Fighting Fuzz Balls: How To Breathe New Life Into Old (and Fuzzy) Sweaters

tools of the sweater de-fuzzing tradeNothing says, "I-threw-this on-and-hoped-I-wouldn't-run-in-to-anyone-I-know" more effectively than a sweater covered in fuzz balls. Unfortunately it can happen to the best of them.

After getting a great deal on a cardigan at usually-pricey Anthropologie's after-Christmas sale, it began "pilling" or breaking out in fuzz balls, almost immediately. It was devastating -- in a fashion sort of way -- and so began a personal quest to fight fuzz, frumpy looking sweaters and financial waste.

Caused by friction, and short fibers breaking apart within the yarn, "pilling" is the equivalent of knitwear hives, or being visited by the ugly fairy. Poof. There goes a cute sweater, not to mention the clothing budget.

To save money and restore my newly-beloved cardigan to its "tags-on" glory, I decided to consult the experts. WWMD? (What Would Martha Do?) And could Heloise really help?America's leading homemakers and their Internet contemporaries did not disappoint. According to a vintage post by Martha Stewart, all you need in the fight against fuzz is a fine tooth comb. She suggested laying the sweater on a table and gently moving the comb through the pills, flat against the knit surface, "being careful not to hook the sweater itself." Stewart said it will simply lift the pills away.

I gathered together a sampling of sweaters and found a comb. I began with a flat-knit cashmere sweater that had seen better days. Slowly and carefully I pulled the comb through the pilled area. It worked! Eureka!

Next, I tried the comb on the medium-weight, novelty knit of my new cardigan. It worked, but not as easily and the thought of snagging on the comb made me nervous. I didn't even try it on the bulkier, hand-knit sweater.

Time to ask Heloise. The Good Housekeeping veteran's weapon of choice: the humble emery board. Dutifully, I searched out an emery board and followed Heloise's directions. I stretched out the sweaters on a flat surface and brushed them from top to bottom with the nail file. Again, it worked like a dream on the flat knit cashmere. I used the fine-side of the emery board and tackled a pilled section on each of the sweaters in turn. It required a little patience, but the results were worth it. Yes! I may have stumbled onto a new hobby.

With the zeal of the newly-converted, I headed to the Internet for more advice. I found several techniques on eHow. The first suggested simply removing the larger pills by hand. Duh. However, once I tried it, I realized it not only provided a zen-like meditation, but was also effective in a "purist" sort of way. Is this what they mean by knit picking?

eHow also recommended duct tape, or strong adhesive tape, for getting rid of the "thickest and worst parts of the fuzz." I scouted out some wide, painter's tape and made big rings. After using it on all three sweaters, I can report it was the least effective technique. Although it served in eliminating some fuzz, it was no more powerful than a lint brush or roller. No cheap thrills here.

Moving right along, I was interested to see if using a razor as suggested by eHow would actually work. With the advent of quadruple mega-razors, the basic single-blade razor was not easy to find and I eventually had to settle on a twin blade. The article warned the more blades used, the greater the chance of "nicking" or accidentally damaging the sweater. Eeek.

Following directions, I flattened the first sweater on the table and gently swiped the blade in the direction of the knit rows. Although the post also mentioned I could wear the sweater while doing this, I can think of too many ways that might go wrong. I had a roommate once who tried to iron her collar while she was wearing the shirt ... but I digress.

The razor worked like a charm on both the flat knit cashmere and the medium weight knit. Since I was completely paranoid I would make holes in the fabric, I did not press down on the razor at all, but instead just swiped it in a hover-fashion over the pilled areas. Perhaps this is why the effort did not work on the bulkiest, fuzziest sweater.

It was time to bring in the big guns.

I had read about fabric shavers and the storm of opinions they provoke on the Internet and headed to Wal-Mart to find one for myself. After making several passes around the big box store, I found them (with the help of a sales associate) hiding on a bottom shelf near the clothespins and ironing boards. Sold! To the crazy lady in the fuzzy, pilling sweater for $5.47, two double AA batteries not included.

Upon returning home, with my new Evercare Fabric Shaver with STS System, or Safe Trim System for the uninitiated, I couldn't wait to get started.

Once again, I flattened the sweaters on the table, choosing yet another pilled area to attack and revved up the shaver. It made a metallic, buzzing sound. As prompted by the directions and without pressing down, I attempted to "glide the shaver lightly over the fabric". Hallelujah! The flat knit cashmere looked clean, fresh and dare I say, like new. It was love! But would it work on the heavier knits?

I noticed that as the shaver became increasingly filled with fuzz after several minutes of "gliding," the metallic buzz became labored and seemed to catch on the flat knit fabric. After switching it off, clearing the inner compartment and blade area I was able to resume the magic. I had to do this several times, but the results were remarkable.

Finally, with a little trepidation, I tried it on the medium weight knit and the bulky, hand knit sweaters. Again, success! After reading several reports of fabric shavers tearing holes in knits, I was concerned to put two of my favorite, albeit fuzzy, sweaters under the knife. As a result, I went very slowly, careful to glide not press down on the fabric and stop when the buzzing got sluggish. Totally worth the effort. You know that feeling when you've just cleaned and organized your closet and you want to just pull someone off the street and show them ... that's what it felt like. Virtuous!

Of course, there are those who counter that fabric shavers cut the fibers and weaken the fabric. Since this is possible, fabric shavers are not recommended for embroidered fabrics, antique textiles or delicate knits including silk, angora, mohair and even cashmere. Since my cashmere sweater no longer fit and needed a lot of de-fuzzing it did work for me, others however may want to consider a different technique, or test a small section first.

In addition, be sure to follow the instructions provided with the fabric shaver for best results.

Mission accomplished.

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