Nobody wants pilling, so if your jumper pills it must be a sign of poor quality, right?

Not necessarily.

Finer, more luxurious knitwear is more delicate and takes more looking after. If you don’t care for it, it might pill more than the cheap, coarse stuff.

And, cheaper knitwear – from big high-street brands – is often given an artificial coating to make it pill less. Because consumers notice pilling, but they don’t necessarily notice the slightly greasy feel of those coatings.

If you want good knitwear that doesn’t pill, you should buy quality, buy denser knits, and look after it (basically, not squashing it into drawers and washing it regularly).

That’s the short version of the advice.

Below, in this latest chapter in our Guide to Knitwear, is the long version. For people like PS readers that want to know why.

 

 

Over finishing

Pilling is created when fibres that stick out of the surface of knitwear rub together. They twist up, often with the help of moisture from the body, and form knots.

When there are more of these fibres sticking up, you get more pilling.

There are various reasons for having more, but one is that the sweater has been more intensely finished – washed, with softeners, and brushed – to make if feel more fluffy when you pick it up in a shop.

In general, Italian knitwear has more finishing than Scottish knitwear. This means it feels fluffier to start with, but can pill more and sometimes not last as long.

So that’s one reason luxurious-feeling knitwear might pill a surprising amount. It’s a difference we’ve covered before here. But there are others.

 

 

Washing

Knitwear that has less finishing will soften during the first few wears, and washes.

The washing is crucial. A good, delicate wash will remove some stray hairs, align the rest, and generally prevent things that can cause pilling.

With Scottish knitwear, it’s important to do this after the first few wears. But with any knitwear, it’s important to do it some time – and few people do.

If knits get a little dirty, a little rubbed, a little damp, then the fibres are more likely to knit together. A simple wash will clean and smooth that out.

Washing can seem scary, but all it needs is five minutes of soaking in warm water, with a small amount of non-bio detergent, and a little squeezing (not rubbing). It’s easy and rewarding. More tips on this video.  

There are also great services that will clean, repair and de-pill knits for you, if this is too challenging.

 

 

Caring

Rubbing is bad with wearing as well as washing.

So don’t wear a backpack over the top of a nice cashmere. Don’t shove all your knits into a tiny shelf. Fold it, and generally treat it well.

There’s actually an interesting tendency for people to expect expensive clothing to do everything – both feel amazing and be tough as hell.

You see it particularly with socks, where people often complain that expensive socks don’t last that long.

But fine things are often literally finer – thinner fibres, which is a big contributor to softness – and can never be as tough as something much thicker. So they need looking after.

 

 

Longevity

This tendency also has negative repercussions. Because people demand cashmere that feels great and doesn’t pill, brands come up with ways to add an artificial ‘anti-pill’ coating to it.

This then has side-effects. It can give a slightly greasy feeling to the knit, as we’ve covered in a piece on Uniqlo here. And the softness has to be achieved with more washing/softening plus knitting more loosely. The integrity of the garment itself is being undermined, all in the search for perfect cashmere under £100.

That lack of integrity will be felt in the long term. And this, perhaps, is the rub.

Great knitwear is designed to last many years – even decades. Those that know and value cashmere can proudly show pieces handed down from their parents, which still look virtually brand new.

Most knitwear will not last a lifetime, and most people don’t want if too. But if looked after well, there’s no reason it shouldn’t last – and look good – for year and years. And of course that makes it great value in the long term too.

 

 

Types of knit

A final trend worth noting is that all knitwear – cheap and expensive – is increasingly knitted more openly, making it more delicate.

There are many reasons for this, including that need to feel soft at the point of sale, expectations around comfort and lightness, and an attempt to communicate luxury.

There’s nothing necessarily bad about this knitwear like this. It’s just different. Historically it’s the kind of quality that was made for womenswear rather than men’s. But it is more delicate and will pill more readily.

If you buy a hand-knitted cashmere that feels wonderfully soft and open, then consider that it is more delicate and needs to be treated as such. The same goes for some chunky shawl-collar cardigans (above), if you can see the knitting is open and spongy.

Both of these might be very expensive, yet pill more than anything else you own.

 

Conclusion

Pilling indicates many things, but quality isn’t necessarily one of them.

Indeed, it actually used to be said that pilling suggested good knitwear – because it meant longer fibres were being used, that would rise above the surface and bind. Little stubby fibres were less likely to do so.

If you want to avoid pilling, it’s less about what price of knitwear you buy and more about what type. But just as important is how much you wash and care for it.

Good things need – and deserve – looking after.

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Tony H

Huh.

Is there a similar nuance for suits?

Whenever I’ve seen pilling on suits when I’ve been poking around vintage shops I’ve always put them down straight away, but maybe I should have just taken them home and shaved them.

P.F.

Dear Simon,

As usual, very interesting article. I love knitwear but I’ve always struggled with pilling. After watching your video on washing knitwear, I have experienced that washing does indeed help with pilling. Quite a lot, actually.

One question pops up. Can you recommend any knitwear makers offering denser knits? I would readily sacrifice softness for a more sturdy and long-lasting knit.

Thanks!

Tamaki

Just want to add on Simon comment on Colhay

I recently bought their cashmere Crew neck and the feel of it is completely different to any other brand I have seen in person. You can really notice how densely woven it is. Other brands such as William Lockie also were similar in these feeling.

I think many would wonder “can I tell if something is more densely woven?” and my answer (of course just 1 data point from 2 brands) is yes, you can.

Con

Can I just clarify something? The density of a knit – is this opposite to the openness you’ve described near the end i.e is a less dense knit more ‘open’? Or is how open it is a different characteristic again?

P.F.

Last week, and after reading the recommendations, I indulged myself in a wool/cashmere roll neck from William Lockie. After two wears, I can attest to the density of the knit. It is much denser than everything I have in my collection. Only comparable to one of my Shetlands (Jamieson’s). Thanks for the recommendation!

Max

Hi, P.F. Can recommend Rubato – who knit their permanent collection in Scotland. Dry and tight finish – very little piling experienced with these knits. Great quality after 2 years with extensive use, no signs of wear – but with carefuld washing, drying and storage.

Con

I’ve noticed alot of recycled wool and cashmere new knitwear available for sale. I like the idea that it can be recycled rather than dumped, but a bit unsure about it.
Not understanding how the recycling process works, I have been wondering if it’s possible to get good quality knitwear that is made from recycled material.
It’s interesting that washing is more important in looking after knitwear. My instinct in the past would have led me to believe that less washing would be better, to avoid pilling in particular. Now that I think back to how my mother used to hand-wash woolens, she did it very gently, just turning it over in the water, not rubbing it together (that was only done for shirt collars) usually after a short soak, but sometimes an overnight soak.

Con

Yeah, I did wonder. And I wonder about the longevity of these recycled new items. What will they be like after a few years, or can this be predicted based on the yarn before it’s even made into a garment? Or would this recycled material be better off to be made into other than knitwear, duffel coat fabric, for example? I’ve seen knitwear that ‘looks’ good, but am quite wary about it.
Looking forward to the articles to come.

Eugene

Is there a depilling device that people can use at home. I’ve seen shavers sold, but I’ve been afraid to use one for fear of making problems worse.

Eugene

Thank you

Anon

Dear Simon,

Pardon my ignorance, but what is your view on dry cleaning for knitwear? Is it a substitute for gentle washing in water? Does it ruin knitwear as it does tailored clothing?

Thank you.

Tamaki

Hi Simon
From the point of view of washing, is there anyway to wash (yes wash) tailoring instead of dry cleaning? If one were to hand wash it carefully and let it dry on air, would it be an issue? Or is it because the tailoring would loose shape?
If it is only about loosing shape, tailored trousers (even wool) would be OK in being hand washed, no?

Fernando

Hey simon can you wash knitwear in a cold cycle in the washing machine?

Marcus

I highly recommend “The Laundress” cashmere shampoo. Also, Cesare Attolini makes “Duvet” cashmere which is so dense, it’s not suppose to pill. I have 2 and so far its true.

Jonas

After trying out different makers of fine cashmere I can recommend Fioroni and especially their Duvet line. Doesn’t pile at all and extremely good quality. Expensive, but worth the very penny.

Jonas Mjöbäck

Yes, that’s correct. As I understand it, Fioroni makes all knitwear for Attolini after they bought Fioroni some years ago.

Michael from Connecticut

Simon…another one of your useful and helpful articles. It’s why you site is as popular as it is. Please keep this sort of thing up.

I have an handful of cashmere sweaters from the late 80’s bought at Malo in NYC (now, I think, alas out of business). When the pilling happens, I just lightly run a plastic shaving razor over the pilling…and voila!…Good as new.

Matt

Hi Simon, thanks for this.

A recent article on Bryceland’s blog says that you should wash knitwear only once or twice a year, and that you should let it soak for hours, this is what I was copying and it’s the opposite of your advice. Is there a strong reason why it should be done more regularly or can one go either way?

Lee Hazeldine

Simon,

I’ve just ordered myself an MTM shawl cardigan from an Italian company. This should help keep the heating bills down whilst working from home this winter. Are you able to recommend a Scottish company that will produce MTM knitwear that is as every bit as chunky as you describe?

Many Thanks.

Stephan

It would be great if you could name a few (non-MTM) Scottish knitwear companies that you could recommend. I tried Colhay’s, but their more narrow style does not quite work for my body type. Thanks a lot!

Paul

Lee, just use 40 Colori – they can definately work with you to get whatever style you want. I’ve had a few pieces made by them and they’re amazing value-for-money.

https://www.40colori.com/

Ben

Hi Simon, hope this is an interesting one for you:

I have found (or rather my mum has), a yarn that doesn’t pile at all. And has other useful properties of being incredibly soft on the skin (as comfortable as some cashmeres), very light but with an excellent warmth/weight ratio.

Since my mum has got into knitting she found a merino/possum/silk yarn and made 1 jumper for me. Contrary to your advice in the knitwear articles, I’ve not taken great care of it… stored it stuffed in a bag for over a month, stuffed under piles of clothes for weeks, and worn it to bed through most of winter. It hasn’t piled once nor has it significantly changed shape or retained creases.

Only issues are 1) the pattern used for my current jumper doesn’t have a flattering bottom hem shape – I’ll be requesting a new jumper, 2) because of how soft and lofty the fabric is it would be entirely unsuitable for a lot of knit styles. Not heavy enough for a shawl cardigan and, being a hand knit limited by the yarn thickness she has acquired, certainly not in the category of a fine/thin merino cardigan or sweater.

I am struggling to work out what style of knit/sweater I might request next using this material. Any ideas?

Ben

I’m based in Australia but the yarn is from New Zealand where possums are a considered an imported pest that harms native flora/fauna. The possum fur has fine hollow fibres which gives it that lightness yet effective insulation.

I’ve linked a picture to the sweater below. The neck opening was initially too wide for my liking so she extended the width of the crew neck – but it has ended as an unhappy compromise. And I think the pattern was just poorly designed in terms of the bottom ribbed hem, far too loose.

Regarding crewnecks do you think they work better when the neck opening is high/tight enough to cover underlying t-shirt layers?

sweater.PNG
Greg

Dear Simon,

Thank you so much for your blog, it is an unique source of information.

Why do you specifically recommend non-bio detergent? I have seen this recommendation elsewhere but never explained.

Thanks!

Calum

Hi Simon

I’m interested in your opinion as to whether wearing a t-shirt underneath knitwear would accelerate pilling?
I often wear a t-shirt underneath to ‘protect’ the knit, but would the rubbing of the fibres be doing the opposite?

Stian P

Hi Simon,

I remember in your Youtube video in collaboration with Anderson & Sheppard they recommended dry cleaning for heavy knitwear. Do you follow this advice for washing things as your chunky shawl collared cardigans?

Thanks

Nicolas Strömbäck

On the topic of caring for clothes. Have you any experience with steam cabinets? They are marketed as being able to freshen up suits and such without having to go to the dry cleaners.

Nicolas Strömbäck

Yes, such a cabinet has the precondition of a rather large laundry space.