Why Do Some Clothes Shrink When Washed?

Why Do Some Clothes Shrink When Washed?
Why Do Some Clothes Shrink When Washed?

Experiencing the disappointment of having a favorite piece of clothing shrink after washing is a familiar predicament. Diligently adhering to the care and washing instructions on garment labels is both time-consuming and requires meticulous attention. A deeper comprehension of the types of textiles and their chemical properties, alongside an understanding of how these materials react with water, can empower us to better maintain the desired size and integrity of our clothing.

Fabric fibers are commonly categorized into three primary types: synthetic, plant-based, and animal-based. The vast majority of clothing items are crafted using these fibers either in their pure form or by blending them together. The way these fibers respond to different cleaning methods can largely be attributed to their unique chemical structures.

Synthetic fibers, for instance, are composed of long chains of polymerized monomers, typically originating from petrochemical sources. Materials like polyester and nylon fall into this category and are characterized by their hydrophobic nature, which essentially means they tend to repel water rather than absorb it. Consequently, garments made from synthetic fibers are less likely to undergo size changes when laundered, as their molecular structure doesn’t facilitate significant interaction with water.

Plant-based materials, including popular fabrics like cotton and linen, are distinguished by their cellulose polymer content. This polymer consists of glucose monomers linked in a chain formation. Within the structure of these textiles, the cellulose fibers exhibit a hydrophilic nature, meaning they naturally draw in water molecules. This characteristic allows fabrics such as cotton to effectively absorb water during the laundering process and then evaporate it during the drying phase, ensuring the materials are cleaned without enduring any lasting damage.

Unfortunately, exposing these fibers to high temperatures during washing and drying can alter their structural integrity, leading to a reduction in fabric size. To mitigate this issue, many manufacturers pre-emptively employ techniques to preshrink plant-based fibers during the production process. This proactive approach aims to ensure that garments maintain their shape and size after home laundering, providing consumers with a more reliable and consistent clothing experience.

Animal-based textiles, like wool and silk, derive from proteins with complex molecular structures that exhibit dual water interaction properties. These materials feature fibers with unique anatomies; they have a core that attracts water (hydrophilic) and an exterior that repels it (hydrophobic). Under light moisture conditions, such as a drizzle, the outer layer effectively shields the fabric, preventing significant water absorption. These properties offer practical benefits, keeping the wearer relatively dry.

Nevertheless, during laundering, when the fibers are submerged and saturated with water, the scenario changes dramatically. Water molecules penetrate the hydrophilic core of each fiber, leading to swelling in the interior. To adjust to this internal expansion, the fibers contract or shorten in length, particularly noticeable once the garment is air-dried. This contraction is the primary reason garments made from animal proteins can significantly reduce in size with washing.

Specifically, wool items may take an extended time to dry because of the considerable quantity of water the fibers’ interiors retain. The drying process, driven by evaporation, solidifies the fibers’ contracted state, culminating in the overall shrinkage of the fabric. This understanding highlights the need for specialized care when laundering these delicate materials to preserve their original dimensions and appearance.

To ensure the longevity and preserve the original fit of garments vulnerable to shrinkage, adhering to the manufacturer’s suggested care instructions is of paramount importance. These recommendations are tailored to the specific fabric type and are designed to mitigate the risk of shrinkage. For fabrics particularly susceptible to water-induced shrinkage, opting for dry cleaning presents an effective alternative. This method employs specialized chemical solvents, which unlike water, do not cause the fibers to swell and contract.

By choosing dry cleaning, garments made from sensitive materials like wool and silk can be cleaned thoroughly while maintaining their size and shape integrity. It’s a precautionary measure that, while potentially more costly, safeguards the garment’s aesthetic and structural properties, ensuring it remains a cherished part of your wardrobe for years to come.

Can You Unshrink Clothes?

Unshrinking clothes is a common concern among those who have experienced the dismay of finding their garments reduced in size after laundering. While not all shrinkage can be entirely reversed, there are methods that can relax the fibers and return some of the lost dimensions to fabrics, especially those made from plant-based and animal-based materials.

A popular technique involves soaking the shrunken garment in a solution of lukewarm water and a small amount of gentle conditioner or baby shampoo. This mixture can help loosen the fiber bonds, allowing them to stretch back closer to their original state. After soaking for a specified period, typically around 30 minutes, gently stretching the fabric while it is damp and then laying it out to air dry can further aid in regaining some of its lost size. This process may not always restore the garment to its original dimensions, but it can significantly alleviate the effects of shrinkage, making the clothing item wearable once again.

How do you prevent clothes from shrinking?

Why Do Some Clothes Shrink When Washed?
Why Do Some Clothes Shrink When Washed?

Preventing clothes from shrinking begins with understanding the fabric’s specific care requirements and adhering closely to the laundering instructions provided by the manufacturer. Always check the garment’s label before washing; some clothes may require cold water, gentle cycles, or even hand washing to avoid shrinkage. For high-risk items, especially those made from animal-based textiles like wool or silk, consider professional dry cleaning to sidestep the issue entirely.

Additionally, reducing the heat during both washing and drying phases plays a crucial role. High temperatures are the common culprit behind fabric shrinkage, so opting for cooler wash settings and air drying or using a low-heat dryer setting can significantly reduce the risk. Finally, for plant-based fibers such as cotton and linen, selecting pre-shrunk or shrink-resistant varieties offered by many manufacturers can provide an added layer of protection against size reduction, ensuring your garments maintain their shape and fit over time.

Ali Kaya


Ali Kaya

This is Ali. Bespectacled and mustachioed father, math blogger, and soccer player. I also do consult for global math and science startups.