What Is Pilling on Sheets?

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Your new sheets are soft, comfortable and seem very strong. You have been caring for them just like the label stated you should, and they were far from inexpensive to buy.

But now they seem to be developing fuzzy bumps that are spoiling both the look and feel of your new bedsheets. What’s happening? Can you fix the problem?

These, and other questions, are what we are going to be taking a closer look at here.

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What is Pilling?

Those small, hard balls of lint that accumulate on the surface of materials, such as sheets, are usually referred to as “pills,” and the action that creates them is known as “pilling.”

Pilling on Sheets

The chances are good that if you look, you’ll find these pills on many of the other fabrics in your home that are washed often, including your clothes, your towels, your socks and more. And piling has very little to do with the quality or durability of the fabric, but rather the way it is cared for.

Pilling is quite simply the result of tiny loose threads and fibers in the fabric loosening and then forming minute balls that are perfectly harmless but might spoil its look and can be a little rough to the touch.

It’s friction that is the culprit here. Piling is caused by the friction created by things rubbing up against it, whether that means your skin as you sleep on your sheets, and move around in your sleep, as well as the agitation action of your washing machine when they are laundered.

To a certain extent, most fabrics will pill over time, and, the good news is that much of the pilling can be removed from your sheets (more on that in a moment). There are also some steps you can take to minimize its occurrence at all. 

What Bed Sheet Fabrics Tend To Pill?

A modern light bedroom, pink and white tencel lyocell bed linen, white headboard

As we mentioned, almost all fabrics will pill to a certain extent over time if they are exposed to friction. As you sleep on your sheets every night, bedsheets and other bedding might pill faster and in larger visible amounts than other homegoods made using similar fabrics.

The fact that to be clean and comfortable to sleep on, sheets need to be washed regularly does not always help matters either. But there are some sheet fabrics that are less likely to visibly pill than others.

You’ll notice that natural fabrics lose stray fibers more readily than synthetic ones. Loose fibers are anchored to the fabric because man-made materials are very robust and tightly woven.

The loose fibers can easily escape from the cloth without pilling since natural fabrics are not as tightly woven. Man-made textiles are meant to last and perform well, yet they are more likely to produce pills than natural textiles.

This means that high quality 100% cotton sheets are less likely to pill as much as microfiber or polyester. We mention the ‘100%’ as lots of sheets are made using a combination of materials, some of which may pill more than others.

For example, bamboo sheets are popular in the bedding world at the moment, and for some good reasons. Bamboo fabric is naturally cool, soft and strong and bamboo sheets boast many of the same great properties as cotton sheets do, but 100% bamboo sheets are hard to find, and often a ‘bamboo’ sheet is a combination of bamboo and a man-made material like polyester, which will pill faster.

How To Fix Pilling on Sheets

If your sheets have pilling, it can be removed, and the process of doing so is easier than you might think. 

If your sheets have pilled up to the point where the pills make a visible difference, fabric shaving is the fastest and more efficient way to deal with the pilling. You literally shave those pesky excess fibers, and the little balls they have created, off, leaving a smoother fabric behind.

We have seen some advice online suggesting that you do this with a standard razor, the same razor type as used to shave your face or legs. We do not recommend this.

While it might work, you are likely to end up cutting the sheet, cutting your fingers or both. And both of those outcomes are worse than even heavy piling!

Conair Fabric Shaver and Lint Remover, Battery Operated Portable Fabric Shaver, White

See on Amazon

Instead, you should buy an inexpensive fabric shaver, like the one shown above.

These look almost like a simple electric shaver, and will remove the piling from your sheets quickly and easily without damaging them, or you. As this small gadget can also be used to remove pilling from your clothes and a lot of other household fabrics too, they really are a good buy!

You may need to ‘shave’ your sheets a number of times over the course of their useful life, which is one of the (many) reasons investing in a natural fabric sheet – like 100% cotton – can be a better investment from the start, even if they are far from the cheapest choice at the point of purchase.

How to Prevent Pilling on Sheets?

A laundry basket with white sheets

While almost every fabric will pill, there are some things you can do to minimize pilling, other than choose a different fabric from the outset. Here is a look at some of the most effective.

Use a Gentler Detergent

Washing detergent is designed to get your sheets clean, but some popular choices include extra cleaning agents – like bleach or an oxygen bleach alternative- that can weaken fibers and lead to faster piling.

Choosing a detergent designed to be gentler on fabrics, like a baby detergent, or even a lingerie soap, can limit that effect and help to prevent excess piling.

Wash Your Sheets By Hand

Yes, washing your sheets by hand can be a pain, but the agitating action of a washing machine is one of the biggest causes of piling. For twenty minutes or more, at least a couple of times a month, your sheets rub against, and are pulled by, metal tines, so lots of friction occurs, leading to more pilling. Handwashing prevents this, and, if you have a bathtub, is not as labor-intensive as you might think.

Use an All Natural Dryer Ball

The chances are that when you dry your sheets in your tumble dryer, you toss in a handful of dryer sheets before switching the machine on, to scent and soften them. If you want to prevent piling, it’s a habit to break now.

Dryer balls, especially those made using wool like these, not only soften sheets just as well without lots of extra chemicals, but they also actively remove loose fibers and pilling, so that the time you have to spend ‘shaving’ your sheets is significantly reduced.

Next Read: What Sheet Material Is the Softest?