Nobody wants pilling, so if your jumper pills it must be a sign of poor quality, right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Suits are less prone to this because the materials are usually less delicate. You’ll have a more similar issue with softer, more open-weave cloths, such as those found on cashmere jackets.
Shaving may well help improve the look of those vintage suits, though as noted in the comments on this recent article, that isn’t always that reliable.
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.
If you follow the link in the article to our piece on Colhays, you’ll see a general discussion of the fact that Scottish knitwear is nearly always denser than Italian. So buying Scottish is a good place to start.
I actually had first-hand experience of this recently, when sampling cardigans. The Italian samples used about 40% less cashmere than the Scottish, despite using the same yarn.
Apart from that, it’s about feeling them yourself in person.
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.
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?
Yes, it’s the opposite
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!
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.
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.
That’s just the way Con.
On recycled materials, we’ll be talking more about this in upcoming articles. But in brief, in order to be recycled the material is usually shredded and then respun to make new yarn. This means it’s not as strong, so a little synthetic is often included to reinforce it
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.
I’m not sure on the longevity point I’m afraid Con, though I imagine it would be OK, given the synthetic that’s added
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.
Have a look at the discussion in the comments on this recent article Eugene. Readers make several recommendations there, and talk about their experiences
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?
It’s not as bad as for tailoring, because the biggest issue with dry cleaning is usually the pressing afterwards – the way it is stamped flat, both ruining any 3D shape and being bad for the material.
But still, gentle washing with water is a little better. In the same way a specialist woollen detergent is a little better, but only a little
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?
The issue is the structure inside Tamaki – the canvas could easily become distorted. At the very least you’d want a professional to press it afterwards, to make sure everything was in place and the 3D shape was restored.
The same is the case with trousers, just to a lesser extent. We covered this with this piece on tailored cotton
Hey simon can you wash knitwear in a cold cycle in the washing machine?
It’s best to only do so if you have a woollens setting on the machine. The thing that damages it is just as much agitation as temperature. So if you use a cold setting but it’s agitating it and spinning as much as a normal load, it will still damage it
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.
Thanks Marcus, I hadn’t heard of ‘duvet’ cashmere. Is this just knits, or is it a tailoring fabric?
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.
Aha, another duvet reference. Is this the same as the Attolini recommendation above?
Yes, that’s correct. As I understand it, Fioroni makes all knitwear for Attolini after they bought Fioroni some years ago.
Yes, Fioroni ( that is the cashmere artisans for Attolini) and Colombo are the best that ive tried, both from scotish and italian
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.
Thank you Michael. I always found that that also brought up other fibres on the cashmere, making it a little fluffier and more likely to pill in the future. But perhaps I’m not being delicate enough
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?
I wouldn’t say it’s the opposite. Both are advocating washing when most people don’t wash at all. And it depends how often you’re wearing it too.
Twice a year is a fine amount for anyone that has a decent amount of knitwear. And it’s a lot better than what most people do
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?
I can’t think of anyone actually Lee. I know some Italians, but no Scots
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!
In most cases the Scottish makers don’t do their own retail, so you’re looking to other brands or shops. Among those I’d suggest you look at:
– Anderson & Sheppard
– Begg & Co
– William Crabtree
But many other brands also do Scottish knitwear – if it’s a UK brand, chances are their heavy-gauge knitwear will be Scottish. Whether that’s New & Lingwood, Turnbull & Asser or anyone else.
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.
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?
Interesting, thanks Ben. I wonder how much possum fibre there is in the world!
What style is the one you have already? Or will you not be wearing that one any more?
I’d probably recommend a simple crewneck
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?
It looks like a nice colour Ben, but yes the collar is rather too large. I think they are better when they hug a shirt collar, which usually means covering a T-shirt.
Often things like this are a problem when you have knitwear made bespoke or knitted for you – the maker doesn’t have as much experience with designs or fit as a manufacturer does. Something I found with Licia Luchini for example.
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.
I’m no expert on detergents I’m afraid, but I think the enzymes in biological detergents that can be harsh on sensitive skin are also not quite as good for fine fibres
My understanding is that enzymes in bio detergents break down proteins, which is great for removing stains, but not so great for animal fibres like wool and silk, which are composed of proteins
Interesting, thanks Nathan
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?
No, it shouldn’t Calum.
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?
I do, yes
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.
No I don’t I’m afraid. Though it looks like a fairly large way of just steaming something? A good steamer should be able to do the same thing, no?
Yes, such a cabinet has the precondition of a rather large laundry space.
where can i buy the blue knitwear pictured
If you mean the navy shawl-collar cardigan, it can be found here. It’s currently sold out, but more are expected soon.
You make reference to proper storage of knits and I’m wondering if you could be a bit more specific. I agree that stuffing them in a drawer is likely to have untoward consequences but hanging them almost always stretches them out of shape, particularly in the shoulders of lighter weight knits. What’s the best way to preserve them in your experience? Is there a particular method of folding them that works best?
Thanks as always for addressing the pilling problem, which seems to afflict them all sooner or later. Hoping to delay the process as long as possible.
No worries Ira.
You certainly shouldn’t hang knits. Just fold them neatly and put them on a shelf – no particular fold is needed, just don’t try and stuff more in than the space really holds, as you’ll wrinkle them and create pilling.
A belated thanks for the excellent advice. Was traveling and didn’t get back to the computer for a bit. Just the advice I needed as always.
No problem Ira
I did ask this question some years ago in New York of a technical specialist working for a major retailer. As per your article, he stressed how fibre and finishing techniques can have an impact, but one subject we discussed was the industry switch from silk jacket & coat linings to almost 100% polyester. We discussed the microscopic profiles of polyester and of wool fibres and he thought there could be something in the wear properties caused by a natural fibre on a man-made lining. Just thought I’d share this to see if anyone else had considered it?
Thanks Stewart, I hadn’t thought about that, no. I wonder if simply wearing more casual garments too – less tailoring, more casual jacket, some often without any lining at all – might make the same or an even bigger difference
Re the question of Scottish MTM services, I would have to say that Hawico’s investment in WHOLEGARMENT machines has really changed the game. These machines do allow for 100% personalisation to suit all shapes and sizes. Yes, they still produce a collection but their particular strength is in this MTM service. They also offer a cashmere repair and refresh service and have a number of physical stores too. Stores – Explore opening times & locations – Hawico | Scotland
Thanks Stewart. I’ve heard of one or two other mills investing in this kind of machinery as well
I’ve worn my colhays cardigan coat 10 or so odd times now, and it’s showing a lot of pilling I must say. Maybe I should take my time to remove the pills and wash it, hoping it will mitigate it further…
Well I don’t know how I missed this excellent article, but it’s timely as I’m considering purchasing a full zip cardigan and quarter zip sweater from either Luca Faloni or John Smedley( models Claygate and Tapton for reference). The LF garments are cashmere and the JS are merino wool. Should I be concerned about the longevity of the LF garment vs the JS or another Scottish cashmere brand?
Only slightly. I’d say, only if you will be wearing the knit a lot, once or twice a week consistently, because you don’t have a big wardrobe
interesting article. I would like to contribute: I once had a conversation with Mr P.L.L-P., Loro Piana’s vice-president and an absolute expert on textiles. He told me that there are two fibres that have reduced quality the most in current issues: linen and cashmere. Both for the same reason: a yarn is created with fibres that are too short. Cashmere in particular is mostly made from wool sheared too early or at too short intervals. This results in a yarn with many breaks in the fibre at which ‘pill’ is created.