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Do Clothes Shrink in the Washer or Dryer? Here’s The Truth!

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We’ve all been there. You take out your laundry, only to find your favorite, “lucky” shirt is now small enough to be worn by the ten-year-old version of you. When this happens it’s only natural to wonder, “do clothes shrink in the washer or dryer?” 

Clothes can shrink in both the washer and the dryer. In either case, the reason comes back to the way the clothes are rapidly heated. The source of that heat could come from the air in the dryer, excessively hot water in the washer, or a combination of both. 

If you’d like to have a better understanding of how and why your clothes shrink in the wash so you can use it to your advantage, we’ve got you covered. Below we will review the reasons why clothes can shrink in both the washer and the dryer, as well as how to avoid it. Of course, we’ll also fill you in on how to use it to your advantage if you actually want to shrink some clothing. 

Why Do Clothes Shrink in the Washer/Dryer 

There are a number of different factors that go into why your clothes “shrink” in the washer and dryer. It largely depends on the type of material you are cleaning. Still, most clothes that shrink in the wash do it for one of the following reasons: 

  • They are really returning to their natural size: Many fabrics like cotton are actually stretched during the manufacturing process. When heat and excess moisture is introduced to the fabric, it relaxes back into its natural size. With these it’s more like they’re returning to their normal size than actually shrinking.
  • Too rough a washing cycle can cause scales to tighten: With other types of fabric like wool, there are tiny scales in the fabric that can tighten up with a lot of heat and motion applied to them all at once. This will lead to a shrinking effect when you take the clothing out of the wash.    

Either way you slice it, the motion and the heat are the leading causes of clothing shrinking in the wash, even if the mechanism behind how different fabrics shrink varies. 

How Different Types of Fabric Shrink 

Technically, not every type of fabric that appears to shrink, is really shrinking. Some are going through a process called “felting,” while others are simply returning to their natural size. Of course, there are also those who are truly shrinking as well. 

Below we’ve listed some of the most common types of fabric that shrink in the wash, along with a description of how and why they shrink in the first place: 

  • Silk: This delicate material is unfortunately subject to shrinking if it isn’t cleaned properly. Excessive water and force from the spin/drying cycles causes the fibers in silk to get really tight. When the heat hits them however, they begin to shrink in on themselves. 
  • Cotton: Cotton is perhaps the most well known material that can shrink in the wash. When it’s in a spin cycle or simply drying in the dryer, the quick movement can stretch out the fibers. When excess heat from the water in the washer or air in the dryer hits the cotton it relieves this stretching and causes the fabric to shrink in on itself. 
  • Wool: When it comes to shrinking in the wash, wool is another notorious offender. In the case of wool, most of the shrinking is caused by too much hot, soapy water and motion making the scales of the fabric tighten up.  
  • Linen: Like silk, linen is a very fine material that can easily shrink when exposed to too much water and heat. In fact, most linens should be hand washed for the least amount of shrinking. Still, keep in mind that unless they have been pre-washed they are expected to shrink a little bit no matter what temperature water you use to clean them. 

Anytime you suspect your clothes are made from any of the materials above, it is vital that you double-check their specific instructions for cleaning. Even though you can get away with cleaning these improperly for a while, it will still wear on them over time and ultimately diminish their lifespan. For a longer lifespan, always keep what’s best for each material in mind. 

How Do I Keep My Clothes From Shrinking in the Washer?

There are several different steps you can take to ensure that your clothes will not shrink when you go to wash them. 

Below we’ve provided you with four rules of thumb to keep in mind if you want to prevent your clothes from shrinking in the washer: 

  • Always check the labels on your clothes before washing: The number one way to prevent your clothes from shrinking in the wash is to check their label before washing and make sure the settings on your washer and dryer are appropriate. 
  • When in doubt, use cold water: If you suspect something might shrink in the wash but the label is missing or obscured, you can play it safe by washing the clothes with cold water. This works because it’s usually the heat in the water and the air, during the washing and drying process, that causes the shrinking. 
  • Don’t use excessive water unless necessary: Some material like silk, will shrink after it has been exposed to excessive amounts of hot water. Make sure you are using the right amount of water for the material you’re cleaning.
  • Some items should be hand washed or brought to a dry cleaner: From silk to suit jackets, there are some items that should really just be hand washed or brought to a dry cleaner. This is another case where the label should indicate what any individual piece of clothing you have can withstand. 

Always remember how vital using the right amount of water can be. If you have a finer fabric like silk or linen, you will be better off hand washing them or bringing them to the dry cleaners. 

More on temperature for your laundry here.

How Do I Keep My Clothes From Shrinking in the Dryer?

Clothes can also shrink when they go through your dryer. Fortunately, if you just keep a few simple tips in mind you should be able to minimize the number of times this happens to your clothes. 

The following four tips will ensure you don’t accidentally shrink more clothes in your dryer:

  • Again, check the label: Some types of material are best left to air dry. Always make sure you check the label for any washing/drying instructions.
  • Do not use too much heat: Heat is your biggest enemy when it comes to shrinking clothes. Ensure that the heat setting on your dryer is appropriate for the type of material you are cleaning. 
  • Do not overdry items: Some material like cotton, can shrink if it is dried for too long. This is one of the benefits of washing and drying your cotton clothing separate from other types. A lot of modern dryers will simply have a setting specifically to prevent the overdrying of cotton. 
  • Know that some items really shouldn’t be dried in the dryer: Just as there are many types of clothing like bras and bathing suits that shouldn’t be put in the dryer, there are also specific materials as well. Most silk items, for example, should be air dried rather than machine dried. 

Many dryers nowadays are equipped with sensors to stop the drying process once all your clothes are dry. If yours doesn’t have that feature, however, you’ll want to make sure that you avoid shrinking by dividing up your laundry into groups–based on what is safe for each given material–before drying anything. 

Can You Unshrink Your Clothes? 

Information on what types of fabric shrink in the wash and why is good and all, but it’s not much use if your clothes have already shrunk. One naturally must wonder if it’s possible to unshrink your clothes after you accidentally put them through the wrong cleaning process. 

While not every piece of fabric can be perfectly unshrunk, many of them can be to a considerable degree. If you’d like to attempt to unshrink your clothing, the following sections will be your guide. 

Supplies You’ll Need to Unshrink Your Clothes

Before you get started, there are a few supplies you will want to have handy. Below we’ve listed all the supplies you will need to attempt unshrinking your clothes: 

  • Bath tub or large container: This is easiest to do in a bathtub or a large container where you can really fully immerse your clothes in water. You can also use a laundry room sink for this if you have one. 
  • Cleaning agent: You have a little wiggle room on what you choose to unshrink your clothes with. The most popular options include; laundry detergent for delicates, baby shampoo or hair conditioner. 
  • Lukewarm water: You will want to fill your tub or large container with lukewarm water. The temperature is important because it plays a big role in why the fibers relax and unshrink.
  • 2 large towels: The drying process is critical when unshrinking your clothes. If you just dry them in the dryer, you’ll just end up shrinking them. That’s why it’s good to have at least 2 large towels ready when you finish soaking the clothes.  

Once you have everything gathered together and set nearby for handy use, you’re ready to get started. 

Step By Step: How to Unshrink Clothes

So now we’re on to the main event. How exactly do you unshrink your clothes after they come out of the wash?

The following steps will likely have your clothes back to their original size in no time: 

  • Fill the tub with lukewarm water and add your cleaning agent: If you’re using a bathtub you can go ahead and fill it with lukewarm water. You just need to add one capful of whatever cleaning agent 
  • Soak the clothes you want to unshrink: Put whatever clothes you want to unshrink into the tub and let them soak for around 30 minutes. The warmth from the water should allow the fibers on the fabric to loosen up again, given enough time. 
  • Gently squeeze out your clothes and set them on a towel: When the 30 minutes is up, you can carefully remove your clothes, gently squeeze some of the excess water out of them and set them flat on a towel. 
  • Roll them up in the towel and squeeze them out some more: Next, you want to roll that towel up nice and tight around the clothing and gently squeeze to get out more of the excess water. When they’re reasonably dry, unroll them and set them on your other towel lying flat on a surface. 
  • Stretch the clothes to how big you want them to be: Carefully stretch out the  clothes on the second towel and let them lie in that position until they finish drying. When they’re done drying they should be close to or completely back to their previous size. 

If you’re unshrinking multiple loads of garments, just repeat this process over and over again. If you’re going through a lot of clothes you may want to double-check that the water is still lukewarm when you get to the later ones. 

So Really, Do Clothes Shrink in the Washer or Dryer?

Clothes can shrink in both the washer and the dryer. Depending on the material shrinking can occur due to excessive water, too much heat, and rapid movement during spin and drying cycles. Some materials are truly shrinking, like in the case of cotton or silk, while others are just returning to their natural size, like wool. 

To ensure you never accidentally shrink your clothes, always double-check how the tag recommends you wash them. If you have anything made from silk, cotton, linen, or wool, you’ll likely need to take extra steps to clean it if you don’t want it to shrink. Fortunately, if you have shrunk your clothes, you can follow our guide above to unshrink them!

You can learn how to avoid stretching your clothes on hangers next or learn about doing laundry at night here.

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