Help Wanted: How To Figure Shrinkage When Purchasing Clothes

Fabric labels

Fabric labels

If you don’t want a new item of clothing to shrink, it will.  If you want it to, it won’t.  Has anyone else experienced that frustration?

Blog reader, Isaac, recently contacted me about this very issue and asked for help.  Here’s his comment:

“Maybe one topic for your blog could be how to clothes shop. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and don’t clothes shop often, but it causes me real anxiety. I’ll buy a hoodie or pair of pants after having tried them on. They fit perfectly or are slightly too big. But after I wash them, they either shrink (the perfectly fitting hoodie is now too small) or they don’t (so the too big dress pants I was expecting to shrink into my size remain clown pants). It’s frustrating because I feel I’m wasting money and clothes aren’t cheap.  Are there some tips to help with this?  I do know that cotton shrinks and I shouldn’t put it in the dryer if it’s the size I want, but what percentage of cotton means that it will still act that way? Will 50% still shrink?”

Here are my thoughts:

1.       Cotton does shrink.  Regardless of the percentage of cotton in a garment, it shrinks.  From

Cotton can shrink up to 20 percent every time it is put in the dryer. Although many believe that it is the heat of the dryer that causes the shrinkage, according to Cotton Incorporated, that is not actually the case. The tumbling of the dryer evaporates moisture from cotton clothing, causing it to shrink.

Testing by Cotton Incorporated shows that cotton clothing that is tumbled dry in a dryer at various heats (100, 150 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit) all showed the same amount of shrinkage. Clothes that were dried at higher heats shrank faster than those at the lower heat.

So the only way to be sure your cotton garments don’t shrink is not to dry them and not to wash them in HOT water.

2.       If you’re not willing to keep all your cotton garments out of the dryer, you can slow the process by washing them in cold water and drying them on low heat.  It’s even better if you take them out of the dryer before they’re completely dry.  They’ll still shrink but the shrinkage will be less each time.  It also helps if you wash them on the gentle cycle.

3.       Denim, also 100% cotton, seems to be another matter entirely.  My personal experience is that jeans don’t usually shrink – at least not permanently.  When you pull them out of the dryer, they’re definitely tighter.  But after wearing them a while, they stretch back out.  If you buy a denim jacket, shirt or dress, it will shrink and it won’t stretch back out.

4.       Certain brands shrink more than others.  You can read reviews but you’ll probably have to figure it out the hard way.

5.       Pre-washed items will still shrink but they should shrink much less – especially if you wash them in cold and dry them on low heat.

6.       Shrinkage is usually in the waist and/or length.

7.       The most dramatic shrinkage is usually in the first wash – then it slows way down.

8.       Sometimes more expensive clothing shrinks less.

9.       Using a hot iron on certain fabrics, like wool, can also cause shrinkage.

Now the truth is, I don’t buy a lot of clothes, and the clothes I buy are all very similar.  I’m definitely no expert on fabrics and laundry issues.  So I offered my two cents and now would love to hear yours.  What’s your advice for Isaac?

A list of other cleaning articles is available in the Cleaning Index.


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Born in Kentucky, I am a wife and mom to 1 son and 2 daughters . I have an ink pen obsession, as well as a love for all things planner. I have been married for 10 years to my high school crush. I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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8 thoughts on “Help Wanted: How To Figure Shrinkage When Purchasing Clothes

  1. I’ll be curious at the responses. I remember buying a pair of pants and having them shrink so much after I washed them that I couldn’t wear them, and I had a shirt that shrank on the first wash so that it was too small. With pants, I wash them before taking for alternations. That way, if there is any shrinkage, it will already be taken care of. The shirt experience is tougher because I want the clothes to fit, not be too big.

  2. The first thing to keep in mind is where the clothing was made. Items made outside of the US do shrink more than item made in the US, and that still depends on where the fabric was manufactured. Even Permanent Press clothing shrinks, but there is less shrinkage than with the 100% “natural” fibers. Most important thing to do with laundering clothes is to read the care tag! Sort your laundry accordingly to avoid some nasty surprises. “Wah _____ means just that. Don’t try to shortcut or the garment could be ruined.

    To have any hopes of being able to wear an item a second time if it is a “soft knit”, I was it in Woolite (three types: Regular/Original, Everyday, Dark), using cold water only. Never put those cute cotton knits through a dryer to dry them. I hang mine on hangers and air dry them. If they are wrinkled, I can put them through “Air fluff” in the dryer with a damp cloth.

    Sweaters and other fluffy knits never go through the dryer — ever — because the fibers will shrink and “pill”. I wash them on the gentle cycle and “block” hem on a sweater dryer (a large sheet of mesh stretched onto a frame with logs so that the sweater can dry more quickly. I use Woolite of the correct type and fabric softener to avoid having it feel scratchy afterward.

    Lingerie with elastic (bras, slips, foundations, and such) or fancy are never put through the dryer because the latex will become brittle and that is what causes them to shrink. If you must press these items, use an iron set for “Silk” and use a pressing cloth to avoid shiny spots. Use a damp pressing cloth to get wrinkles out of fine fabrics without scorching the fabric.

    Bleaching can be accomplished using lemon juice, peroxide, or other products that are natural. Clorox is reserved for sanitizing and no kind of “bleach” is ever used on colors. To get whites really white, wash them early in the day and hang them out in the sun. Not only are they brighter, they are also sanitized and they smell heavenly when you bring them indoors.

    I avoid sing the less expensive detergents and softening products because I want to know the performance level of these products before I have to do laundry. Using a stain removal product that works is another matter, as these depend on what you are trying to remove and who manufactured the product.

    Clothing items containing latex need a lower heat setting — always — unless you really want them to shrink. Cottons are going to shrink when washed — count on that. Silks, if laundered incorrectly, will shrink. I buy cotton items one size larger than I need to accommodate the shrinkage.

    When fabrics are cut to make clothing, they are first stacked and then cut “en mass” in order to keep labor costs down. Depending on the fabric, that could mean up to 20 thicknesses of fabric pressed together to hold the stack in place and a cutter being used to cut the pieces. The item cut at the top of the stack is going to stretch, so it is actually larger from that point forward. To know that you are buying a quality made item, look to see that the pattern in the fabric is matched up directionally. The closet to “perfect” the pattern matching is, the higher the quality of construction. There is nothing worse than looking for a value buy on clothing that ends up un-wearable after the first washing. A slightly looser fit is better than too tight and uncomfortable.

    Clothing purchased from Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Ross, and such, will be shrinkable by at least 10%, so purchase things accordingly.

    Doing the laundry with a view to having these items for a long time is the key. I am not much for fashion trends. I know what I like and I buy only what I like because I have to live with my decisions for quite some time. I just went through my closet this weekend and I have jeans that I have owned and worn a lot for more than 10 years. They look and fit as well as the more expensive items that did not last so long or look as good.

    Today’s perfect fit could well be tomorrow’s “Did I gain weight?” moan… You probably didn’t gain or lose any great amount of size, but if you laundered the clothes the wrong way, then you are dealing with shrinkage. Purchase items from that point of view and take care of the clothing correctly for consistency in fit, color, and usability.

  3. The problem I have is that washing laundry with a family of 6 is done mainly by whites, lights/brights & darks/standard colors. Whites I put on hot/cold, lights are on warm/warm or warm cold & darks go on cold/cold. I wash very few items separately likely handwash, dress clothes, certain tops/bottoms that are delicate or have a color mix that doesn’t fit into a color category. If I seriously washed all my laundry by what the tag says, then I’d have 30 different loads of 1 item which makes sense. As much as a wish I could use the sun and line dry as I’m in southern Texas so we have an abundance of sunlight here, but if I line dried my clothes would come back in dirty from well nature, bugs attached to them or they’d never make it back in because I’d have to have my line in the front yard as the back if full of children’s playground stuff & covered with huge trees that’d shade the sun as well as drop nature’s finest yuckies all over my things. It’s so hard to do laundry properly with all the tag variations on wash instructions. I’m the only one in my family that has a fit if stains don’t get pre-treated, sperated to the reasonable extent & washed/dried to the closest I can get to the label. I’m even picky about what is used in the machines to wash/dry and what spray/detergent/peroxide/Zote bar/vinegar/baking soda-washing soda-borax is used to pretreat & if it sets for 5min to overnight or if it needs a good long soak n prewash ect. But I’ve never be able to do laundry like Dianne does because my hubby would go insane with the amount of time and money I’m costing us on the utilities lol.

    1. I do it the way you do, Wendy. I do whites, darks and colds. I pretty much wash every shirt I own in cold water and hang to dry. If something is obviously delicate – wait, I don’t buy those kinds of things – but if I did, I might hand wash them but probably throw them in with the colds.

      I did try hanging my laundry out but I hated it – for all the reasons you mentioned.

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