How to make your old knits look like new
Revive your wardrobe with a pilling tool for less than $40.
Do you have a stack of sad, once-loved layers shoved in the bottom of a drawer covered in those little fluff balls, or ‘bitsy bits’ as I like to call them?
My knitwear used to live in limbo between being too good to get rid of while simultaneously looking too shabby to wear out of the house.
I wondered how other people’s jumpers still looked fresh while I was walking around in what looked like a giant fluff blanket – until I discovered the fabric shaver.
I stumbled across it by accident one day. It cost $3.50 from Dasio Japan and was called an ‘electronic lint remover’. This one little tool changed my life – well my wardrobe’s life, at least.
Bringing your old knits back to life is far easier (and cheaper) than I thought. All it takes is a little patience and one of the following tools.
Tools of the trade
A fabric shaver is a small, handheld device to buzz away pills with the help of a rotating blade beneath a protective cover. Turn on the device and glide it over areas of pilling to remove excess fluff.
Not all fabric shavers are made equal. You’re paying for the quality you get. One purchased from a two-dollar shop will do the job removing light pills but may not have the grunt power to tackle thicker problem areas that the premium shavers can handle.
Prices range from $3.50 to around $40.
Tim Fawcett and Caroline O’Hara are knitwear experts with decades of experience (most recently at Optimum Clothing), designing and making premium quality pieces that stand the test of time. A fabric shaver is their tool of choice.
“It’s what we use on our knitwear,” O’Hara said. “You just need to be careful not to go near a snag as it may pull it through the holes and cut it, then you have a hole.”
- Available in a range of prices to suit all budgets.
- Light and easy to use.
- Has a compartment to catch the shavings, making for easy clean-up.
- Most run on batteries, which will need regular replacement.
- Excessive use will result in blades blunting over time, and no replacement parts are available.
A pumice stone is as natural as you can get. Light yet abrasive, this aerated piece of volcanic rock works wonders removing unwanted fuzz and pills. My sweater stone is much loved for its ability to tackle stubborn pills with ease. But be warned, it’s messy. Like, really, really messy.
Every use wears the stone down and results in excess pumice shavings all over your garment. The tiny particles would hurt if they were to get in your eyes, so brush them into the bin once you’re done. But the mess is well worth it, in my opinion.
They retail for about $20 from a number of retailers; I purchased mine from Max. Or take a trip to a volcanic area such as the Central Plateau and pick some up for free.
- Natural material.
- No forking out for batteries or waiting for it to charge.
- Suitable for tough pills and wool blends.
- Wears down with use. The whole stone will need to be replaced once you’ve worn through it.
- Too abrasive to use on delicate fabrics.
A razor is the cheapest option by far! You’ll likely have a spare one sitting in your bathroom cupboard. If not, simply chuck one in the trolley during your weekly shop.
Compared with other pilling tools, a razor has the smallest blade surface area and the blades get clogged quickly, so you’ll need to clean the blade as you go. This makes it a rather time-consuming method.
O’Hara warns: “People could not only make a snag but accidentally cut the fabric (or the snag) and make a hole.”
- You likely have one on hand already.
- Low cost.
- No batteries.
- It’s easier to accidentally cut the fabric, or yourself!
- Blades need to be declogged frequently.
- Time consuming.
- Blades blunt over time.
A fabric comb, also called a wool comb, is another batteryless option which could save you more money in the long run.
Instead of a blade, this tool has a metal bar with raised edges to catch lint, hair and pills when it is run over the fabric. It requires a bit more effort than the electric tools, and the repetitive motion of going over the same spot can be tiring.
O’Hara and Fawcett have nothing good to say about fabric combs.
“We don’t recommend using these. They tend to pull fibres out of the knit thus starting another (even worse) cycle of pilling. It’s effectively ‘roughing up’ the fabric.”
Prices for fabric combs range from $5 to around $15.
- No batteries involved.
- Small and flat, this fits easily in a bag pocket to have on hand whenever you need it.
- Can cause a new cycle of pilling.
- Repetitive motion becomes tiring.
- Requires more time and effort to see results.
How to get the best results
No matter which of these tools you choose, the following will ensure you achieve the best results:
- Place the fabric on a flat surface.
- Pull the fabric tight.
- Test on a small, inconspicuous area first.
- Be gentle.
- Don’t rush the process!
Coming at your favourite jumper with a blade or abrasive surface can be daunting. Take it slow and get a feel for it before you attack. If you get carried away with aggressive scrubbing, you could accidentally snag and tear the fabric.
There are many options on the market and many brands selling the same product with different logos printed on them. Look for the pilling tool that best suits your needs based on what type of fabric you’re wanting to depill.
Being handheld, all these tools have a relatively small surface area. If your garment is covered in pills, depilling may take a while so why not pop on some music, pour yourself a drink and make an evening out of it?
What causes pilling?
The unsightly bits of fluff and bobbles that form on your clothing are not in fact called bitsy bits; they’re pills.
As you wear and wash your clothes, the fabric is subject to rubbing and abrasion. This causes short or broken fibres to become entangled in a tiny knot or ball, creating a pill.
Pills are usually found on the areas of clothing most prone to friction, such as under the armpits or on the shoulder where a bag strap rubs.
Unfortunately, when it comes to pills, like attracts like. One pill becomes a magnet for other loose threads in a load of washing and the two become entwined. That’s how a black fabric can end up with little white knots; that white knot is fuzz from another fabric.
Certain types of fabric are more prone to pilling. Fabrics made of longer fibres, such as silk and linen, pill less than fabrics with looser or mixed fibres. And knitted threads are looser than woven ones, so knits are more prone to pilling. Wool, cotton, polyester and other synthetic threads are prone to pills.
Cheaply made synthetic fibres are more likely to pill compared with quality natural fibres.
When clothing is made from a mixed fibre composition such as a cotton/polyester blend, one fibre is usually much stronger than the other. The weaker fibre will break and knot around the stronger fibre, forming a pill. Unfortunately, even for the most careful of us, pills are unavoidable. Luckily, a few brushes with the right tool can keep your knitwear looking fresher for longer.
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