Cotton is truly one of the most versatile fibers in the world, and you probably have some cotton or cotton-blend items in your closet right now. So, you probably understand the frustration of buying a new cotton T-shirt, only to find that it has become too small after the first wash.
Does cotton shrink when washed? Yes, pure cotton will shrink up to 20% when washed. This is caused by a combination of heat, moisture, and friction.
Although cotton is known for being durable and low-maintenance, you still need to care for it properly because cotton is very prone to shrinkage in the washer or dryer. In this article, let’s talk about all the elements that cause cotton to shrink and how you can prevent shrinkage in the future.
What Causes Cotton To Shrink?
The short answer is heat, moisture, and friction. When washed, cotton fibers can shrink up to 20%. This is because when cotton fibers are spun into thread, the fibers are actually stretched out.
Cotton can easily absorb moisture, so when a cotton fabric gets wet, the fibers are somewhat relaxed. When the cotton threads are met with the heat and friction that happens in the dryer and washer, the threads lose their tension, and the cotton will shrink.
This effect actually happens to most plant-based fibers, not just cotton, because they are made using similar methods and processes. On the other hand, synthetic fabrics are usually heat-set during the production process. This is why they do not shrink as easily when washed.
The first time you wash cotton clothes is when they’re most likely to shrink. When the cotton fabric is exposed to water, plus the friction and heat from the washing machine and dryer, it can release the tension in the fibers, which can cause them to get smaller.
After the first wash, your garment will shrink less and less in subsequent washes, mainly because the fibers have lost most of their tension.
Using any kind of heat setting in your dryer is definitely a no-no for cotton fabric. Since cotton is very sensitive to heat (even when the fabric is dry), using the dryer will definitely shrink your cotton fabric.
Some retailers and manufacturers take care of this problem for you by preshrinking the garment. When you buy the garment, it’s already been through the first wash and will be less likely to shrink when you wash it at home.
You can easily tell whether the fabric has been preshrunk by reading the clothing label. If the label says “sanforized,” it means the manufacturer or retailer has already preshrunk the fabric for you, which means you don’t have to worry too much about the cotton shrinking in the wash when you wash it at home.
Because of these characteristics, if you buy a garment that hasn’t been treated, it’s best to buy a bigger size to account for the shrinkage later on. Similarly, if you buy cotton fabric that hasn’t been preshrunk, you should wash the fabric first before sewing with it so that the final measurements will be correct.
Besides the conditions inside the washer and dryer, the weave of the fabric can also affect how much it shrinks after washing. Generally, woven, non-stretchy cotton won’t shrink as much as knitted, stretchy cotton fabric.
This is because cotton knit construction (similar to knitted sweaters or scarves) allows the fabric to stretch, but it also has many gaps in between the threads. These gaps cause the knitted fabric to shrink more in the wash compared to its woven counterpart.
A woven construction that is non-stretchy doesn’t have as much room for the fabric to expand and contract, so when woven cotton is washed, you will find that the shrinkage isn’t as much as a knitted cotton fabric.
Does 100% Cotton Shrink?
Cotton fabric that is made from 100% cotton fibers can shrink substantially when it’s exposed to moisture or heat. Since cotton is highly moisture absorbent, the fibers can stretch when it absorbs water. However, when exposed to heat (especially heat over 85℉), the fibers can lose their tension and cause the fabric to shrink.
Preshrunk cotton can still shrink in the washer and dryer, especially when it’s exposed to hot water and the high heat of the dryer. However, the shrinkage is kept to a minimum, compared to 100% cotton that hasn’t been treated. Preshrunk cotton shrinks up to 3%, but untreated cotton can shrink up to 20% when exposed to heat, friction, and moisture.
Some types of cotton are also more prone to shrinkage than others. Pima cotton or Egyptian cotton, for example, are high-quality cotton fabrics that require more delicate care than other types of inexpensive cotton. Some types of premium cotton even require dry-cleaning, so if you are buying premium cotton, you will need to follow washing instructions more carefully.
Do Cotton Blends Shrink?
Cotton is a common fiber that is often blended with many other types of natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic fibers, such as linen, polyester, or rayon, to enhance the fabric’s durability. We all know that cotton can shrink in the wash, but what about cotton blends?
The answer to this question depends on the type of blend and the percentage of cotton fibers in the fabric. If the fabric is made up of more than 60% cotton, then you can count on some degree of shrinkage after the first wash. Cotton blends that have 90-95% cotton will shrink as much as 100% cotton does in the wash.
When cotton is blended with more durable synthetic fibers such as polyester, the shrinkage is somewhat reduced.
Polyester is a durable synthetic fiber that is not prone to shrinking, so when there is a 50-50 cotton and polyester blend, the fabric will not shrink in the wash, and you can use the heat settings in the dryer without having to worry about shrinkage.
Similarly, cotton-spandex or cotton-nylon with less than 50% cotton will shrink minimally in the wash, thanks to the synthetic fiber components.
Cotton is also commonly blended with natural fibers such as bamboo or linen. Natural fabrics are more prone to shrinking compared to synthetic fibers, so in these cases, you should take the same precautions as when caring for 100% cotton.
Other types of blends with semi-synthetic fibers, such as cotton-rayon, can also shrink in the wash because the rayon fibers can weaken when exposed to water and heat. In this case, the fabric will need the same care as 100% cotton.
If you are unsure about whether a certain blend will shrink in the wash, it’s best to refer to the care instructions. If the care instructions tell you to wash with cold water and air dry the garment, then it is safe to say that the garment will shrink to a certain degree when washed with hot water or in the dryer.
How To Unshrink Cotton
Did you know that you can reverse the shrinkage in cotton fabric? If you have accidentally shrunk your clothes in the wash, there are some ways to reverse this process. Although your clothes won’t look as great as before it was accidentally shrunk, you can still get them to fit by manipulating the characteristics of the fabric.
As we have mentioned, cotton fibers can expand when exposed to water; it’s the heat that causes the fibers to contract. So, if you want to “unshrink” cotton, you can use water to relax the cotton fibers. Let’s take a look at how to do that.
Method 1: If You Want To Unshrink A Garment Evenly
You will need:
- A washbasin or bucket
- Fabric conditioner or baby shampoo to relax the fabric
- Some weights (books, dumbbells, or other heavy things around your household to hold the fabric in place)
How To Unshrink Cotton:
- Mix the fabric conditioner or baby shampoo with cool water. This solution will help the cotton fibers relax. It’s very important to avoid using hot water in this process since heat can definitely cause more shrinkage.
- Then, soak the fabric in the water for up to 30 minutes to allow the fibers to relax entirely. After some time, rinse your fabric with cold water until the fabric conditioner/baby shampoo has been removed entirely.
- Squeeze the fabric lightly to remove the excess water, then lay it down on a flat surface over a towel to dry. You can use the weights to “pin down” the corners of the fabric, stretching it out slightly so that when the fabric dries, the stretched-out shape will hold.
Method 2: If You Want To Unshrink Specific Areas In Your Garment
This method works great if you have sleeves that are now too short or waistbands that are too tight after the cotton garment shrinks in the wash. With this method, you can focus on stretching the areas of the fabric that needs it the most.
First, you can wash the clothes with a mild detergent and cold water. If you are in a hurry, you can just wet the garment first since cotton fibers will expand when wet anyway.
Then, pull the garment where you want to stretch the fabric. If you want the sleeves to be longer, then stretch the sleeves. If you want the waistbands to be bigger, then just stretch that part. Make sure to use a light hand since you don’t want to overdo it or even rip the fabric.
Once you are happy with the size, let the garment air dry. When it is dry, it should take a new, stretched-out shape.
Note: Since both of these methods require some physical stretching of the fabric, the result may cause the fabric to look “distressed.” This is especially true for woven cotton fabrics. This look may or may not be desired for your type of garment, so you should consider it before using these methods to stretch out your cotton fabric.
Tips To Prevent Shrinking When Washing Cotton
While it is possible to “unshrink” cotton, the best way to maintain the look and quality of your cotton garment is to prevent shrinking in the first place. Taking care of your cotton clothing will allow the fabric to stay new and true to size, and it doesn’t take as much work as you think!
Here are some ways to prevent cotton from shrinking.
1. Wash Cotton Together
You have heard of separating light and dark when doing laundry, but have you heard of separating by fibers?
Every type of fiber reacts differently in the wash – polyester can withstand the heat settings in the dryer without much damage, but cotton will definitely shrink when going through the same cycle.
Separating your clothes by not only colors but also the type of fiber will allow you to use the proper settings that work well with that fabric so that all of your clothes – whether they are cotton or not – can stay new for a long time.
If you are not sure about the type of fabric that you have, then you can read the laundry label, often sewn inside the garment. These labels include instructions for how to best care for your garment, and you can just group the clothes together based on how best to care for them.
2. Use The Delicate Cycle
You may think that the delicate cycle is reserved for delicate items, but other garments may need it too!
The friction that happens in the wash is one of the main culprits that cause cotton fabrics to shrink. Using the delicate cycle will help you minimize this friction, which will reduce the damage that happens to your cotton garment.
3. Avoid Heat
Have we mentioned that heat is the main reason why cotton shrinks in the washer and dryer? Hot water and any kind of heat settings in the dryer will cause the cotton fabric to shrink substantially, which is why the key to prevent cotton from shrinking is to wash cotton in cold water and air dry your items.
When air drying, you should also keep the fabric away from direct sun or heat (for example, your heater). Since heat can cause the cotton to shrink, exposing the garment to heat, even while air drying, may still cause some shrinkage. Instead, you should dry your cotton garment in a dry and cool place and let the moisture evaporate naturally to avoid any shrinkage.
4. Avoid Friction
Even if your dryer has a tumble dry setting, air drying is still recommended. That’s because the tumble-dry setting can still exert some friction that can still cause a certain degree of shrinkage.
If you are in a hurry and absolutely must use the dryer, then you can avoid shrinkage by taking the garment out of the dryer when it is still damp and letting it air dry the rest of the time. This way, you can keep shrinking to a minimum.
5. Buy Preshrunk Garments
We’ve mentioned preshrunk garments before. These are cotton fabrics or garments that manufacturers have already washed for you, so the fabric is already true to size when it reaches you. That means it won’t shrink minimally during subsequent washes, even when you use the heat settings in the dryer.
Just to be safe and avoid any further shrinkage, you should still read the care instructions to know how best to take care of your garment, even if it has already been preshrunk. It’s best to be safe and avoid any accidents so that your garment will always look new and fresh!
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