Back from the shrink: how to save clothes that have shrunk in the wash | Life and style

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Iit happens to the best of us. We work our way through a fresh load of clean laundry, untangling the slightly damp pile of t-shirts and socks to dry each garment, when among the twisted cotton jersey we see the sleeve or cuff of some something that absolutely should not have been machine washed.

We remove it from the pile, hold it with both hands in front of us and assess the damage: by how much has the combination of heat, humidity and movement made it smaller?

Unfortunately, there is no sure way to reverse the shrinkage, but there are a few things to be aware of that can help prevent disaster in the future.

Things are shrinking because of the way the fabric is structured

According to Rebecca van Amber, textile scientist and lecturer in the fashion and textile department at RMIT University, almost all fabrics shrink because they are made under tension. When the threads are passed through machines and made into fabric, they are stretched, whether it is a woven or knitted fabric, such as a t-shirt.

“When we wash the fabric, the water acts as a lubricant and allows the thread to relax and sometimes it relaxes to the point that it is no longer under tension,” Van Amber explains. This causes shrinkage as the threads eventually retract and become shorter.

She says this applies to different materials because the shrinkage has “less to do with the fiber and more to do with the type of structure it is made of.”

Different fibers, different rules

Wool items shrink because there are scales on the surface of the wool that react to the combination of heat, humidity and agitation in a washing machine. Van Amber says that the individual scales rise and move, causing them to “stick together and fit together, so you end up with a sweater that is three or five sizes too small.”

Once this has happened, the change in fibers cannot be reversed, the shrinkage is permanent, reducing your beautiful felt cashmere sweater – which is great for craft or piano keys, but little more.

Fortunately, most woolen items have been treated with what’s called an anti-shrink treatment, which means they are safe to put in the washing machine. Still, Van Amber says it’s really important to follow care labels.

Polyester should not shrink as much as natural fibers because polyester yarn tends to be made as a very long single filament. Which means the yarn doesn’t need to be twisted as much as cotton, wool, or linen, which have shorter fibers. Van Amber says it makes “fibers and synthetic fabrics more stable because the fibers are so long that there isn’t much room for shrinkage.”

Steam is the only cure

Generally speaking, it is very difficult to add tension to a garment that has shrunk. According to Steve Anderton, laundry expert at LTC Worldwide Consulting Group, some professional dry cleaners can partially reverse relaxation shrinkage by using large amounts of steam at very high temperatures. At home, he offers to turn the garment over and use an iron to iron the fabric and the seams under tension with a little steam, and to maintain this tension until the fabric is cool.

Van Amber also says you can try retracting things using a steamer or ironing board, but unfortunately that won’t be permanent. “The amount you stretch it will stay until you wash it again, when it will likely shrink.”

But she says you can be lucky with the wool – as long as it hasn’t been felted. “The wonderful thing about wool is that you can steam it iron and change its shape a lot, I would steam iron it and stretch it fairly gently.”

If you are really worried about the shrinkage:

  • Do not use a hot cycle on a washing machine or dryer. Do a cold wash and dry the clothes. It’s also better for the environment.

  • Go for a front-loading washing machine. Van Amber says: “A top load washing machine with a central agitator will damage your fabrics more than a front loader. Front loaders are more efficient in their use of water and more delicate on clothing.

  • Expect a few inches of shrinkage from new items, but if anything shrinks more than 5% it may be faulty.

  • Shop for second-hand or vintage clothing. “If it’s not brand new, it’s probably been washed already, so you won’t see that it’s going to shrink,” Van Amber explains.


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