Below, learn why clothes shrink in the first place (hint: it’s not for the reason you may think), instructions on how to unshrink different types of fabrics, and tips on how to care for your clothes properly, so the nightmare of the shrunken duds never happens again.
Why clothes shrink
One of the most common reasons clothes shrink is because you let left it too long in the dryer, but the actual shrinking process is probably not happening for the reason you think. “Heat does not affect the shrinkage,” says P&G senior scientist and fabric care expert Laura Goodman. “It’s actually the tumbling action that causes the fibers and yarns to come closer together.”
Clothes that are more prone to shrinking include cotton and knit fabrics (think: t-shirts and sweaters), but Goodman says they also have more elasticity, so it’s easier for them to spring back to their former size.
It’s also worth noting that clothes that are likely to shrink will do so in increments. The majority of the shrinkage, Goodman says, happens the first one to three times you wash it. However, it can take five to 10 cycles before it reaches maximum shrinkage.
How to unshrink cotton
To return your favorite cotton article of clothing to its former glory, Max Appel, cleaning expert and founder of OxiClean, Orange Glo, Kaboom, and Powerizer Complete, says to first fill up a sink or tub with lukewarm water and one tablespoon of either fabric softener, delicate detergent, or shampoo—making sure the product completely dissolves.
Next, place your garment in the water and let it soak for up to 30 minutes, before lightly stretching it. “Cotton is a very forgiving fabric,” Appel says, but you still want to ensure you’re pulling it gently and evenly, so it maintains its shape. Then rinse it out with cold water.
“Warm water allows the fabrics to soften so that they can be stretched,” Appel says. “The cold water adheres to the new structure which prevents damage and discoloration during the rinsing process.”
To remove water from the item without further damaging the fabric, Appel suggests placing the garment on a towel and rolling them together, so the towel absorbs the water. Lastly, unroll the towel and leave the garment flat to air dry.
How to unshrink denim
Can’t fit into your favorite baby blues anymore? Appel recommends spraying the denim with lukewarm water using a spray bottle. Then use a cloth to pat it down and tug on the ends to stretch it out. Hang them upside down from the legs to air dry. “If they are still tight or too small, put them on, and spray them with water,” he says. “Squat and bend at the knees to stretch them to your liking.”
How to unshrink wool
The steps for unshrinking a wool garment are pretty similar to those of cotton. Fill up your sink with warm water and pour in 1/3 cup of fabric softener or hair conditioner and let it soak for 10 to 15 minutes.
“Reshaping the garment may be needed to get it back to the original size,” Appel says. “Once you are comfortable with the size, drain the water and rinse the item in cold water. Press the garment by removing as much water as possible, but do not wring it out. Lay the garment flat between two microfiber cloths or towels to absorb the excess water. Then, let it air dry.”
How to unshrink cashmere
If your cashmere sweater is fitting a little too snug, follow the same process as with unshrinking cotton. The difference, Appel says, is to let it soak longer for about 30 minutes to an hour and give it a light stretch while doing so. Follow that with a cold water rinse. Then roll the garment in a towel to remove excess water and let it air dry.
How to unshrink synthetic fibers
With pieces made of synthetic fibers, it’s the same kind of drill. However, Appel says, since synthetic fibers are a more sensitive material, only soak the item for 15 minutes while periodically lifting it out of the water.
“The weight of the water will help stretch the material,” he says. You can give the ends a little tug too, but do not wring it out. Instead, rinse with cold water and use the same towel-drying method.
And lastly, keep in mind that some pieces may require repeating the process more than once. But if you’re in a time pinch and need to run out the door, Appel suggests spritzing the clothing item with water and pulling on the corners to stretch it a bit.
How to prevent shrinkage and care for clothes properly
Check the label
The labels on your clothes aren’t just there to make you itchy. They have all the details you need to learn what the clothing item is made out of and how to wash it best to prevent damage and shrinkage. So check your labels, people.
Wash on the gentle cycle with cold water
To get your clothes clean while minimizing shrinkage, Goodman recommends separating your darks from lights and delicate fabrics from more durable garments, then washing them separately on the gentlest cycle possible with cold water. The cold water is especially beneficial when you are washing dark clothes to avoid shrinking, fading, and bleeding of dyes. Plus, cold water saves energy, too.
Use fabric conditioner
Garment fibers, which are similar to hair fibers, can become damaged over time due to rubbing against other clothes in the wash and heat from the dryer. That’s why Goodman suggests adding a fabric conditioner to your rinse cycle to help smooth out the fabric fibers and prevent friction, which can stretch and fade your clothes.
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