Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pilling - myths and truths

Generally, cheap stores tell customers that pilling is a 
normal characteristic of wool/cotton sweaters. 

This is incorrect. 

Pilling is a normal characteristic of CHEAP sweaters.

On the plus side, pilling can be removed quite easily although on a cheap sweater this may need to be done frequently. 

You get what you pay for strikes again. 

Pilling is when the sweater develops small fuzzy balls of its fibres, on its surface. 

Usually if a garment is susceptible to pilling this will occur relatively quickly once it is worn several times. Issues with the fibres of the yarn will usually become apparent quickly. Generally a garment that has not shown signs of pilling in the early stages will look good for years to come.

Why does pilling occur?

There are a number of variables which contribute to pilling. Being a natural fibre, every batch of wool is different and may attract varying reasons of why it may pill. 

Before we start, let's go back to basics.

1. The sheep is shorn.

2. The fibre that is shorn off the sheep is called the staple.

3. A spun fibre has the ends of the staples wrapped all around it all along its length. The ends of the staples are not restricted to the ends of the spun fibre.

The concept of the staple and the spun fibre applies also to cotton and other natural fibres even though they may derive from plants rather than animals. 

Pilling also occurs on acrylic sweaters, however I am not going to waste energy analysing the cheap of the cheap. 

But now that we know the basics, let's get to the nitty gritty. 

Why does pilling occur?

1. Friction with the ends of the staple. 

This is the main factor by far.

The better the ends are tucked into the spun fibre, the less pilling that will occur.  

Basically, pilling is caused when the ends of the staple are disturbed/bruised etc. So the more exposed the ends are, the more pilling that occurs. Pilling is not caused at the length of the staple. 

But the real kicker is the length of the staple

The longer the staple, the better it integrates/tucks into the yarn when spun, ensuring it is well meshed into the yarn and less likely for fibre ends to protrude. A long fibred clean yarn will perform well when worn and washed.

No surprises, the longer the staple, the more expensive the yarn & the more expensive the sweater. Short staples are cheaper than long staples. 

A high street brand will never tell you that they use cheap yarn with short staples. But they do. That's the main reason the sweater is affordable. 

2. The dying process 

Dying colours into yarns and fabrics is very stressful on the fibres and its structural properties. High temperatures are used to get the dyes to take and sometimes this can make the fibres brittle and to break into shorter fibres. Darker colours are often dyed at higher temperatures and can sometimes be more prone to pilling.

3. Knit structure 

The stitch used in creating a fabric is important in assisting the durability of the yarn. A tight flat fabric stitch has less surface area and results in less pills/snags and overall protects the yarn fibres. 

Conversely a loose and boldly textured fabric is more susceptible as it is more exposed with a larger surface area. This issue can be particularly frustrating for designers as looser textured fabrics are more fashionable and demanded by the consumers. This becomes a delicate balance of fashion over function.

4. Body placement

Depending on the area of the body, wear and tear of a garment can also encourage a garment to pill. Repetitively worn areas such as under the arms, over the breasts or on the sides and hips are high frequency pilling areas. Continual irritation slowly unseats the yarn structure and rubs the fibres out of the fabric.

5. Laundering

The use of unapproved detergents and harsh irritating wash cycles can be harmful to the woollen fibre. Detergents can break down the fibres and make them brittle resulting is long fibres breaking and becoming short. Short fibres tend to come loose of the yarn and migrate to the surface of the garment.

How to manage pilling?

Pilling looks unsightly. It kills a looks every time. Luckily there are ways to manage it.

1. Those battery operated gizmos at supermarkets

2. A pumice stone

3. Razor blades

I have seen people use naked razor blades run over 
the surface of the knit - I wouldn't recommend that due to
the danger of cutting the fibres (as well as the pills). Truly 
scary stuff.

4. Look after your clothes

The better you look after the garment, the less the fibres will
bruise and the less the pilling will occur.

In summary

* The main factor contributing to pilling is the length of the fibre when it is harvested from the animal/plant. 

* Longer lengths mean the ends are tucked in better and less friction occurs with those ends. 

* Less friction with the ends means less pilling. 

* Longer lengths means more expensive garments.

* You get what you pay for strikes again. 

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