it’s worth shaving your old walking socks for the third time or ordering a pair of new ones is ultimately a personal decision.

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Alpinetrek-Expert Jan

Alpinetrek-Expert Jan

The 3 rules of mountaineering: 1. It’s always further than it looks. 2. It’s always higher than it looks. 3. It’s always harder than it looks.

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