How to Shrink Clothes the Right Way

Here's how to shrink cotton, denim, and polyester for clothes that fit closer to the way you want them.

The majority of the time, the art of doing laundry involves avoiding any potential shrinkage of clothing—shrinking laundry is, after all, one of the most common laundry mistakes. But occasionally, there are exceptions when making your clothes smaller is exactly what you want to do. Say you accidentally purchased an oversized item or you snagged the last top of your dreams on sale—but it happens to be a size or two too big. Or perhaps you recently lost some weight, and don’t exactly want to invest in a whole new wardrobe. Here are the best laundry detergents to use, in case you are on the hunt.

However, before you attempt to shrink your clothes, understanding the process of why and how clothes shrink in the first place is essential—or you may accidentally shrink your favorite t-shirt down to doll size, ruin the cozy texture of your sweater, or end up with an item that fits strangely.

We spoke to one of the nation’s top laundering experts, Mary Gagliardi, aka “Dr. Laundry,” Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert, to find out everything there is to know about how to shrink clothes.

Why do clothes shrink?

Fiber type

Fiber type has a big impact on potential shrinkage, according to Gagliardi. Fibers that easily absorb moisture—such as cotton and wool—are more prone to shrinkage. Synthetics, on the other hand, are hydrophobic and much less prone to shrinkage.

Tension

Another factor that can contribute to shrinkage is how much tension a yarn is under when a fabric is woven or knitted. “Yarns that are stretched tight during fabric construction will reduce in size once they get wet unless a finish is applied to prevent this,” she explains.

Additionally, how much tension fabric is under when it is processed will contribute to shrinkage. “As with yarn, fabric that was held under tension during production will relax when it gets wet, in a process known as relaxation shrinkage,” Gagliardi says. Like with yarn, a finish can be applied during fabric production to reduce the impact. “In general, if a garment is going to have any relaxation shrinkage, you will see most of it the first time the garment is washed.”

Quality of clothing

The higher the quality of clothing, the less likely it is to shrink. “Special finishes and production techniques that prevent shrinkage are often used by better quality manufacturers because most people don’t want their clothing to shrink,” Gagliardi points out. “They want to be able to wash it and wear it again and again and have it look the same as when they bought it.”

How to shrink clothes

Regardless of the type of garment—shirts, cotton, hoodies, and pants/jeans—or fabric, from rayon to 100 percent cotton, the most common process for potentially shrinking clothes is to machine wash them with hot water and machine dry them with high heat.

“Hotter water and higher dryer heat will increase the rate of shrinkage for any item that hasn’t been treated to prevent shrinkage,” Gagliardi explains—that’s just one reason it’s important to use the best water temperature. However, she points out that while a higher dryer temperature may shrink your clothes, it may also contribute to fading and can damage the surface of the fabric, usually in the form of pillage.

Unfortunately, when it comes to shrinking clothes on purpose, you aren’t always going to succeed. For example, if you buy a pair of pants and are hoping to knock them down a size all around, they may end up distorted. While you may be able to shorten them and reduce the waistline by washing and drying them in hot temps, their width might not change at all. This is because filling yarns, which run the width of the fabric, are much less prone to shrinkage than warp yarns, which run the length of the fabric, Gagliardi explains. “Clothing shrinks in the length and waist because these pieces are usually cut along the length of the fabric,” she says.

How to shrink cotton

Cotton is the machine washable fiber most likely to shrink using the standard shrinking process of washing in a hot water cycle followed by a high heat cycle in the dryer. “However, finishes applied during production can limit shrinkage,” Gagliardi says. “The best you can do is try to take advantage of relaxation shrinkage—cotton fibers and yarns experience some when they get wet—but even this has its limits,” she notes.

Relaxation shrinkage is usually reversed (Think: pants that are tight in the waist when you first put them on after they have been washed that loosen up a bit after a few minutes) when tension is reintroduced). “The tension is the stretching of the waistline to fit. The pattern pieces for the waistband and the pant legs are cut in the warp direction (the length of the fabric), which tends to relax more than the filling direction (the width) so while some clothes become shorter with machine washing and drying, they don’t become narrower,” she explains.

Close-Up Of Silk And Cloth In Basket Against White WallWerayuth Tessrimuang/Getty Images

How to shrink denim

If a denim item is going to shrink, machine washing and drying is how you would do it. “But not all denim reliably shrinks in more than the width,” she reminds.

There is one exception: Levi’s Shrink-To-Fit 501 Jeans, which are intentionally designed to change dimensions with washing. “The production steps that would normally prevent or limit shrinkage are omitted, so these jeans will absolutely shrink. But even these jeans, if you buy them bigger than the bigger size recommended, won’t shrink more than they are intended to,” she says.

How to shrink polyester

Synthetic fibers like polyester are much less prone to shrinkage because synthetics, unlike cotton, don’t “relax” the same way. “Machine washing and drying could cause some shrinkage in the length,” Gagliardi says, but it’s not possible to make an item shrink a full size.

How to shrink wool or cashmere

Wool (which generically refers to most animal hair fibers, most commonly sheep) and cashmere (a specific type of animal hair) will felt when washed at high wash temperatures and with lots of agitation. “Felting is a physical phenomenon,” Gagliardi explains. Each hair fiber has scales that act like barbs on the exterior of the hair, and these barbs interlock the fibers under agitation. “So when a wool sweater that has not been treated to prevent this is machine washed and dried, it looks noticeably smaller. But it hasn’t shrunk, it has felted.” And, felting is permanent. “You cannot unlock the fibers once they lock together, and the overall appearance is different—the garment doesn’t just get smaller, the surface is matted and the fabric loses its stretch.” Worse, you may inadvertently make it too small, Gagliardi says. “Attempting to shrink wool or cashmere is not a good strategy, no matter how deeply discounted the sweater was!”

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Leah Groth
Leah is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, mother and product junkie. Her obsessions include old houses, home design, fashion, beauty, books and anything that makes her life — which includes working full-time and taking care of two "spirited" children and a Vizsla puppy — a little bit easier. Her work has appeared on a variety of publications and websites, including Glamour, Prevention, Business Insider, Livestrong, Mindbodygreen, Fatherly, Scary Mommy, Wonderwall and Cosmopolitan.