Anna Sattler wrote a great post the other day about shaving pills off of sweaters with a disposable razor. It reminded me that I have my own favorite way of de-pilling a sweater, and I also thought people might be interested to know why sweaters pill to begin with.
All yarns are made up of a bunch of twisted fibers. Short-staple fibers -- a term that refers to the length of the real or imitation animal hair used to create the yarn -- often wind up poking out of the yarn at either end of the individual hair. When a group of fiber ends are sticking up like that, friction often causes them to bunch together... and then you have pills. (The friction may also have caused the fibers to stick up to begin with.)
Several fibers are notoriously pill-prone: acrylics, merino wool, and cashmere, particularly inexpensive cashmere. The "friction" component explains why pilling on clothing often happens in areas where body parts rub together. Acrylics may pill the worst because of their strength: I've seen wool sweaters where the friction eventually breaks the pill off the sweater, but this isn't as common with man-made fibers.
There's more about pilly fabrics after the break, and a free offer for my favorite pilly sweater solution!
When you remove pills, you're technically removing some of the fabric of the sweater, so it is possible to shave a sweater into oblivion after a few years of concentrated pill-removal. On the other hand, some sweaters pill if you look at them funny, and won't look presentable if you don't de-pill them.
I tend to avoid all sharp implements that aren't craft knives or scissors, so I've never really been crazy about the idea of using a razor blade or even a disposable razor to get rid of pilling on fabrics, and I've never been able to get an electric clothing shaver to work for me. (If you aren't as blade-shy as me, though, the "disposable razor" solution is perfect!) Another product, the D-Fuzz-It Comb, exists, but it has received some terrible reviews.
Instead, I use a product called the Sweater Stone. It's a natural pumice stone that grabs onto pills and cuts them off of a fabric; you just brush it across the fabric's surface. Both Consumer Reports and I prefer it to electric clothing shavers; it's also received positive reviews at Cool Tools, Treehugger, and even our sister site, Styledash. Some say it will even work on fabrics like Polarfleece.
The Sweater Stone has a peculiar sulfuric smell, and little bits crumble off of the stone when you use it. According to the manufacturer, this is because the stone breaks off a tiny chunk whenever the sweater fibers offer any resistance. Although the smell goes away quickly, and the crumbly bits can be shaken off easily, I always use the stone prior to washing a sweater.
If you use the stone briskly enough, the pills will collect at the edge of the sweater, where you can pick them up, but some people prefer to go very gently and pick up the pills with a tape-based lint roller, and others say the lint roller is absolutely necessary. Brisk brushing with the stone can leave the surface of your sweater fuzzy... which would mean that the pills are likely to come right back.
I just found out that the Sweater Stone people are giving away free Sweater Stones to people whose requests are postmarked by January 1, 2008. The catch is that you have to pay $5 for shipping (a bit more if you aren't in the US), and wait for six to eight weeks. The stone itself usually sells for between six and ten dollars in stores, so it's not a bad deal. Visit their website for more details.
If you can't wait, the Stones are sold on Amazon.com and at a bunch of other stores... also try calling your local domestic mega-stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Linens and Things, and The Container Store.
(Note: we here at DIY Life don't have anything to do with these stores or with the free offer; we're just letting you know. If you miss the free offer this time around, keep checking back with the Sweater Stone site! They seem to renew the offer periodically, and you can always ask them when they next plan to offer it.)