Why your clothes bobble and what to do about it

When my new activewear top recently arrived from Cadenshae, I loved it. One of my few maternity garments that I’ve actually bought new, rather than second-hand, it was perfect. A bright pop in my favourite turquoise colour, and in the softest fabric I’d ever felt. But by its second wash it already looked old and worn. The soft, silky fabric had become rough and bobbled.

Sidestepping fast fashion in an effort to be more sustainable, I’ve found it really frustrating that more expensive purchases seem to wear and tear just as quickly. Even a homemade dress, made in 100% bamboo fabric, looked ruined after my first wear. It’s especially annoying when this happens to a garment you’ve spent hours creating.

So I’m setting out on a new sustainable fashion mission. To find out what makes my clothes pill and bobble, to prevent it or fix it, and to share my new-found knowledge with you. 

If you’re also looking to make your style more sustainable, check out this conversation with my Gran from a couple of years ago, where she shared her advice on getting your clothes to last longer.

What causes clothes to pill and bobble?

I could go into the scientific reasons, talking about electrons and positive charges, but I’m guessing that’s not what you’re really here for. 

No, what we really want to know is what practical action we can take to stop it from happening in the first place.

I should say at the start that, as I’ve found out through experience, paying more doesn’t guarantee a bobble-free experience. While I knew the most recent jumper I bought from H&M was going to look rubbish after a single wash, the same thing happened to pricier purchases too.

It’s also not just about whether it’s a natural or synthetic fabric – cotton and wool bobble too, though manmade fabrics do tend to suffer badly.

There are two main culprits when it comes to bobbling:

  1. Abrasion (either through daily wear, or rubbing up against other garments in the wash)
  2. When a garment is made of a mix of fabrics, pilling is worse

How can I avoid clothes bobbling?

Buy the right fabrics

When I take a look at the labels of my most-bobbled garments, the most common combination of fabrics is viscose and elastane, or polyester and spandex. These fabrics start out soft and stretchy, which gives them a comfortable and fitted feel. Unfortunately it’s that very combination that makes them so prone to pilling.

Wash gently

  • Hand wash. If it’s practical, or for your most precious garments, hand washing will reduce the friction your fabrics face.
  • Inside out. Another way to reduce the friction on the outer side of your clothes is to turn them inside out before washing.
  • Air dry. Tumble drying will only increase the amount your clothes rub together, so hanging things on a line or airer will help.
  • Short cycles, lighter loads. Reducing the time and force your clothes are in contact with each other should help too. Consider the fabrics you are washing together too – a delicate top won’t stand a chance against a denim jacket.
  • You can also try: a liquid detergent, rather than washing powder, and using fabric conditioner.

What can I do when my clothes are already bobbled?

For woollen jumpers I use a special comb from Brora to remove natural pilling. 

But as it doesn’t work on my viscose/bamboo items, I’ve just ordered a battery-powered fabric shaver, which claims to shear off the bobbling.

Check out my review of the fabric shaver in this post.

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