How to Unshrink Clothes—and Prevent Them from Shrinking in the First Place
All is not necessarily lost! Save your favorite sweater by learning how to unshrink clothes with these expert-recommended steps.
It happens to the best of us. You (or your well-intended family member) reaches into the laundry basket and unknowingly tosses your favorite sweater in the dryer on high heat, and it comes out a few sizes too small, short or totally misshapen. At some point in your laundering life—even for those who know how to do laundry the right way—it is inevitable that you will accidentally shrink a piece of clothing. But all is not necessarily lost! Experts say it’s possible to learn how to unshrink clothes … if you follow a few strategic steps.
We spoke to Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, Clorox’s in-house scientist and cleaning expert, to get the 411 on rescuing your favorite clothing and preventing this situation in the first place.
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Why do clothes shrink?
Before you learn how to unshrink clothes, it’s important to understand why they shrink in the first place. Provided you follow the instructions on the laundry care tag, a high-quality garment or fabric should maintain its original shape and good dimensional stability—meaning you should be able to wash and dry it without its size being impacted. However, there are a variety of reasons why a product might shrink.
The main issue is fiber type, says Gagliardi. Natural fabrics, such as cotton and linen, are more likely to shrink because of their moisture-absorption properties. Natural animal-hair fibers—think: wool and cashmere—absorb moisture too, but they also “felt,” a permanent interlocking of fibers that makes a clothing item appear smaller once wet, which can be mistaken for shrinking. “Aggressive agitation in warm or hot water of a wool item is all that’s needed to felt wool fibers,” she says. “Felting cannot be reversed, but it can be prevented by applying special finishes to wool fibers during garment production.”
How much tension yarn is under when the fabric is woven, knitted or processed and the overall quality of the clothing will also affect whether an item is more prone to shrinkage. In general, higher-quality manufacturers use special finishes and production techniques to prevent this from happening.
How can you prevent shrinking in the first place?
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With cotton items, lowering the wash temperature and air-drying will help prevent a garment from shrinking due to “relaxation.” Blue jeans and other heavy fabrics can be hung by the hems on pants hangers to line-dry; the weight of the damp fabric will naturally lengthen the legs. Less sturdy lightweight fabrics (think: sweaters) should lay flat to dry, since the weight of the wet item can cause shoulder seams to rip or stretch if they’re hung to dry.
Can all shrunken clothing be fixed?
Unfortunately, no. Whether or not an item can be saved depends on both the type of shrinkage and the type of fabric you’re dealing with. That’s because to bring back clothing to its original shape and reverse relaxation, you need to apply tension, and “this is easier to do with cotton fabrics,” Gagliardi says. “Think of the way the waist band on a pair of blue jeans fits tightly when you first put it on after washing, only to have it stretch out after a few minutes.” But for cotton clothing that doesn’t fit tightly (think: a T-shirt), you need to apply tension manually by pulling on the garment to unshrink it.
And now for the bad news: With merino wool, cashmere and other animal-hair fibers that haven’t been chemically treated or blended with a synthetic, shrinkage is the result of felting, says Gagliardi, and “reversing it is usually impossible because felting is a permanent physical change.”
How to unshrink clothes
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Gagliardi recommends following these steps to unshrink your clothes.
- Fill a sink or tub with lukewarm water.
- Soak your shrunken garment for up to 30 minutes to loosen fibers.
- Remove the item from the water, and gently squeeze the water from the clothing.
- Lay the item on a flat towel and roll it up, gently squeezing the wet item until it is damp.
- Lay the item on another dry flat towel, and gently stretch it back to its pre-shrunk size.
- Allow the item to air-dry.
Should you repeat the process if it doesn’t work the first time? No. “If you can’t gently pull a wet garment back to its original shape, trying again likely won’t yield success,” says Gagliardi. “This isn’t like stain removal, where repeating a treatment can get a stain all the way out.”
Can hair conditioner help to unshrink clothes?
A viral TikTok hack claims that a capful of hair conditioner can make this process even easier. While anecdotal evidence suggests this method works, Gagliardi doesn’t endorse it. The issue? You need to rinse away whatever you expose the garment to before stretching or reshaping, and that extra rinsing reintroduces the opportunity for shrinkage all over again. And no, you can’t just leave the conditioner on your clothing without rinsing it out, she says, because “cleaning products left on the fabric become dirt magnets.”
To get a little science-y, you really only need the water anyway, because “moisture from water is what’s needed to break the hydrogen bonds in the cotton and allow the fabric to be pulled back to its original shape, or at least close to it.” Translation: Save the conditioner for your hair!
Other tips to unshrink every type of fabric
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Every fabric has its own quirks when it comes to unshrinking. Here are the best strategies for different items when it comes to how to unshrink clothes.
Worried that you might shrink your favorite cotton sweater, even though you’re being super careful with it? Trace an outline of it on paper before you wash it. This will help you see if it shrank, and if it did, you can use the guide to help you reshape it to its original dimensions following the steps above. “Many sweaters need to be reshaped after washing—that means giving them a few gentle tugs (on the sleeves, across the body and along the length) to remove any shrinkage and get them back to their original shape,”‘ Gagliardi says. “Then you lay them flat to dry, as directed on the care label.”
It’s important not to wait until you dry a cotton sweater to assess it for shrinkage—by then, it may be too late. “You can always re-wet the sweater and try reshaping it, but you save time by doing this after washing and before drying,” Gagliardi adds. Note that if you have a sweater with a care label that says “tumble dry” and it shrinks, it was poorly made!
Learning how to unshrink wool can be simple. Wool knits that have not felted (which is permanent) can be gently stretched out if you softly tug the fabric while it is damp, Gagliardi says.
However, she notes that you should always prevent felting from occurring in the first place by following your wool garment’s care instructions. “If it says ‘dry clean only,’ then that’s your only choice for fabric care. If hand-washing is allowed, the sweater should be washed and rinsed in the same lukewarm water temperature,” she says. Additionally, agitation should be kept to an absolute minimum. “Instead of swishing or wringing the sweater, the cleaning solution should be gently squeezed through the fabric. Hot water, agitation, twisting and wringing all contribute to felting, so must be avoided.”
Cashmere, like sheep’s wool, has barbs on the surface of the individual fibers. “When agitated too much during washing, the barbs lock together, causing felting shrinkage, which is permanent,” Gagliardi says.
However, if a cashmere sweater has relaxation shrinkage, it can gently be pulled back to its original shape while it is wet before you lay it flat to dry. If it has felted, the shrinkage will be permanent. Again, make sure you know the specific rules of washing cashmere before attempting to launder your item.
What materials don’t shrink?
Polyester and other synthetics are not prone to shrinkage. “Polyester fabrics are less likely to shrink because the fibers themselves are hydrophobic and don’t change morphologically when in water (unlike natural fibers),” explains Gagliardi. The same is true of some machine-washable wools, which are blends that utilize a small percentage of polyester or acrylic to stabilize the wool and prevent shrinkage.
However, these fabrics can experience relaxation shrinkage, especially if they’re not properly made. Washing heat-set synthetics in water that is hotter than the temperature used in the heat-setting process can cause shrinkage that’s irreversible. That’s why following care labels—including water-temperature directions—is so essential.
You’ll also have better luck at avoiding shrinkage with garments whose production includes a preshrinking step (which is really just prewashing). That’s because “most shrinkage occurs the first time an item is washed,” Gagliardi explains. Already washed means already shrunken!
About the expert
- Mary Gagliardi, aka Dr. Laundry, is the in-house scientist and cleaning expert at Clorox.