Why Do Clothes Shrink?

By: Kayla Thorsey

There’s no single reason clothing shrinks, but the simplest answer may be as close as the label in your favorite top. It all depends on fabrics, washing methods, and drying temperatures.

Have you ever had a morning like this? You wake up early and decide you’re going to wear that long-sleeved Henley with embroidered jeans—it’s one of your favorite outfits. You begin to pull on your clothes only to discover your beloved Henley’s sleeves are now too short, and you’re having some trouble even buttoning your jeans—not to mention they’re a little tight in your thighs. Even though you may have eaten an extra slice of cake at your friend’s wedding last weekend, weight gain is not likely the reason you have to wriggle into your clothes. The culprit may be your washer and dryer—or your washing and drying habits.

You should feel good stepping into your favorite outfits. You won’t need to consider parting with them when you know the best practices for washing and drying your clothing.

Why Are My Clothes Shrinking?

Clothes can shrink for a number of reasons including drying temperatures and washing methods. And while washing methods do play a large role, drying temperatures are known to be the primary cause of shrinkage. High temperatures are useful for killing bacteria on fabrics, which is why dryers can get so hot. But excessive heat causes fiber tensions to release, which will change your garment’s size.

Tip: Set the heat lower than what’s recommended. Your clothes will thank you.

Get to know your fabrics so you can prevent shrinkage. You may want to evaluate both drying temperatures and washing methods the next time you start a load of laundry.

What Fabrics Shrink the Most?

Fabrics react in different ways to washing and drying methods. Just as a doctor treats each patient differently, so should you treat each type of fabric in your wardrobe. Natural fibers are more susceptible to shrinkage than synthetic fibers. The most common natural fibers in your wardrobe are cotton, linen, silk, and wool, so pay attention to tags.

How Does Cotton Shrink?

The shrinkage that occurs in cotton is known as relaxation shrinkage, a phenomenon that occurs after yarn and fabrics are put under pressure and/or tension during manufacturing. Cotton is especially vulnerable to relaxation shrinkage, which most commonly happens when fibers are exposed to damp climates and are left in water for long periods of time. Most cotton garments will shrink during the first wash, but usually only minimally. Here’s how best to prevent your cotton from shrinking:

  • Handwash your cotton garment or wash on a delicate cycle in cold water
  • Remove your garment from the washer as soon as possible
  • Air dry, or dry on low heat settings for 10-15 minutes and remove the garment

How Does Linen Shrink?

Linens are also affected by relaxation shrinkage. It’s best to keep your linens out of damp areas, and get them drying as soon as possible after you wash them. But here’s the catch: your linen clothing is more likely to shrink than your cotton clothing, so be cautious. Here’s what you can do to reduce the risk of shrinkage:

  • Wash linens in cold water on low spin settings
  • Line dry

What About Silk—Will That Shrink, Too?

Yes. Silk can be a tricky fabric to launder because there are so many variations, including chiffon, charmeuse, and taffeta, to name just a few. You may want to leave your silk clothes to the professionals—have your delicate silks dry cleaned so you don’t have to worry about them. In fact, you should always check the tags of any silk garment you own, as some silks should be only dry cleaned—not washed at home. If you’re up for the task, here’s a general rule of thumb to keep your silk from shrinking:

  • Use a mesh bag to protect your silks when washing them
  • Handwash your silk garments using lukewarm or cold water
  • Air dry

Why Does Wool Shrink?

Be careful when washing wool or any fabric made from animal fibers. Most modern laundry detergents contain protein molecules that work to break down any biological molecules. While these work great to get rid of grass stains or grease spots, the animal hair fibers in wool are themselves made of biological molecules. Therefore, detergents break down wool a bit more with each washing. Do your research to find wool-safe detergents and follow these washing guidelines:

  • Handwash in cold water
  • Never put wool in a dryer

Tip: Shampoo may be a useful alternative to most laundry detergents.

Will My Jeans Shrink in the Wash?

Yes, they will. Denim contains cotton fibers, so your jeans will shrink a bit as well. For that, you can thank relaxation shrinkage once more. Follow these rules to keep your jeans fitting beautifully:

  • Buy jeans that are slightly too big—they’ll still fit after you wash them
  • Wash in cold water
  • Dry on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, then remove jeans and allow to air dry

Once you get to know your materials better, you’ll get this anti-shrinkage thing down. Pay attention to your favorite outfit’s tags, and you’ll be wearing your clothing with comfort and ease for a long time to come.

2 thoughts on “Why Do Clothes Shrink?

  1. elizabeth moran

    Why does the same fabric shrink differently in different parts of the same item? For example, the legs on pajamas will shrink while the distance from the waist to the crotch seam gets longer. Or sweatshirts will get wider but shorter.

    Reply

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