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Dear Clara,

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.

About The Author

In 2000, Clara Parkes launched Knitter’s Review, and the online knitting world we know today sprang to life. Author of the series that started with The Knitter’s Book of Yarn (2007), Clara is the author of  Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World (2016) and A Stash of One’s Own: Knitters on Loving, Living with, and Letting Go of Yarn (2017). Her latest book is Vanishing Fleece: Adventures in American Wool (2019).


  • Thank you! Love every bit of this :). XoA

  • It seems to me that all knitters should take a course – “Things You Don’t Know That You Don’t Know” – to help prevent some of the lessons that are learned the hard way. Having spent an mini-fortune on a sweater lot that pilled before it was out of the house, I hope that others may benefit from this article. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • Excellent article!

  • Required reading should be You Book Of Yarn! I learned so much and I’ve been knitting for years and years. I refer to it when I have questions because I also don’t know what I don’t know!

    • Aw thank you!

  • This is so helpful – I wish I’d known what makes yarns pill years ago, though I still wonder whether there are clues for the ignorant about how to tell about twist and plies et al.

    I have always preferred to knit at a tighter gauge than what’s recommended, just because the fabric seemed more stable, but now I know why. Thank you very much.

  • I never heard of a Lilly Brush. Thanks for the tip. I’ve spent my time with my shoulder to the stone. Seed and moss will be my newest best friends.

  • Although even seed and moss stitch have limits–I knit a very cute shrug in moss stitch out of a very pilly cashmere blend and it hasn’t helped much!

  • Great article thank you!

  • Even better for cleaning up sweater pills is a Gleener. I learned the hard way when I made a sweater in super soft Malabrigo Worsted (single-ply, low-twist, super-soft Merino). I love it anyway, and my Gleener keeps it wearable.

  • Possum luxury yarns are an exception to the rule. While extremely soft and delicate feeling, they are very resistant to pilling and more durable. Zealana’s AIR is mostly cashmere, but the addition of possum down creates a barrier that resists the abrasion.

  • After 50+ years of knitting, I would also add that any time there is nylon in the mix, the sweater will pill. Nasty stuff. Probably the same thing holds true for cotton. Just no way around the pilling.

  • Brilliant information thanks Clara

  • Thank you! very helpful! Lilly Brush just got added to my Christmas wish list!

  • Thank you Clara! I feel I DO know what I’m getting into now.

  • Limoges yarn and Spanx stitches are now happily in my lexicon!

  • great info, especially the thumb test! thanks!

  • I am with Nancy. I prefer to knit at a tighter gauge (close, as I call it). And I am with Clara on going down in needle size in my constant pursuit of a closer knit. It has never failed that upon washing swatches, the fabric relaxes and opens up the stitches leaving me with holey fabric. BAD in my book! I knit for warmth, and yarns knit to ‘spec’ (gauge) are always too loose. The two projects I am working on now are supposed to be ‘worsted weight’ knit on US 7. The yarn is actually more of a DK weight, so I am knitting with US 5 and have proved (washed/blocked) a close knit that is still soft and drapey. Even my US 4 swatch is soft and drapey. I would have worked with the US 4 but I was afraid of running out of yarn before completing one of the projects.

    To give back to all the knitters who have shared their knowledge here, I offer this on loosely spun yarns. Once I have hand wound a skein of loosely spun yarn, I immediately rewind the ball again. If I am not pleased by the first round, I rewind again. (This technique does not work with winding machines, obviously.) I have found that rewinding does a good job of tightening the spin… and really helps with those very soft yarns that want to pill even before they pass by needles.

    Thank you, Clara, for a very interesting and informative article. As Lisa C. said, there are things I don’t know that I don’t know. Now I know more, thanks to you.

    MJ, the SKEINdinavian

  • Thanks for the awesome tips! I’ve been meaning to try the Lilly Brush. Another great battery-free and non-damaging fibre-friendly tool is the Gleener. It’s a two-ended thingy – one end has the pill removing tool (with three interchangeable heads for all gauges of knit fabric) and the other has a lint brush. It totally changed my life. I use it on my hand knits and store bought stuff too. I got mine at my LYS but you can order from their website too at

  • Fabulous article! With our Merino at John Arbon we say it stops pilling eventually its just those short fine fibres wriggling out to begin with. Loved your advice on getting a bit of roughage in your life!

  • Thank you, Clara! Love your imagery!

  • Not sure if it is ok to say but I took Clara’s Craftsy class “Know Your Yarn: Choose the Perfect Yarn Every Time” – very useful info!

  • Thank you so much for this very informative article! My garment is pilling before it’s even off the needles!
    I must also say thank you to the comments! They were helpful as well! I will be trying to decide which one of the tools suggested will end up being better for me.
    And I immediately went to My Bluprint (formerly Craftsy) and added your class to my forever library!

  • Clara, you remain my favorite author and blogger! Thank you so much for your kind and compassionate view of the world.

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