How To Wash Cotton Without Shrinking

One of the most annoying aspects of home laundry is the “phenomenon” called shrinkage. A situation where the clothes you put inside the washer aren’t the ones you’re getting out, instead, you’re getting garments that are much smaller. 

This is very pronounced with cotton clothes due to the way their fibers are treated prior to turning them into threads for weaving. There’s actually very little you can do to prevent shrinkage of cotton clothes from happening in the washer. 

The very little you can do is what we will be discussing in this article.

Does cotton shrink every time you wash it?

Shrinkage in cotton happens due to the relaxation of fibers from the tension that was applied on them during weaving.

An important step in making cotton yarn utilizes stretching (of fibers) to weave beautiful fabrics in place. Such stretching creates tension in the fibers which can be released in the washing machine through the application of hot water and agitation. 

But this shrinkage (the major and noticeable one) typically happens the very first time you wash the cloth, and then becomes unnoticeable with subsequent wash. Other minimal shrinkages will continue to occur, just like they do in all other fabrics, but the major shrinkage is what you’ll notice instantly. 

It’s rare to find an already washed cotton material that shrinks in the washer. It will shrink for the first time and then retain that shrunken shape for the rest of the life span. 

What’s the solution?

Because shrinkage in cotton happens as a result of tension applied to the staple fibers, and by factors in the washing machine (like heat and agitation) capitalizing on the tension applied, it becomes an impossible task to evade it, unless you’re going to avoid washing the cotton cloth entirely, which is impossible.

Because of that, it’s always good to prepare your mind for shrunken cotton clothes in the washing machine whenever you plan on washing your new clothes. But do not worry too much about the degree of shrinkage as cotton shrinks only by about 2 to 4%. 

To avoid dealing with shrinkage on cotton items, it is advised to purchase already shrunk cotton garments. These are fabrics that have been pre-shrunk to cater for the shrinkage that occurs at home so you don’t have to worry about it.

As for what you can do to minimize the degree of shrinkage you have on your cotton clothes, you can do the following.

Use cold water

The molecules of hot water are in constant random motion and as a result, it’s easier to have shrinkage worsened by hot water than cold water. Because of this, opt for cold water or warm water when washing cotton materials that you recently purchased to minimize shrinkage on it.

Use gentle agitation

When it comes to shrinkage, the closest you can ever get to minimizing it is to reduce the degree of agitation you apply on the clothes. 

Agitation is what will facilitate the release of tension on cotton clothes faster than any other thing, including hot water. 

Whenever you’re washing new cotton clothes, and you opt for the heavy duty cycle of the washing machine, then your cotton cloth will definitely shrink. So the best solution would be to opt for the gentlest cycle of your washer or the permanent press cycle.

Opting for the permanent press cycle has the added advantage of minimizing the formation of wrinkles and creases on your clothes. 

In case you didn’t know, cotton clothes are extremely prone to wrinkling and creasing, because they are not elastic, meaning that when they stretch in the washing machine, it takes an extended period of time for the fibers to snap back to the original sizes. 

Which is why wrinkling and creases on cotton cloths are very pronounced and unless you put iron or heat on them, they will stubbornly remain there for a while.

Hand wash

With hand washing, you have greater control over the amount of agitation applied to your clothes, and because of that, shrinkage due to agitation can easily be minimized. 

When hand washing also, you’re naturally forced to stick with cold or warm water wash as hot water will be too hot for your hands to bear.

Does cotton shrink in the dryer?

Let’s point out the things that cause shrinkage in the washing machine. They are heat and motion. These are the exact same things you’ll find in the dryer. 

The high heat of the dryer is in fact, of a much higher temperature than the hot water wash in the washing machine. Because of that, cotton can also shrink in the dryer.

If you wish to minimize any possible shrinkage from happening to your cotton, what you should do is to use the low heat setting of the dryer for the clothes or the no heat settings.

Air drying is another great option

Another option you have when it comes to preventing shrinkage of cotton clothes in the laundry is to air dry them. Whilst cotton fabrics hate the UV rays of the sun because they cause areas of the fabric to fade, cotton can benefit from being hanged in a shaded area to air dry as that would reduce the possibilities of shrinkage in the dryer.

The only problem with this is that you can have wrinkling persist, because of that, you might need to iron the cotton cloth after it is done drying.

Does cotton polyester blend shrink?

Depending on the percentage of cotton in the cotton polyester blend, your shrinkage may or may not be pronounced. 

When you have a cotton polyester blend that has more polyester than cotton, then obviously, you won’t be dealing with as much shrinkage as you would, if cotton fibers were the most dominant there.

So the bottomline is that the higher the percentage of cotton in the blend, the more gentle you should go on the fabric. But of course, you should also check the second material too to verify if it’s heat and agitation tolerant too. 

Final Thoughts

It’s a very difficult task to prevent cotton from shrinking in the washing machine, especially a cotton material that is new and hasn’t been preshrunk or subjected to pre-treatments to combat that.

Because cotton fibers are normally stretched before they are used as threads for weaving, tension is created on the staple fibers. That is why you have a gradual release of this tension when you wash the cotton material in the washing machine and also put it in the dryer. In the end, such tension release is translated as shrinkage.

The easiest way to minimize shrinkage on cotton clothes (because you cannot fully eliminate it), is to use cold water when washing cotton for the first time, and opt for low speed agitation. 

This basically means you opt for the gentle cycle of the washer. Additionally, in the dryer machine, make sure to use low heat settings or no heat settings at all. You can also choose to air dry!