It is not always possible to reverse shrinkage. Sometimes, however, it is possible to restore shrinkage with some luck and a lot steam

It happens to all of us. As we are going through a new load of laundry, untangling the slightly damp piles of socks and T-shirts to hang them out to dry, we notice the sleeves or cuffs of something that should never have been washed in a machine.

We take it out of the pile and hold it in our hands. Then we assess the damage. How much smaller was the result of heat, moisture, and movement?

There is no way to stop shrinkage, but there are some things you can do that could help you avoid future disasters.

Because of how the fabric is structured, things shrink.

Rebecca van Amber is a textile scientist who is also a senior lecturer at RMIT University’s fashion and textiles department. She claims that almost all fabrics shrink when they are made under tension. No matter if yarns are knitted or woven, they are pulled taut when they are made into fabric.

Van Amber explains, “When we wash the fabric the water acts as a lubricant which allows the yarn relax and sometimes it relaxes until it is no longer under tension. This results in shrinkage as the yarns eventually retract and become shorter.”

She claims that this is true for all materials, as shrinkage has less to do with the fiber and more with the structure it is made into.

portrait photography of woman wearing white sweater and blue denim jeans

Different rules, different fibres

The surface scales of wool shrink when they are exposed to heat, moisture, and agitation from a washing machine. Van Amber states that the individual scales move and rise, which causes them “to get stuck to one another and interlock so you end with a jumper three to five sizes too small.”

Once the fibers have changed, they cannot be reversed. The shrinkage is permanent and will reduce your cashmere jumper to felt. This is great for crafting or keys on the piano, but not much else.

Most wool items can be safely washed in the washer because they have undergone a shrink-proofing treatment. Van Amber warns that you should always read the care labels.

Because polyester yarn is made from a single, very long filament, it should not shrink as much. This means that the yarn does not need to be twisted as often as linen, cotton, or wool, which have shorter fibers. Van Amber claims this makes synthetic fibres and fabrics more stable, as the fibres are too long to allow for shrinkage.

Only way to get rid of it is with steam

It is difficult to restore the tension in a garment that has already shrunk. Steve Anderton, a laundry expert with LTC Worldwide, says professional dry cleaners can partially reverse relaxation shrinkage using high heat steam. He suggests that you turn the garment inside-out and use an iron to press the fabric, seams, and steam under tension. This tension should be maintained until the fabric cools.

Van Amber says that you can also try to shrink things with a steamer or ironing board, but it won’t work permanently. It will be stretched as long as you wash it again. After that, it will shrink back.

She says wool can be used if it hasn’t been felted. The great thing about wool is its ability to be ironed and changed in shape by steam. I would steam it and then stretch it out very gently.

If shrinkage is a concern:

  • Do not use the hot cycle in a washer or dryer. Use a cold wash cycle and dry your clothes line-dry. This is also good for the environment.
  • Opt for front-loading washing machines. Van Amber states that a top-loading washer with a middle motor will cause more damage to your fabrics than a front loader. Front loaders use less water and are easier on clothes.
  • Expect a small amount of shrinkage when you purchase new items. However, if it shrinks beyond 5%, it could be defective.
  • Opt for vintage and secondhand clothes. Van Amber states that if the item is not brand new, it has probably been washed and you won’t find shrinkage.

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