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Does Cotton Shrink?

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Written by Sonia Su

In the realm of textiles, few materials are as ubiquitous and versatile as cotton. As a beloved natural fiber, cotton has woven itself into the fabric of our lives, adorning us in comfortable clothing and textiles. Yet, beneath its softness lies an intriguing characteristic: the propensity to shrink.

In this article, we unravel the science behind cotton fabric and the shrinking of cotton clothes, exploring the factors that trigger this transformation, methods to mitigate and prevent clothes from shrinking, and essential tips to ensure your cotton garments stand the test of time.

Whether you're a textile enthusiast or simply someone who treasures their wardrobe, delving into the world of cotton shrinkage unveils the secrets that keep your favorite cotton clothes fitting just right.

Close-up of cotton fabric

Cotton Fabrics and Shrinking

The science behind cotton fabric shrinking lies in its molecular structure and the interplay of moisture, heat, and tension. Understanding the scientific intricacies of cotton's response to moisture and heat empowers you to preserve the fit and longevity of your cotton clothing and textiles.

Cotton fibers consist of cellulose chains held together by hydrogen bonds. When cotton is exposed to warm or hot water or heat, these bonds loosen, allowing the fibers to contract.

During washing or exposure to moisture, the fibers absorb water, causing them to swell and the hydrogen bonds to relax. When heat is applied through washing or drying, the water evaporates, and the fibers contract, pulling the fabric closer together. Tension from agitation, such as in a washing machine, can exacerbate this process.

The extent of shrinking varies based on factors like the cotton's weave, quality, and initial treatment. Pre-shrunk cotton has undergone a process to minimize further shrinkage, but it may still shrink slightly.

Cotton 

How Much Does Cotton Shrink?

The degree to which cotton shrinks can vary based on several factors, including the quality of the cotton, the fabric weave, the manufacturing process, and how the garment is cared for. On average, cotton can shrink between 3% to 5% in the first wash and subsequent drying cycle. However, some cotton fabrics might shrink up to 10% or more if they have not been pre-shrunk during the manufacturing process.

It's important to note that different types of cotton, such as combed cotton or organic cotton, may have varying shrinkage rates. Additionally, blends of cotton with other fibers can also influence how much the fabric shrinks.

Cotton blends include poplin fabric, which is usually made from a blend of cotton, silk, or a synthetic material like polyester, while cotton twill is a soft, breathable fabric that's commonly used for clothing, upholstery, and home decor.

To minimize and avoid unwanted shrinkage, follow the care instructions on the garment's label, use cold water when washing cotton, avoid high heat during drying, and consider air-drying or gently reshaping the garment while slightly damp.

If too dry, consider spritzing with cool water from a spray bottle. Keep in mind that while it's common for cotton to shrink to some extent, proper care can help mitigate excessive shrinkage and maintain the longevity of your cotton clothes.

Does 100% Cotton Shrink?

100% cotton can shrink when exposed to water and heat. Understanding that 100% cotton can shrink allows you to take proper care of your garments and maintain their fit and appearance over time.

Cotton fibers have a natural tendency to contract as their hydrogen bonds relax and the fibers pull together. The degree of shrinkage can vary based on factors like the quality of the cotton, the fabric's weave, and the garment's manufacturing process.

Pre-shrunk cotton items have undergone treatments during manufacturing to minimize further shrinkage. However, even pre-shrunk 100% cotton fabrics may still experience some minimal shrinkage, particularly during the first wash and drying cycle. Nimble Made shirts are made of 100% cotton and these are their bestselling white dress shirt and blue dress shirt.

You can also browse our bestselling men's dress shirts, which are mostly made of 100% cotton.

 

How to Prevent Cotton from Shrinking in Dryer

Cotton clothing can shrink in the dryer due to the combination of heat and moisture removal. When exposed to heat, the hydrogen bonds in cotton fibers relax, allowing them to contract. This contraction is further intensified when moisture is removed during the drying process.

The extent of shrinkage depends on various factors, including the type of cotton, the initial treatment of the fabric, and the drying temperature. On average, a cotton garment can shrink between 3% to 5% in the first wash and drying cycle. Some cotton clothes may experience additional shrinkage if they have not been pre-shrunk during manufacturing.

To minimize and prevent shrinkage in the dryer, consider the following steps:

  1. Use Low Heat: Opt for a low heat setting or the delicate cycle on your dryer to reduce the risk of excessive shrinkage.
  2. Air-Dry: If possible, air-dry cotton garments by laying them flat or hanging them, which can help maintain their original size and shape.
  3. Gently Reshape: While the garment is still damp, gently reshape it to its original dimensions to prevent it from shrinking too much.

By being mindful of the drying process and using proper settings, you can help preserve the fit and longevity of your cotton t-shirts and clothing. Be sure to check out our full care guide for dress shirts and how to wash dress shirts.

 

How to Unshrink Cotton

If you accidentally shrunk your favorite cotton clothes, you don't have to throw it away or give it to your younger sibling. While it's challenging to fully reverse the shrinking process for most cotton clothing, you can attempt to relax the fibers and regain some of the original size with a few easy steps:

  1. Soak in Lukewarm Water: Fill a basin with lukewarm water and add a few tablespoons of hair conditioner. Gently submerge the shrunken garment and let it soak for about 30 minutes. Conditioner can help relax the fibers.
  2. Gently Stretch: After soaking, carefully stretch the clothing while it's still damp. Gently pull and reshape the garment, focusing on the areas that have shrunk the most.
  3. Roll in Towels: Lay the garment flat on a clean towel and roll it up, pressing gently to absorb excess water. Unroll and continue stretching the clothing.
  4. Air Dry: Lay the garment on a dry towel, gently reshaping it to its original size. Let it air dry naturally, avoiding direct sunlight or heat sources.
  5. Steam: Use a garment steamer to lightly steam the fabric while gently stretching it. The steam can relax the fibers and help the garment regain some of its original shape.
    Steaming clothes
  6. Professional Help: If the garment is particularly delicate or valuable, consider seeking assistance from a professional tailor or dry cleaner with experience in reshaping clothing.

Remember that the success of unshrinking your cotton clothing depends on various factors, and you might not be able to fully restore the normal size. Prevention is key, so always follow proper care and washing instructions to avoid shrinkage after the first wear.

 

How to Hand Wash Cotton Clothing

If you would rather not use a washing machine, hand-washing cotton clothing is a gentle way to clean and preserve its quality:

  1. Preparation: Fill a basin with cool water and add a small amount of mild detergent suitable for delicates.
  2. Submerge: Turn the garment inside out and submerge it in soapy water. Gently agitate the water to distribute the detergent.
  3. Gently Clean: Gently rub the fabric with your fingertips, paying attention to any stained or soiled areas. Avoid vigorous scrubbing to prevent damage.
  4. Rinse: Drain the soapy water and refill the basin with clean, cool water. Rinse the garment thoroughly to remove all traces of detergent.
  5. Press, Don't Wring: Carefully press the excess water out of the garment, avoiding wringing which can distort the fabric's shape.
  6. Dry: Lay a clean towel on a flat surface and place the damp garment on it. Roll the towel with the garment inside to gently remove more moisture.
  7. Air Dry: Lay the garment flat on a clean, dry towel or a drying rack. Reshape it to its original dimensions and allow it to air dry away from direct sunlight or heat sources.
  8. Ironing (if needed): If necessary, iron the garment on a low heat setting while it's slightly damp to smooth out wrinkles.
    Iron and ironing board

By following these steps, you can effectively clean your cotton clothing by hand while preserving its integrity and avoiding excessive shrinkage or damage.

 

How to Shrink a Shirt

If you find that your cotton clothing is too big and you're looking to shrink it slightly, follow these steps:

  1. Check the Label: Before attempting to shrink the garment, check the care label to ensure that the fabric can handle the shrinking process.
  2. Wash in Hot Water: Wash the clothing item in hot water. Hot water can help relax the fibers and encourage shrinkage.
  3. Use the Dryer: After washing, place the garment in the dryer on a high heat setting. The combination of heat and tumbling can further encourage shrinkage.
  4. Monitor Progress: Periodically check the garment's size as it dries. Remember that the degree of shrinkage can vary, so be cautious not to over-shrink the item.
  5. Air Dry if Needed: If the garment has reached the desired size, you can air dry it to prevent further shrinkage. Avoid using high heat during this step.
    Air drying clothes
  6. Repeat as Necessary: If the first attempt doesn't achieve the desired results, you can repeat the process until you achieve the fit you want. However, be careful not to damage the fabric or distort the garment's shape.

Keep in mind that shrinking cotton clothing is not always predictable, and there's a risk of damaging the fabric or altering the garment's appearance. This method is best for small adjustments, and extreme shrinkage attempts can lead to irreversible changes. If the garment is valuable or delicate, it's recommended to seek professional alteration services.

Alternatively, you may not need to purposely shrink a shirt when you can by shirts that fit better off-the-rack. Check out Nimble Made’s slim fit dress shirts and t-shirts that come with trimmed measurements. 

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions about How Much Cotton Shrinks

Does cotton shrink after wash?

Yes, despite being highly washable, cotton clothing can shrink after a wash due to the relaxation of its fibers caused by the combination of hot water and heat. The extent of shrinkage depends on factors like fabric type, weave, and garment construction.

How do you keep 100% cotton from shrinking?

To prevent shrinking, wash it in cold water, avoid high heat in the dryer, and consider air-drying or reshaping the garment while damp to maintain its original size and shape.

How many sizes does cotton shrink?

Generally speaking, cotton clothes can shrink by approximately 3% to 5% in the first wash and drying cycle, but this can vary based on factors like fabric type, weave, and processes of the clothing manufacturers.

Does 100% cotton shrink in the dryer?

Yes, 100% cotton clothes can shrink in the dryer due to the combination of heat and moisture removal, which causes the fibers to contract.