Have you ever tried to squeeze into a too-small shirt and found yourself wondering if you gained a few pounds because your shirt somehow shrunk in the wash? If you have experienced a similar accident, you’re probably wondering how to care for your favorite clothes. For example, does cotton shrink in the dryer or when washed?
Cotton fibers can shrink as much as 3% in the dryer or when washed. Spinning cotton into thread stretches the fibers tightly, and heat can release that tension, causing the fibers to contract slightly. However, many garment manufacturers prevent cotton shrinkage by preshrinking clothes, so not all cotton garments will shrink in the wash.
In this article, you’ll find out what makes cotton shrink. You’ll also learn how to best avoid shrinkage and how to shrink cotton on purpose!
What Causes Clothes to Shrink?
Heat and moisture can both cause clothing to shrink. Clothes made of natural plant-based fibers shrink when warm water or steamy air releases some tension in the individual threads. This happens because the process used to twist cotton fibers into yarns pulls the fibers taunt, and heat relaxes some of that tension, causing the fibers to contract.
Synthetic fabrics do not shrink as easily in the wash because their fibers are often heat-set during the manufacturing process. Natural fibers that can absorb water are most strongly impacted by the washer and dryer. These natural materials include cotton and silk.
Does 100% Cotton Shrink?
One hundred percent cotton can shrink if it is exposed to heat or moisture. As a natural, plant-based fiber, it is extremely absorbent and can stretch or shrink under the right conditions.
Cotton absorbs water easily, and this causes its fibers to expand. You can quite easily stretch cotton while it is wet because of this.
The flip side of this is that cotton contracts when exposed to heat because the tightly drawn fibers in its threads lose some of their tension and contact, making themselves shorter.
That said, 100% cotton will not always shrink in the washer or dryer. A lot of the retail clothing you might see at Kohls or a Target will not shrink when you throw it in the washer.
This is because many retail clothing manufacturers preshrink clothing before they sell it these days. This smart marketing move prevents angry customers from posting bad reviews about the garment!
You probably could shrink a preshrunk garment even further if you wanted to, though. Under the right conditions, 100% cotton can shrink more than once. For example, if you accidentally throw a t-shirt into a hot wash cycle on multiple occasions, it may shrink a bit more after each washing!
For tips on how to shrink cotton on purpose, keep reading! Alternatively, if you want to learn how to avoid shrinking your clothes in the wash, scroll down to the section on how to prevent cotton from shrinking.
How Much Will 100% Cotton Shrink?
Pre-shrunk 100% cotton can shrink up to 3% in a hot washing machine cycle, and untreated cotton may shrink as much as 20% when exposed to high heat. Other factors like the style of the garment and the tightness or looseness of the weave can also impact shrinkage.
Generally speaking, the first time you wash a cotton item is the most dangerous. The heat, moisture, and friction of the rotating washing machine can all combine to release some of the pent-up tension in the cotton fibers, all of which may cause your garment to get slightly smaller.
Your garment will be less likely to shrink the second time you wash it, though you should still avoid hot water or a high-heat dryer setting. Even pre-shrunk cotton can continue to contract depending on the amount of heat it is exposed to and the style of its weave.
What does the weave have to do with anything? Well, loosely woven fabrics can more easily contract, stretch, or warp than tightly woven fabrics. Moisture and heat will both impact loosely woven cotton.
T-shirts often feature a special kind of structure called jersey knit. Instead of the over-under thread pattern you see in woven material, this fabric is made in essentially the same way as a knitted scarf, with loops of thread drawn through each other.
Knit fabrics have a loose, stretchy quality that woven fabrics often lack. This makes your cotton t-shirt nice and supple, but it also leaves many air gaps that can allow this fabric to shrink badly. For this reason, you should always wash cotton t-shirts in cold water.
Does Cotton Shrink In the Wash?
Cotton can easily shrink in the wash. This happens because all the fibers wrenched tightly together during the weaving process relax in hot water or heat. The relaxation allows the fibers to snap back into their original shape and shorten.
Cotton washed in cold water probably won’t shrink at all. But cotton washed in hot water has a high chance of relaxed fibers that contact and reshape the garment. Blended materials like polycotton are less affected by hot water. However, 100% cotton is strongly affected by hot water or a high dryer setting.
If you wash cotton in hot water, it will most likely continue to shrink during each wash. It will shrink every time you wash it unless you take special precautions.
To wash a cotton garment without altering its size, stay away from heat. Use cool water and allow the garment to drip dry.
How Much Does Cotton Shrink After Washing?
Most cotton clothing comes preshrunk and will shrink less than 3% after washing, though untreated cotton may shrink up to 20% in hot water. The amount your clothes shrink in the wash also depends on other factors, like whether or not the material contains wrinkle-resistant coatings and the tight or loose weave of the fabric.
Today, most manufacturers sell preshrunk cotton garments that have already gone through a heating and friction process to prevent future shrinkage. You can check the care label inside your garment to find out if its manufacturers have preshrunk it. The description of a garment often includes the term “pre-shrunk” so you know upfront what you’re dealing with!
You may want to buy 100% cotton shirts a size bigger than usual, just in case. If you like perfectly fitted shirts, buy your normal size, but make sure you follow the correct care procedures for washing and drying.
Does Cotton Shrink Every Time You Wash It?
Cotton can shrink every time you wash it if you expose it to hot water or high dryer heat settings. Usually, cotton only shrinks dramatically the first time you wash it. Even then, you can avoid damaging your clothes by taking the proper precautions.
That said, cotton’s natural absorbency does mean it remains prone to shrinking forever. Buying pre-shrunk garments and taking care when washing your clothes can help prevent additional shrinkage.
Do Cotton Blends Shrink in the Wash?
Some cotton blends shrink much less than 100% cotton, while others shrink even more in the washer and dryer! It all depends on the kind of fibers blended. Let’s take a quick look at a couple of the most popular blends.
Poly-Cotton, often called 50/50, resists shrinking because it is composed of fifty percent polyester fibers. As a synthetic fabric, polyester does not shrink easily. Likewise, a garment made of 60% cotton and 40% polyester will not shrink easily, even in a hot water wash.
Triblend mixes three types of fibers, usually cotton, polyester, and rayon. Clothing made of a tri-blend fabric may shrink slightly, but the polyester will prevent much shrinkage.
Watch out for a cotton-rayon blend, though! This blend tends to shrink even more dramatically than 100% cotton when exposed to high heat.
How to Wash 100% Cotton Items Properly
The key to washing 100% cotton items properly is to wash them in cold water and air dry. You should set your washing machine to delicate, or even wash the cotton items by hand if you can.
You should always read the care label inside each garment. Some items may require dry cleaning. In general, though, you can avoid shrinking a 100% cotton item by washing it in cold water and letting it drip-dry.
Does Cotton Shrink in the Dryer?
The heat and friction inside a dryer can cause cotton to shrink dramatically. Preshrunk cotton will not have as strong a reaction, but in general, you should keep all-cotton garments away from high heat. The abrupt temperature change and rapid drying process inside a dryer can cause cotton to shrink a lot more than just washing the material in hot water!
It’s tricky to say exactly how much something like a cotton shirt could shrink in the dryer. A shirt made of preshrunk cotton shouldn’t get that much smaller, but you can expect at least a little shrinkage, probably up to 3%.
That said, your shirt may not shrink at all the next time you place it in the dryer. Cotton clothes often shrink the most the first time you wash and dry them, especially fabric that is preshrunk or treated to prevent wrinkling. Untreated cotton should never go in the dryer at all!
Cotton fibers will begin to relax at any temperature over 85℉. If you love the ease of throwing your laundry in the dryer, consider ending the cycle a little early and hanging up your slightly damp clothing to finish the last leg of its drying process in the open air.
The heat in the dryer impacts cotton so strongly that it can shrink your clothes even if you put them in the dryer while dry!
Cotton blends react in different ways to the dryer. Any blend that contains a decent percentage of polyester tends to handle the dryer quite well, without much shrinking at all. Blends with a higher percentage of cotton, such as a 95% cotton blend, will exhibit the characteristics of cotton and will likely shrink under high heat.
Then you have your different types of cotton, such as Pima cotton. Pima cotton has extra-long fibers. It’s famous for its super-soft feel and is quite expensive.
Unfortunately, it shrinks just like regular cotton on the first wash. Most manufacturers recommend either air drying it or setting your dryer to a low heat setting.
How to Shrink a Cotton Shirt, Jeans, Pants
You’re in luck if you want to shrink your clothes because shrinking a cotton shirt, jeans, or even pants is quite easy! The fact of the matter is that most of your clothes shrink a bit over time. Multiple washings cause the fibers in the fabric to relax and ease back into their original shapes eventually.
If you want to speed up that gradual shrinking process to make a too-large garment fit you, take a quick look at two easy methods you can use to shrink cotton clothing.
Hot Water Method
The hot water shrinking method works consistently. That said, it doesn’t provide a lot of control. It will shrink cotton fibers indiscriminately and doesn’t allow you to shrink a specific part of a garment, like a sleeve or a collar.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Make sure the pot can easily hold your garment without any boiling water splashing over the sides!
- Turn off the heat on your stove. Use tongs to gently lower the garment into the still-boiling water.
- Leave the garment in hot water for up to twenty minutes. The longer you leave the garment in the water, the more it will shrink.
- Carry the pot full of water to your sink so you can safely lift the garment out without burning yourself. Allow the garment to cool slightly before touching it.
If you need even more shrinkage, you can place the garment in the dryer to shrink even more. If the boiling water did the trick, hang up the garment to air dry to avoid unwanted shrinkage.
Steam Iron Method
The steam iron method requires a bit of effort, but it allows you to focus on specific portions of a garment. For example, you can focus on just the sleeves or the bust of a shirt.
- Fill up your iron with water and set it to its hottest steam setting. (Alternatively, you can use a hand-held steamer for this step). Carefully hold the iron just over the surface of your garment and steam it thoroughly.
- Wet a pressing cloth or bed sheet. Lay it over your garment, selecting the area you want to shrink. For example, if you want to shrink the waistband of a pair of pants, lay the damp cloth over the waistband.
- Turn off the steam setting on your iron. Set the iron to a hot, dry setting to iron firmly over the damp cloth.
- Allow your garment to air dry to set in the altered shape. Please note that future washing and drying cycles could shrink the garment further, so be sure to use cold water wash only!
How to Unshrink Cotton
You can unshrink cotton in some circumstances by using one of the methods described here. It’s much easier to prevent shrinkage, to begin with, though, so be sure to read the next section on how to prevent cotton from shrinking!
Try one of these methods to unshrink your cotton clothes.
- Fill a washbasin with cool water. Make sure the basin can comfortably hold your garment. If you’re working on a large item like a dress or a pair of pants, you may need to fill your bathtub.
- Pour in two to three tablespoons of hair conditioner or baby shampoo. Swish it around a bit in the water.
- Add the garment. Allow it to soak in the water for five minutes if you only want to expand it a bit, or up to thirty minutes for a bulky or extremely shrunken garment.
- Rinse the garment in cool, running water until it no longer feels slippery from the conditioner.
- Lay your garment out on a flat surface such as a counter or table. Use something heavy, such as juice glasses or paperweights, to hold the garment stretched out as it dries.
The stretching method is exactly what it sounds like. Cotton stretches easily when wet, so you can use a bit of muscle to ease it into the shape you want! This method works extra-well to lengthen the sleeves on a shirt or widen the waistband on a pair of pants.
- Run the garment through a cold water cycle or use a spray bottle to thoroughly dampen the garment all over.
- Hold the opposite sides of the area you want to stretch, and pull! For example, take hold of both sides of the waistband on a pair of pants and pull in opposite directions.
- Stop periodically to make sure you aren’t stretching things out too much!
- Allow the garment to air dry to avoid shrinking it again in the dryer.
How to Prevent Cotton from Shrinking
The two best ways to prevent cotton from shrinking are to wash cotton garments in cold water and to follow the directions on the manufacturer’s label inside your clothing.
You might think doing the laundry is a tale as old as time, but many people still follow the familiar old wives’ tale laundry method of washing all the whites and all the darks together. Really what you should do is group certain kinds of fabrics together in the wash.
For example, most synthetic fabrics will not bleed dyes or shrink in a hot cycle. On the other side of the scale, cotton and other natural fabrics need a cold wash to avoid shrinking.
If you’re looking for a few easy steps to follow to ensure your cotton clothing remains the right size, check out this list!
- Read the care instructions on the label inside your garment. This will detail how to wash and dry the garment safely.
- Avoid warm or hot water. Unless the care label says otherwise, always wash cotton in a cold machine wash.
- Set your washing machine to a delicate cycle. This will lessen some of the tumbling around and friction that causes those cotton fibers to relax and shrink.
- If possible, air-dry your cotton clothing. If you like the softness of a garment dried in the dryer, try running it through a dryer cycle on low heat. Stop the dryer before it completes the cycle, and allow the garment to finish dying by hanging it up to air dry.
Cotton does shrink easily in the washer and dryer. This happens because the heat releases some of the tension holding the cotton fibers twisted into thread. Without the tension stretching out the fibers, the fibers contract, causing the fabric to shrink.
Typically, a preshrunk cotton garment may shrink a further 2% to 3% in a hot water wash. An untreated cotton garment may shrink as much as 20% when exposed to high heat. To prevent this shrinkage, wash your cotton clothing in cool water and air dry it whenever possible.
Have you ever accidentally shrunk a piece of cotton clothing? Leave a comment below to let us know if you were able to unshrink the clothing successfully!
William L Melville
Sunday 31st of October 2021
After over 50 years of marriage, my dear wife died. Alas I tried to wash my clothes in the Washing Machine.
Guess what happened to ALL OF MY COTTON GARMENTS???? MOTHERS, TEACH YOUR SONS TO COOK AND WASH!!!!