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How to shrink clothes: Shrink cotton, jeans, polyester and more

Need to go down a size?
How to shrink clothes, how to shrink a shirt, wash a shirt
Want to shrink your clothes at home? Follow these guidelines.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Fashionistas usually do everything in their power to avoid shrinking their clothes. But every once in a while, a garment needs to be sized down a bit. Whether you’ve lost weight and can’t part with your favorite clothes or simply couldn’t pass up a sale item that was a size too large, there are a couple of ways to intentionally shrink your clothes at home.

Of course, there are a few things you should know if you want to avoid a disastrous “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” moment, so TODAY Style consulted the experts to help guide you along the way. Happy shrinking!

How to shrink clothes
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What causes clothes to shrink?

Over time, most (if not all) of our clothes will shrink naturally. Knowing why shrinkage occurs can help you both prevent and achieve it, depending on your sizing needs.

“Garments are put under stress/tension in manufacturing. In essence, shrinkage is the garment trying to go to its fully relaxed state when the fabric becomes wet,” Renae Fossum, a Procter & Gamble fabric care scientist, said.

In fabrics like cotton, rayon or bamboo, shrinkage occurs with the help of water and mechanical action. When you throw these clothes into the wash, their fibers absorb the moisture and swell up. These swollen fibers are more elastic and move to relieve the stress/tension caused by the mechanical action of washing, a process called “elastic shrinkage.”

If you lay your wet garment flat to dry after washing, no additional shrinkage will occur and the fibers in your clothing will de-swell and reform to their original size. However, if you machine dry the clothing, it can indeed shrink for good.

“When water is removed from the fiber with the help of mechanical action (i.e. tumbling), additional shrinkage called ‘drying shrinkage’ can occur,” Fossumsaid.

If a garment is going to naturally shrink, there's not much you can do about it, and most of that relaxation shrinkage will occur in one to three washings. In some cases, it can take five or 10 wash cycles for a garment to reach equilibrium or maximum shrinkage, though.

“In other words, a little shrinking happens with every wash until it reaches its lowest energy state and equilibrates. This is often why it seems like all of a sudden your clothes don’t fit anymore because the change is big enough that you now notice it,” Fossum said.

How to shrink clothes at home

Sure, you could easily hire a tailor for clothing alterations, but that can get expensive. So it’s not surprising that many DIY divas take matters into their own hands. Trying to shrink your clothes on your own isn’t always ideal, though.

“By washing garments to try to shrink them, you can cause severe damage to the surface of the garment including pilling and unwanted proportions, so it’s not recommended to shrink clothes at home,” said Yvonne Johnson, director of product development and implementation at Cotton Incorporated.

That being said, if you're daring and want to go DIY, just make sure to use caution and try the following methods to shrink your clothes:

  • Throw the clothes you want to shrink into the dryer! “The mechanical action will cause the fibers and yarns to come closer together. This is true for a fabric such as cotton. Most people think the hotter the temperature (whether it be in the washer or dryer) can more easily shrink cotton, but this isn't true. Heat has no effect on the shrinkage of cotton; it’s actually the tumbling action,” said another P&G fabric care scientist, Liz Eggert.
  • Want to take in pants or jeans a bit? Toss them into a hot cycle in the washing machine then into a warm to hot dryer, according to Robin Chalfin, owner of Toolkit Tailoring Studio.
  • Need to take in a cotton, wool or cashmere sweater? Chalfin suggests washing them by hand in warm water. If your clothes end up shrinking more than expected, you can block them on a towel to reshape them.

If you've ever Googled "How to shrink clothes," you've probably come across several videos suggesting the following DIY method: Pour boiling water over clothing in a sink and let the clothes sit until the water dries. While it sounds like a great, simple way to shrink clothing, it's not very effective.

"I have never tried that and would not recommend it. Less expensive dyes are used on some products and ... (this) may cause the product to bleed or run, especially if it's a darker color (deep red, navy and black)," said Sean Cormier, associate professor and assistant chair of the textile development and marketing department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

How to shrink clothes
Don't forget to read labels before washing!Getty Images

Does fabric matter?

No two pieces of clothing are created alike, and that means certain fabrics and materials respond differently to any shrinking attempts.

“Fabrics that are more open or loose construction (space between the yarns) are often more likely to shrink,” said Kristie Rhodes,product development and implementation at Cotton Incorporated.

How to shrink cotton and rayon

Garments made with these natural and regenerated fibers are more likely to shrink, especially if they're made of knit material. "Knit fabrics such as T-shirts and sweaters will shrink more, but they also have more elasticity so they can regain their shape more easily than a woven fabric such as dress pants. A garment that has a lot of open space, like a knit, will be more likely to shrink than something like a woven which doesn’t have a lot of open space," Eggert said.

How to shrink polyester

Garments made with these synthetic fibers won't likely shrink very easily. "Fibers such as polyester and nylon do not shrink due to some inherent properties such as being 'thermoplastic,' which means that it generally won't wrinkle or shrink," Cormier said.

How to shrink jeans and denim

Read those care labels! If your denim says "dry clean only," follow the directions. "Unwashed cotton jeans and other pants will shrink on the first wash. Always wash jeans in cold water and hang. If you need them to shrink a bit, throw them in a warm dryer," Chalfin said.

How to shrink wool

Wool will definitely shrink, but be wary: If you throw a bulky sweater into hot water, it may just fit a child afterward. "Wool shrinks more (easily) as these fibers have scales which entangle during the washing/drying process," Cormier said.

The material requires three key elements in order to shrink — heat, moisture and agitation — so if the care label on your wool sweater says "dry clean only," odds are it will shrink significantly if you attempt to wash it yourself. In general, Chalfin recommends a warm wash with wool sweaters. "They should be washed by hand then they can be stretched, or blocked on a towel and may achieve the result you want," she said.

How to not shrink clothes

Now that you know how to intentionally make your clothing smaller, you might be wondering: How do you avoid accidentally shrinking your wardrobe? While you can’t always prevent shrinkage, you can certainly try.

“Unfortunately, if a garment is going to shrink, and you wash it long enough, you will observe shrinkage. You can slow the process down, though,” Eggert said.

Keep shrinkage at bay by following these best practices:

  • Wash clothes on the gentlest cycle possible.
  • Air dry, air dry, air dry! Re-shape and lay clothes flat to dry to avoid any tension (ie. from hanging or tumbling).
  • If you do end up drying your garments, Eggert suggests doing so on the moisture-sensing cycle to avoid overdrying things.

How to unshrink clothes

Accidents happen, and if you mistakenly shrink your favorite T-shirt, for instance, you can occasionally reverse the damage. To "unshrink" a T-shirt, Rhodes recommends the following:

  • Saturate the shirt in water.
  • Gently stretch your wet shirt out on a flat surface or drying rack to the desired size and keep it in place with household weights such as heavy jars or cans.
  • Leave it out to air-dry.
  • Be careful, because you might end up distorting the garment.