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Pilling is the formation of small fibre pills on the surface of a fabric and is generally regarded as an undesirable property. These fibre beads or pills, as they are called, are formed during use, wear and/or washing by the intertwining of loose fibres sticking out of the fabric surface. Under the influence of friction, these loose fibres develop into small spherical bundles which are anchored to the fabric by a few unbroken fibres. Pilling occurs on fabrics and knits.

Pilling can be divided into four stages

  • Wear and tear
  • Growth
  • Entanglement
  • Formation of pills

Pills are usually seen in areas where some friction occurs during use, such as on clothing in the collar, cuff, side and back pockets of trousers. On upholstery fabrics near the seat or back. But can also occur after washing and drying clothes.

How does pilling occur?

All fabric pills to a certain extent, although fibres such as linen, silk, and rayon are much less prone to pilling compared to strong fibres such as nylon and polyester. The broken fibres will not fall off but will be retained on the surface of the fabric. Fibers such as wool, cotton, polyester, polyamide, and acrylic therefore have the greatest tendency to take pills. In the case of woollen fabrics, the pilling decreases over time as the wool fibres detach from the fabric and break down. This is in contrast to synthetic textiles in which the stronger fibres remain attached and therefore cannot or easily break down from the fabric.

In general, longer fibres pill less than short fibres. Fabrics with a large number of loose fibres have a greater tendency to peel. Knitted fabrics also tend to pile more than woven fabrics because of the greater distance between the yarns. For the same reason, a tightly knitted object will have fewer pills than a loose knitted object.
When a fabric consists of mixed fibres where one fibre is significantly stronger than the other, the pilling occurs because the weaker fibre wears and breaks, and the stronger fibres hold the pills on the fabric.

Is pilling preventable?

Techniques used in the textile industry to prevent pilling include scorching protruding loose fibres on the textile surface, spinning the yarn with a high number of twists (more twist), applying a chemical treatment to the textile to reduce the tendency for pilling, or applying a coating that binds the fibres to the surface of the fabric.

As a user, you can delay or prevent pilling by turning the garment inside out before washing. Washing in washing powder containing enzymes will remove pills on cotton. However, the use of fabric softener can sometimes exacerbate the formation of pills and therefore be better omitted.

Pilling tests

Do you want to be assured that your textiles are adequate? There are several test methods for the determination of pilling resistance.

  • EN ISO 12945-1 (Pillingbox method)
  • EN ISO 12945-2 (Modified Martindale method)
  • EN ISO 12945-3 (Random Tumble Pilling method)

Pilling resistance testing is also an essential part of a good quality program and VTC can provide the necessary testing and advice.