Does washing wool feel like one of the great mysteries of the laundry room to you? If so, you have come to the right place to learn how to unshrink wool! Everyone has laundry mishaps once in a while and accidentally throws a wool sweater in the dryer, where the sweater shrinks into something only a toddler could wear! The good news is that you can rescue the too-small sweater by learning how to unshrink wool.
The best way to unshrink wool is to soak it in a solution of water and hair conditioner or water and fabric softener. Other products that help wool fibers regain their shape include vinegar, Epsom salt, Woolite, and baby shampoo. A process called blocking, commonly used by dry cleaners, can also unshrink wool garments.
In this article, you will learn what makes wool shrink so easily. You will discover seven methods for unshrinking wool. Finally, you will find tips on how to safely wash and care for wool!
Can You Unshrink Wool?
You can unshrink wool under most conditions by carefully soaking and stretching it in a special way. You have to take the wool back to the condition that caused it to shrink in the first place and then ease the fibers back to their full length!
But to do this, you need to understand why wool shrinks.
With any natural fabric, it’s all about what the fibers are made of. Like most animal fibers, wool contains protein.
On top of that, wool has an interesting structure, as well. Its fibers crimp and curl around each other. This builds tiny, microscopic air pockets into the fabric and gives wool its amazing insulating and water-resistant abilities!
The trouble with these spring-like, curly fibers is that they get smoothed out and pulled into fairly straight lines as they turn into threads for weaving or knitting. But if you throw them into a warm washing machine, all the heat and friction will encourage the fibers to slip back into their spring-like curlicues! If all the fibers in the material shrink back into a smaller shape, you can imagine what will happen to the garment.
Every individual wool fiber also has an outer coating of rough shingles that will catch and hold together. The spinning motion of most laundry machines agitates these shingles, causing them to poke out in all directions and snag on each other. This makes all the fibers cling together tightly and can eventually lead to felting, which turns wool into flat, solid felt!
Today, manufacturers typically pretreat wool for clothes with chemicals that allow it to soak in cool water without any damage. These chemicals focus on subduing the scales covering the fibers, encouraging them to continue to lie flat even after the motion of the washing machine.
Because of modern fabric manufacturing techniques, you can often safely wash wool using cold water and a delicate cycle that will not rough up the fibers as much.
But what about when something goes wrong, and you end up with a sock that would fit on an American Girl doll or a sweater that your seven-year-old daughter can barely squeeze into?
At this point, you need to resort to one of the seven basic methods for unshrinking wool. These techniques use the basic concept of soaking the garment in a product that relaxes its curly fibers and then gently stretching those fibers back into their manufactured straightness.
How to Unshrink Wool: 7 Methods
You can unshrink wool using common products you have lying around the house, like hair conditioner or Woolite. The techniques described here do not require any special knowledge or skill, but they require some patience and effort.
Is it worth it to fix shrunken wool? This all-natural material has many remarkable properties, like its amazing insulating ability. It also offers an almost water-proof level of water resistance and even a built-in temperature regulation that keeps you cool in hot weather!
On top of this, natural fabric tends to cost quite a lot, making your wool clothing valuable and not something you want to have to replace regularly. So most of the time, you will find it worthwhile to rescue a damaged wool garment!
Blocking uses steam or cool water to relax the wool fibers and then stretches the garment to specific dimensions on a special rubber mat. This allows a shrunken wool garment to regain its original shape. Knitters also use a similar blocking technique to set the final shape of a knitted garment.
The big advantage of this method is that it gives you the most precise control over the end results. This is why professionals like dry cleaners use blocking when they need to rescue something that shrank! The downside is that you have to buy the tools, and it does take a bit of time.
You need a blocking mat, blocking wire, and blocking pins to stick through the wool and into the mat. You can purchase thee online or at most knitting stores.
- To prepare the garment, either steam it with a handheld steamer or gently submerge it in a basin of water. Do not run the piece of clothing under the faucet, as running water could drag at the fibers, damaging them further!
- If you soaked the garment, gently press away excess water and roll it up inside a clean towel to remove even more moisture. You do not want to wring out the wool, as this will warp and skew the garment’s shape!
- Smooth out your piece of clothing on the blocking board. This looks like a large rubber mat with measurements marked on it.
- If you know the desired dimensions of your finished garment, you can use the markings on the mat to determine how you stretch the garment. If you just want to generally reshape and resize it by eyeballing, start by laying it flat and gently tugging it, so it stretches out just a bit.
- Next, carefully thread a blocking wire up and down each straight edge of the garment, as if you were sewing large stitches with a needle and thread. Take care that you don’t snag or pull a thread, though!
- Finally, stab blocking pins through the garment on the inside of the wire. This will hold the wool in place as it dries!
You can repeat the process or continue to dampen and stretch the garment out a bit more if it does not easily stretch as much as you would like on the first go-round.
2. VinegarUsing vinegar and water to unshrink wool has the added benefit of making scratchy wool a bit more soft!
- You can prep the clothing for resizing in two different ways. First, you can measure two cups of distilled white vinegar into your washing machine. Run the wool through on a cool, delicate cycle.
- Second, you can measure two tablespoons of distilled white vinegar into a basin filled with cool water and submerge the wool in that solution for twenty minutes.
- When you take the piece of clothing out of the washing machine or out of the solution, gently press away excess water by holding the garment between your flat hands. Do not wring or squeeze the wool.
- Next, spread out a clean bath towel and roll up the garment inside like the filling in a jelly roll. Gently squeeze the towel tube. This will soak up most of the moisture!
- Find a clean, flat surface to work on. A quilt spread on top of a rug will work nicely!
- Spread out the garment and align it in the correct shape so that its sides hang straight and its neck curves, etc.
- Finally, gently tug around the outer edge. Keep going until the wet garment regains the correct size!
3. Epsom SaltIn a pinch, an Epsom salt soak will also allow the wool fibers in your sweater to relax and stretch back into shape. Admittedly, this method is less popular today than blocking or using vinegar or a commercial product. However, many older folks still swear by Epsom salt, so if you have some handy, give this a try!
You can also use these salts as a general laundry softener if you feel like it.
- The easiest way to prepare the wool using Epsom salt is to place your garment in the washing machine. Turn the settings to cool water and a delicate cycle.
- Add one cup of Epsom salt to the machine and then run the cycle.
- Take care when lifting the damp garment out of the washer. Do not place it in the dryer! Instead, take your nicely softened garment to a clean bath towel spread out on a floor table.
- Smooth out the garment into its original shape. Pay attention to curved shapes like necklines.
- Then gently pull on all the edges, working your way around the outer perimeter of the garment.
- Finally, allow the garment to dry on the towel. You may want to set up a fan nearby to provide cool airflow for quicker drying.
4. Baby ShampooOn its own, baby shampoo will have a gentle, relaxing effect on wool fibers but will not necessarily reshape the garment. However, if you soak the wool in a solution of water and baby shampoo and then spend some time stretching the piece of clothing, you will see great results!
This method is one of the most popular ones because baby shampoo is super cheap, smells nice, and works!
- Fill a clean sink or basin with cool water. Measure in two tablespoons of baby shampoo, and swish it around a bit till you see some soft foamy bubbles.
- Lower your wool garment into the basin. Push it down until air bubbles stream up and you can see that the whole garment is submerged.
- Allow the wool to soak in this solution for twenty to thirty minutes. For a larger garment, you may want to soak it for twenty-five to forty minutes.
- Now, this next step may seem a bit odd, but don’t rinse out the wool! Instead, allow the water to drain out of the sink or basin, and then roll up the wet wool inside a towel to remove most of the water.
- Use a second clean towel or blanket as a drying mat for your wool garment. Spread out the garment to regain its original shape in terms of sleeves, necklines, and so on.
- Then gently pull on all edges until you have stretched out the relaxed wool to the desired size.
- You can leave the stretched-out sweater on the towel to dry, but make sure it does not fall under direct sunlight. This could cause it to fade.
5. Hair ConditionerHair conditioner works much like baby shampoo to soften and unlock wool fibers. Hair conditioner is designed to work on straightening and softening human hair, which also contains protein, so it makes sense that it would work on “sheep hair” as well!
You can use pretty much the same process, in fact, with just a few differences.
- Fill up a clean sink or bucket with water, and stir in ⅓ a cup of hair conditioner.
- Let the wool garment soak in this solution for ten minutes.
- Drain away the water and press the wool against the side of the sink or bucket to remove some water.
- Roll up the garment inside a clean towel to remove most of the remaining moisture.
- Spread out the piece of clothing on another clean towel. Stretch it gently around all edges until it looks back to normal!
6. Fabric SoftenerIf you have a fabric softener sitting in your laundry room, you can also use this product to relax the wool and allow it to stretch easily.
You can follow the same process described in the hair conditioner section. If you have a large garment or blanket, you will want to increase the amount of softener you add.
Alternatively, you can add about ⅓ a cup of fabric softener to your laundry machine, Set the machine to cool and delicate and run the garment or blanket through the wash before undertaking the stretching process.
7. Special Wool ProductsSome laundry experts recommend skipping the home remedies and using products designed specifically for wool. While that choice is up to you, you will probably find that commercial products like Eulite and Woolite do a great job unlocking shrunken wool fibers!
In actual practice, you apply these commercial products in a very similar way to the other methods in this article.
Simply set up a soak using ⅓ a cup of wool detergent and a basin of water, and then press the garment between two towels to remove water without damaging the shape of the clothing.
Finally, gently stretch the damp garment back to its normal size.
How to Unshrink Wool Clothes
You can use any of the methods described in this article to unshrink wool clothes, including professional blocking or at-home remedies such as soaking in baby shampoo.
Here you will find some tips for how to approach specific kinds of clothing like sweaters vs socks. Can you stretch them out in the same way? Keep reading to find out!
SweaterHow do you fix a wool sweater that has been washed? You can try any of the seven simple methods described in this article! The soaking and stretching methods work great on sweaters, and sweaters are usually small enough to fit on a bath towel as you stretch them out.
A couple of key things to remember while unshrinking sweaters will help you, as well. First, pay attention to the sleeves! If you hang up the sweater or stretch the sleeves too much while wet, they will quickly grow too long.
You may also want to take a break from stretching the sweater and fold it in half longwise. This will allow you to check that you are not stretching the garment more on one side than the other. No one wants a lopsided sweater, after all!
Another thing to consider is whether or not your sweater contains wool. These days, many woolly or knitted garments contain acrylic, a synthetic material that costs much, much less than wool!
To find out, simply check the tag inside your clothes. Sometimes the fabric information is printed on the reverse side of the manufacturer’s label.
JacketMost of the time, you can use a relaxing soak and a careful stretch to reshape a shrunken wool jacket. Sometimes an older jacket, or a jacket that has gone through the dryer too many times, may refuse to stretch. In this case, the wool fibers may have become completed felted, and you will need to buy yourself a new jacket!
Jackets often fit just so. You may want to measure yourself using a fabric tape measure and apply those measurements to the jacket shoulders and sleeves as you stretch it back out.
Another thing to consider is that suit jackets often have a silk lining inside. Silk does not like water! In this case, you may need to take the shrunken jacket to a dry cleaner and ask if they can rescue it for you.
SocksWool socks keep your feet warm but not sweaty, and with a bit of care, you can easily rescue them after a shrinking incident! Socks are probably the easiest thing you can stretch back out. They’re small and easy to handle.
As a pro tip, you may want to place an unshrunken sock nearby as you do the stretching process. This will help you get the sizing right!
If you feel really brave, you can even put the damp sock on your foot and let it dry there to help it stretch back out.
ScarfYou can use any of the methods in this article on a scarf, though blocking may get tricky depending on the length of the scarf.
The main thing to remember with a long, rectangular object like a scarf is that you want it to keep straight, parallel edges and not stretch out crookedly!
The good news is that you can usually do this by spreading out the damp scarf on a clean blanket so that one edge of the scarf lines up with the straight edge of the blanket. This will keep you on the straight and narrow as you stretch!
If you washed a wool blanket by accident, you will have a real struggle on your hands as you try to stretch it back out! The size of most blankets makes them a bit more difficult to manipulate. Plus, wet wool weighs a ton, so hefting around a damp blanket is no piece of cake, either!
All that aside, you can unshrink a wool blanket. Your best bet is to either throw it back into the washing machine with some Woolite and then hang it on a clothesline to let the weight of the water stretch it back out, or soak it in a bathtub with a good amount of hair conditioner.
The bathtub method will leave you with a very wet and very heavy blanket to deal with, though, so brace yourself for some heavy lifting!
What is the Best Way to Unshrink Merino Wool?
You can unshrink merino wool using all the same methods you would apply to regular wool. Soaking in a hair conditioner solution works especially well, so long as you apply very gentle stretching afterward!
What’s so different about merino wool? Well, this wool still comes from sheep. It just comes from a special breed of sheep that produces super fine fleece!
This makes merino wool one of the softest materials in the whole world. While not the warmest wool, it often serves as delicate base layers for athletic wear or fancy cardigans for formal wear. It also costs quite a lot, so you want to know how best to care for it!
How to Wash Wool Without Shrinking It
You can wash wool without shrinking it by following the manufacturer’s instructions on the clothing label or by using cold water and a delicate cycle in your washing machine. You can also wash wool by hand to make sure it gets gentle handling that will not cause its fibers to curl up and retract.
That said, your best bet for prolonging the life of your wool garment is to read the care instructions on the tag inside the clothing. You can usually find this at the back of the neck or in a side seam near the hem.
You should never use regular laundry detergent on wool garments. These soaps destroy enzymes, which allows the detergent to lift stains out of cotton or synthetic clothes. Unfortunately, the enzymes also eat away at the protein fibers in wool!
You also do not want to wash wool in warm water. In general, you don’t want to expose wool to long soaks in water at all, but you don’t want to get it hot! This will cause those fibers to cling to each other and compact together, shrinking the clothing.
It probably goes without saying, but you should never put wool into your dryer! The heat will cause all those protein-based, curly fibers to twist up into their original curlicues again, and you will find yourself with a garment many sizes too small.
Instead, air dry anything made of wool. If you have a sweater drying rack, you can carefully smooth a wool garment so that it lies flat on top of the mesh rack. If you do not, spread out a clean bath towel and arrange the wool clothing neatly on top of that.
You may need to flip the garment over after a day so that it can dry on both sides. Generally, you do not want to hang up a sweater or pants to dry because the weight of the water could cause the wool to stretch out!
What Is Unshrinkable Wool?
Unshrinkable wool features a synthetic polymer glaze over its surface that prevents the scales on the wool fibers from sticking out and catching on each other. This fairly new textile development comes with both pros and cons.
Most commercial wool garments do come pretreated with chemicals that help prevent felting. However, not every consumer likes the idea of a synthetic layer on top of all-natural wool fibers. Some people don’t like the idea of wearing plastic next to their skin.
Of course, you may also find that you don’t notice the coating much at all. It may save you a lot of hassle and allow you to easily wash your wool clothing without any fuss and bother! The choice is up to you.
Next time you discover that your favorite wool socks went in the dryer with a load of laundry, you won’t have to panic! You will know all the best ways to unshrink those socks using simple products like baby shampoo, hair conditioner, or Woolite. If you want to get fancy about it, you can even try out the professional blocking system to give your shrunken wool clothes the exactly right shape!
Soaking wool to relax its fibers makes it easy to stretch it back into the correct size. You can employ these methods on everything from wool socks to wool blankets!
Have you ever tried to unshrink wool? How did it go? Leave a comment below to let us know!