Remedies for ‘Pilling’ In Handcrafted Feltmaking

Brenda T. Weitzman

Felt is an environmentally responsible product to make because it bypasses the spinning and weaving processes of traditional fabrics processes, so felt costs less to produce, both in financial savings, as well as resource savings. Therefore, felt has a marketing potential for the clothing industry. Felt can be commercially made or handcrafted. Generally, commercial felt is rough and hard against the skin, thus not lending itself to commercial clothing uses. Additionally, many handcrafted felt items for sale in the marketplace are non-clothing items. Part of the reason for this phenomenon is that handcrafted felt can ‘pill’ significantly, thus detracting from the clothes’ overall artistic statement. This article addresses and resolves this problem which can in turn free fibre artists to address this wider artform. If pilling of handcrafted felt can be addressed and resolved, so that pilling does not occur, then fibre artists can feel more confidence when turning their skills to producing felt clothing. This article gives several options to address and resolve pilling in woollen clothing.

Many wool products ‘pill’. In fact, most tags that accompany woollen products addresses this very issue. Most tagging says ‘pill resistant’; few say ‘does not pill’. Labels of woollen products that do not address pilling at all leaves the consumer to wonder whether the product pills or not. It is a valid issue when dealing with woollen products. The issue becomes more intense when applied to clothing. Woollen clothing needs to have strategies in place that resists pilling.

Pilling is all about fibres of unequal weight not having enough support to stay where they were originally put Fibres lift and knot together and lie in a different position to the direction that were initially lying in when friction is present. If the fibres can be given equal strength, then the fibres can sit together and use each other to stay where they are put. One way of achieving this, is to rinse the fabric in a cornstarch rinse. Cornstarch – or cornflour – is a product used in cooking to thicken food. It is also used as starch for clothing. Before modern spraycans of starch came about, our mothers used to make up a mixture of cornflour and water, put it in a spray bottle, and spray the mixture onto clothing as they ironed clothing. One result of this process was that cottons felt more rigid to the touch.

When this same process is applied to woollen felt, the result is not the rigid touch of the cotton result, the result for wool is that the fabric seems smoother. This smooth feeling is not in opposition to the softness of handcrafted felt. The smoothness and softness are complimentary and the result is a fabric that is much more durable than non treated fabric. The ultimate test is that the fabric does not pill.

Another way to reduce pilling on woollen clothes is to coat the fibres with something else which acts as a barrier to pilling. This method isn’t as effective, but works to some extent. One barrier which was tried and worked well was hairspray. Hairspray is like a very thin paint that dries and hardens to a surface and has the effect of keeping the surface in place. If handcrafted felt, or other woollen fabrics that pill are sprayed with hairspray comparatively heavily, left to dry for a few minutes, then sprayed again and left to dry, there comes to be a barrier on the fibres that resists pilling.

If felt or other woollen fabric that pills is treated in both these ways before the cloth is worn and friction is applied to the cloth, then pilling is eliminated. This frees up textile artists who would otherwise use fabrics that pill in their art. These kinds of treatments are relatively easy and cheap to implement by consumers. It is hoped that this kind of innovation in handcrafted felt will see more handcrafted felt clothing in the marketplace. Handcrafted felt is a beautiful medium for wearable art, and resolving ongoing problems with maintaining the art’s original beauty is possible.

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