The P word, a short essay on pilling, part one

So. If you own silver, it will tarnish, if you wear nail polish, it's going to chip, and if you knit a sweater, 99 times in 100, at some point, it will pill. That's life in the yarn world.

Why do sweaters and knit pieces pill?

We all know a pill when we see one, but what causes yarn to sprout little nubs of fiber on its surface? A pill is a short fiber that's broken free of the twist structure of the yarn. At first it's hard to see, but little by little, due to normal wear (friction), it gathers other short fibers around it and together they form a little tuft.

Factors/causes of pilling

In general, the softer the fiber, the shorter the fiber. And the shorter the fiber, the more easily it pills when knitted up. Cashmere, for example, is a very short fiber, and, if you own a cashmere sweater, you probably have direct experience with what I'm talking about.

The process of carding, combing, twisting, and plying is the method by which spinning tries to harness flyaway fibers, to line them up, and secure them. The more twist you put on a yarn, the less likely it is to pill. But, as with most things in life, there's a trade-off. When you apply a lot of twist to a lofty roving, you squeeze out the air and conquer halo. You're left with what is better called rope than yarn.

Twist can be an iron clamp on yarn, or it can be a gentle grip on the fiber. So the trick in spinning is to find the best way to make a yarn that resists pilling without squeezing out loft, bounce, life—the things we love about a great yarn.

Will __ yarn pill?

A medium-soft wool, like the one we use in Puffin, has longer fibers that stay put better in a soft twist than softer, shorter-fiber wool would in the same structure. Longer fibers means that we can spin Puffin as a single, softly twisted ply. (Also, because we dye Puffin after it's spun, the hot water and gentle friction in the process cause the surface fibers to adhere to each other, which discourages pilling.)

Osprey (above), however, is made from very soft, merino-grade wool. Soft means short, so this fiber is better spun with a bit more twist. Yet, for Osprey, we wanted an extra cushy yarn, so we decided to hold back a bit on the twist, to bump up its loft, and then plied it with two other strands for added structure. Three strands wound around each other help to secure the short bits. Though, again, with time and wear, some of those little microscopic ends will work themselves out of the herd and become pills.

When we design yarns for Quince, we think long and hard about the balance between light hand and pill propensity. It’s a delicate balance that every yarn company and spinning mill tries to find to their own specifications and desires. 

So what do we do when we see a pill? We polled the folks in our main office for their pill solutions. Coming up in Part Two of the Pill Problem.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published

Shop now