My softest, best sweater pills like crazy. It must be depilled after each wear. I’m afraid at some point there will be no wool left.
Is there a way for me to know ahead of time that the yarn I am buying will do this? Is there a magic stitch to use with this wool to stop the pilling? Is there a way to take off the pills that will not ruin the sweater?
Lost in Pillsville
My dear Pillsville,
Alas, it’s time I share a fundamental truth about yarn: Softness pills.
A Limoges teacup is going to be innately more fragile than an Ironware mug. It’s just the very nature of the beast. If you want a fabric that feels soft and luscious, know that it will be far more vulnerable, and begin to deteriorate far faster, than will a more sturdy wool.
That said, I am a firm believer that you should be able to knit anything you want out of any yarn you want—as long as you know what you’re getting into. There are a few things you can do to anticipate and mitigate a yarn’s vulnerability. Just know that, at the end of the day, you’ll have a fabric that will meet its maker sooner rather than later.
Sweater Pilling Issues
When shopping, your keywords for fragility are, of course, “fine,” “superfine,” and “baby.” Those tend to be the words we use to describe Merino or the finest grades of alpaca. Cashmere is, by default, another Limoges fiber. All tend to have the finest fiber diameter, which means they can break that much more easily—and they also tend to have the shortest fiber length, which means they require more twist to hold them into the yarn and keep them there when the abrasion begins. Names aside, when you’re in the yarn store, it’s easy enough to let your fingers tell you what’s soft.
The next law of yarn is this: Twist is energy. Let’s say you’ve found a skein of luscious fibers that you want to marry and take home with you. Take a moment to study the yarn’s construction. Hold the skein, separate a strand of yarn, and gently untwist it. How much twist holds it together, and in how many layers? Is it a plied yarn? How numerous and tight are the plies? The more twist holding those fibers together, the better their chance of withstanding the vigorous abrasion of everyday wear.
Now comes gauge. I realize gauge is a subjective thing, but for some reason, many yarn labels list a gauge that is far looser than what I’d ever recommend for a well-wearing garment. They can do this for aesthetic reasons because loose, diaphanous fabric is beautiful, isn’t it? They can do it for economic reasons because the looser the gauge, the more square footage you can knit out of a skein. And they can even do it for their own reasons—perhaps the yarn’s ideal gauge range is already well-represented in another of their yarns?
How to Get a Good Result
And so it becomes crucial for you to swatch the yarn. I know, I know. Fine yarns are expensive, and “wasting” the yarn on a swatch seems wasteful. But doesn’t it make sense to dedicate a little of the yarn to figuring out its best fabric, so that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life removing pills from your garment until there’s nothing left?
Give yourself a generous swatch of at least six inches. (I’m giving you a break here, other people would suggest a minimum of 12.) Start swatching with the needle size recommended on the label. And then go down a size. Go down another size. Notice how the fabric changes. Do the thumb test: Poke your thumb through the fabric and watch the stitches slide open. Wiggle your thumb around and see how quickly they move even further apart, how large the gaps are. This is gravity. These are your shoulder seams. Do you like what’s happening? Keep swatching and doing the thumb test until you like the density and structure of the fabric even when under assault from your thumb. You may be surprised by how different the gauge and needle are from what’s recommended on the label.
Now, wash your swatch. Not washing a swatch is like going to all the trouble of making bread dough and never baking it. You won’t know what you’re getting unless you take this step, and it’s even more crucial with superfine fibers that can move around in the wash. Wash your swatch the way you plan on washing the garment. Let it dry and note the gauge and any changes in the fabric. Did it bloom? More than that, did it not bloom when you were expecting it would?
For those who already have a stash of loosely spun, super-delicate yarns, do not despair. Simply bring out the big guns, what I call the Spanx stitches: Seed and moss. Any time you alternate knits and purls in your fabric you’re creating an extra density and structure, reversing the direction of energy and twist in a way that pulls the fabric together and helps it resist abrasion.
What to do with those beloved sweaters that have already begun to pill? If they contain 100% animal fibers, invest in a Lilly Brush. It has no blades and requires no batteries and it really, really does the trick on pills. Until, as you note, you’ve removed so many pills that you have no more sweater left.
And finally, because I can’t help myself, I must ask if you are truly getting enough varied fiber in your diet. Working with only superfine fibers has the same effect on your sense of touch as constant use of antibacterial soaps has on your immune system. From time to time, remember to introduce some occasional roughage—a few wisps of woolen-spun Shetland, perhaps a hearty Romney—to keep your fingers alert and your creativity healthy.