Can You Unshrink Cotton? (Read This First)

It’s really a frustrating phenomenon where you put your cotton clothes in the washing machine and retrieve them back shrunken.

I know it has happened to many of us and we’re probably looking for answers and solutions to the shrunken cotton problem. 

Here’s why you can’t unshrink cotton

Cotton yarns and threads are applied with tension during construction and processing which is why when they are submerged in water at home, the tension is released and the fibers snap back to their original state. Because there is a transition back to an original state, you cannot unshrink cotton. You can however, temporarily reshape back the shrunken cotton using hair conditioner and warm water.

Why does cotton shrink?

Cotton fabric shrinks because during its construction and processing, a dimensional change is experienced in its length, width and thickness which is based upon the many variables of construction and processing such as: the type and quality of cotton fiber, temperature of process, weaving or knitting technique, drying etc. 

Most of these variables often add to the overall dimensions of cotton instead of subtracting from it, and thus, there is a surplus leading to strain in the entire fabric system. 

Cotton therefore, isn’t in its most relaxed state when you purchase it as a new cloth from the stores. Upon submersion in water, it absorbs the molecules of water and swells, and this swelling snaps the tension in the fabric system making the cloth appear shrunken! Heat and motion also accelerate this snap. 

How cotton snaps the tension through moisture absorption is easy. As the fibers absorb water, they thicken or widen which automatically shortens their length. So the material coming out of the washer appears different from what it was previously. 

As for heat, it’s because of the vigorous random motion of the molecules of water that constantly collide with the crystal structure of the cotton fabric, and as for agitation, that is pretty self explanatory.

Now, it’s important to note that aside from wet treatment like you find in the laundry, other processes at home too can cause shrinkage in cotton. 

For example, chemical treatments like bleaching, the dryer, and the use of powerful laundry chemicals and detergents can also cause tension or relaxation in the entire system of the cotton fabric, and therefore give it a distorted or shrunken look.

The degree of shrinkage in cotton is something that varies a lot, and this is due to the fact that there exist a variety of textile manufacturers out there producing different fabrics using different species of cotton, and also garment manufacturers maneuvering these garments using different techniques and processes. 

If you purchase a cotton garment from a reliable and quality brand, you can expect the outsourcing of the fabric to be done with great care and attention, then the processing would be effected in such a way that minimizes shrinkage at the users end, and ultimately – the shrinkage of the garment would be very minimal. 

There are indeed technologies out there that seek to minimize the shrinkage that occurs when you wash cotton at home. 

If you ever purchase cotton clothes from mediocre brands however, expect the shrinkage to be a little more pronounced. 

Are there cotton clothes that don’t shrink?

Textile manufacturers and garment producers pay very careful attention to the problem of shrinkage nowadays, and therefore deliberate their methods of textile production and finishing extensively. 

There are specific techniques that are employed in fabric construction and processing that produce a final fabric with insignificant shrinkage when subjected to washer conditions like wetting and drying. Preshrunk fabrics are a typical example; where the fabrics are pre shrunken before they are made into garments.

Even with that, we still have to acknowledge the fact that cotton will still shrink no matter how perfected the processes and the techniques of production and finishing are, and this is because of the intrinsic property of cotton to absorb water and become swollen. Such swelling translates into a shorter length of the fibers and the overall fabric. But on the broader scale, such shrinkage is highly unnoticeable.

Does cotton go back after shrinking?

For cotton shrinkage associated with “strain”, it certainly is not reversible, and mind you that it typically happens only once.

So, when you wet a new cotton piece for the first time, you’ll have the “elastic gain” reversed and the cloth shrunken, but with subsequent washing, there won’t be shrinkage as a result of a “snap” in the fabric system. 

When it comes to swelling of cotton fibers however, that is something that happens concurrently as you wet cotton. It’s an intrinsic characteristic! 

Cotton will continuously absorb water, then increase in thickness and decrease in length, and then when you put it in the drying machine, the process is reversed and you have the length restored.

Restored there is highlighted in bold and italics because you’re not actually getting the original length of the yarn back. There is an insignificant loss in the overall length characterized by the “residual phenomenon” which implies that with such swelling and consolidation, part of the original length is lost, and what’s left is always the residual

This is what leads to the overall shrinkage and distortion of cotton clothes as they really begin to age.

But don’t be afraid of this shrinkage in cotton as it is hardly noticeable. You will lose some of the length, but it is in the insignificant portion of things.

Does 100% cotton only shrink once?

Absolutely, 100% cotton will shrink only once as a result of the snapping back of tension. But as you continue washing it and drying it, it would swell and deswell and you’ll have the residual phenomenon take place (just like in wool, viscose and rayon), which would translate into shrinkage over the long run.

How do you permanently unshrink cotton?

There is literally no way to permanently unshrink cotton. What’s done is done, and the closest you can ever get to the original state is distortion, i.e when you distort the fiber system of the cotton in such a way that they now appear elongated for a temporary period. 

There are different techniques that may work for this. We’re focused on a specify one that we have tested and verified that it works, but bear in mind that all these are all temporary fixes, and if anything, some of them could damage your cotton in the long run.

A better alternative would be to accept the shrinkage as it is, make sure to wash the cloth exactly the way you’re supposed to be washing them, and be very deliberate when it comes to future cotton purchases. 

Make sure to go for cotton garments that don’t shrink, and those that are blended with synthetics like polyester and are also from a high quality brand. 

How to make shrunken cotton clothes look better 

So what we’re going to be doing is soaking the cotton cloth in warm water so as to relax the fibers, and then adding four tablespoons of hair conditioner into the water to fill up the spaces in the fiber system of cotton and make the fabric heavier. 

Next, we’ll lay the cloth (without wringing) flat on a smooth surface and shape it as desired, then use spice jars at home to hold up the fabric in this shape until it dries. 

After drying, the cotton will maintain the shape it was set into for as long as you don’t submerge it back into water again. The moment you do so, through laundry, it will shrink again.

And if you’re someone who has foresight, you’d see that this is actually imposing strain on the entire fabric structure and at the end of the day it will cause damage to the fibers themselves. So use this method only when you really need to get your clothes back in shape for a desperate purpose.

This cotton relaxation technique can work for sweaters, flannel, joggers, organic cotton, underwear, pants, curtains, sheets, hoodie, shirt, tote bag, blanket, jacket, and even 100% cotton. 

Does ironing unshrink cotton?

Ironing does not unshrink cotton. Ironing instead, sets cotton into a certain shape, especially when done at damp conditions, for a temporary period of time. 

Afterwards, the cotton fibers would snapback, especially when washed. 

So ironing is basically a way of stretching fibers temporarily that would be reversed in the laundry.  

How do you prevent cotton from shrinking

There really isn’t much you can do to prevent cotton from shrinking in the laundry, especially if it’s the first wash. You can, however, minimize shrinkage. 

And what you can do, is to make sure to wash the cotton exactly the way it is recommended to be washed.

There’s a link placed somewhere above, and it directs to an article that describes exactly how to wash cotton for the first time, and also how to go about subsequent washing of cotton.