How to Unshrink Clothes To Fix a Laundry Mistake

Updated: Apr. 06, 2024

Yes, you really can do this! Our experts explain below.

Years ago, I had a beautiful cashmere sweater. It was soft and snuggly, and it kept me warm through multiple Minnesota winters. One day I forgot to keep it out of the laundry hamper. (I think you can see where this is going.) When I unloaded the dryer, it looked like it could fit a 10-year-old or my Labrador retriever. I didn’t know any children, and my dog doesn’t wear clothes, so I gave it to a tiny friend.

Did I need to get rid of it? Is it possible to “unshrink” clothes? Apparently, you can— at least according to laundry experts Patric Richardson, author and host of YouTube’s “The Laundry Evangelist,” and Matt Connelly, founder of I Hate Ironing, a network of premium on-demand laundry and dry cleaning specialists. My ruined sweater may have been too far gone, but shrinkage can be reversed in many fabrics.

Here’s how.

About the Experts

  • Matt Connelly is the founder and CEO of I Hate Ironing on-demand dry cleaning and laundry service.
  • Patric Richardson is the Laundry Evangelist and the author of “Laundry Love: Finding Joy in a Common Chore.”

What Causes Clothes To Shrink?

The two main causes of shrinkage can happen in the washer, dryer or both:

  • High temperature. Hot water shrinks your clothes more than cold. “Exposing fabrics to high heat causes natural fibers to contract and shrink,” Connelly says.
  • Agitation. Friction caused by your clothes bouncing around and rubbing against the other clothes and the sides of the washer and dryer weakens the fabric, causing the fibers to rearrange and contract.

How Much Does Cotton Shrink?

How much cotton shrinks depends on how it’s processed and the type of shrinkage.

Spinning and weaving cotton puts stress on cotton fibers. When that tension is released by the water and agitation in your washing machine, the fibers bunch up due to “relaxation shrinkage.” For woven cotton fabric, this can be up to 16%, according to textile experts at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT), so cotton clothing generally comes pre-shrunk. A typical pre-shrunk cotton dress shirt will shrink about 2%, according to Proper Cloth, a men’s clothing retailer.

In addition to relaxation, shrinkage happens when the individual fibers absorb water. “Cotton is naturally highly absorbent compared to other fabrics,” Connelly says, so it readily swells and contracts depending on the washing and drying conditions. (Cotton can absorb up to 27 times its weight in water.) The individual fibers swell in diameter, but you’ll notice it in the length of garments like jeans and dress shirt sleeves. Loose weaves will shrink more and faster than tightly woven garments.

Do Other Fabrics Shrink as Much as Cotton?

Yes. Remember my sweater? Wool can shrink to about 55% of its starting size after the first laundering, according to a 2019 review published in the Journal of Advanced Research. Connelly says wool fibers have overlapping scales that bind together with heat and agitation. In extreme cases, this can cause “felting,” where the scales actually lock together — tightly and permanently.

Connelly says silk also shrinks, as does linen. Basically, any natural fiber will shrink. Avoid leaving silk submerged in water, because “silk is a highly delicate material, and can either shrink or lose shape if kept in water for prolonged periods of time,” Connelly says, or dried in the high heat of your dryer. Linen shrinks, but “this is less likely to happen in comparison to wool, cotton or silk,” according to Connelly.

Does Hot Water Shrink Clothes?

Yes, hot water does shrink clothes. All-natural-fiber clothes are likely to shrink a little, but hot water, combined with the agitation of the washer, shrinks stuff more than cold. “High temperatures are the most usual reason for clothes shrinking,” Connelly says.

Richardson says shrinkage isn’t confined to the fabric. Imagine an old bath towel that’s been washed dozens of times. All that hot water washing and heated drying can leave it with a crinkly “bacon edge” over time. That’s not the cotton, which long ago relaxed into its normal size. It’s “because that polyester thread shrinks in a too-hot dryer or too-hot water,” Richardson says.

What Shrinks Most in the Dryer?

Wool shrinks the most, with cotton second. However, any natural fiber can shrink in the dryer, according to experts. Remember, it’s the friction, combined with the heat, that causes clothing to shrink. Use the no-heat setting, or avoid tumble drying completely, if you’re worried.

How Can You Prevent Clothes From Shrinking?

First, check the label. “The care label will tell you exactly how the clothes should be washed, what temperatures they can withstand, and what cleaning or drying techniques to follow — or avoid,” Connelly says. “If in doubt, for example, if your item doesn’t have the cleaning label attached anymore, choose the safe route and wash and dry on a cold and gentle cycle.”

Keep your dryer cycles low, especially for your delicates. “Another rule of thumb is to always take your clothes out of the dryer as soon as the cycle is finished to minimize the risk of shrinkage,” Connelly says. “If clothes are kept in the dryer while it’s still hot, that can lead to shrinking the fibers even after the cycle is finished.”

How to Unshrink Clothes

Richardson says this method of unshrinking clothes will work with natural-fiber garments, including jeans, sweaters, and shirts. You can do this anywhere, but weather dependent, Richardson says: “Take it out on the deck.” It’s going to be a wet, sloppy mess. If it’s too cold, or raining, lay out several towels on your counter to sop up the excess water.

  1. Fill up your sink or a bucket with hot tap water.
  2. Add two tablespoons of hair conditioner (olive oil works, too, according to Richardson, while Connelly prefers baby shampoo).
  3. Swirl to mix.
  4. Submerge the garment in the water and squeeze gently to distribute the oily mixture.
  5. Soak for several hours, or overnight. Lay out towels on your counter or outside.
  6. Remove from water in a big ball, and squeeze once gently without getting too much water out. Do not wring. “The water’s what’s holding the conditioner in the sweater,” Richardson says.
  7. Lay it flat on a towel, and “massage it back into place,” Richardson says. For wool or cotton sweaters, gently press and block the fabric back into shape. For jeans and t-shirts, it’s okay to tug a little harder.
  8. Allow to dry with the conditioner on the fabric.
  9. Hand wash the garment so you don’t shrink it again, Richardson says, and avoid the dryer.

If you’re worried about ruining delicate clothing further, Connelly says dry cleaners have special chemicals that can do this, too. “If and when in doubt, you can always opt for specialized help through your local dry cleaner, who would have the right chemicals and equipment to unshrink your clothes,” Connelly says.

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