Why Does Cotton Shrink & How To Stop It

You wash your favorite cotton garment as you usually do; it’s laundry day, after all. But, putting it on a few days later, it feels more snug than you remember. Was it the really big lunch? Or, did the cotton shrink in the wash?

And you think: Why does this have to happen to me? Because it was also your favorite t-shirt, hoodie, or chinos. Why does cotton shrink in the wash?

In this article, we’ll discuss why cotton shrinks after washing, how to prevent it, and whether your garment will stretch back. We’ll also discuss what happens when you actually want to shrink your cotton, and what to do with those tiny garments.

Why Does Cotton Shrink When Washed?

This gets down to a bit of science and how cotton garments are actually made. It’s all in the fiber.

Cotton has naturally short fibers. When it is woven into clothing, tension is applied and those fiber stretch. It’s a little like a spring, though: those fibers want to return to their natural, resting position.

man wearing white cotton t-shirt

Exposure to heat relaxes the fibers, removing the tension that stretched the fibers, and forces the cotton to return back to its original (shorter) length. That is why your cotton shrinks after the first wash, and especially on the first trip through your dryer.

That shrinkage doesn’t just happen in the dryer either. Your washer might also be aiding in your cotton shrinking issues. The more heat in each step, the more chance of this happening.

How Much Does Cotton Shrink?

This depends on whether your cotton garment has been pre-shrunk. If so, it shouldn’t shrink more than about 5% from the original size.

However, on a first wash, a non-pre-shrunk cotton garment may shrink by as much as 20%. This also depends on the fabric blend of your garment. Specifically, how much man-made material was used with the cotton.

Typically, you’re pretty safe with the pre-shrunk garments, but there are several other ways to prevent dreaded cotton shrinking.

How to Prevent Cotton from Shrinking in the Wash

There are several ways to prevent and reduce the amount your cotton shrinks in its lifetime. This includes everything from what you are buying to how you take care of it.

1. Avoid Heat

Like we mentioned earlier, heat application releases the tension in cotton fibers. This causes them to shrink to their natural state. It’s difficult to avoid all heat, but you can take steps in your washing process to mitigate risk.

First, set your dryer to low and gentle heat. Better yet, air-dry if you’ve got time and space to do it.

Also, recognize hot water may also cause the problem. If you’re exceptionally worried about shrinkage, it may be worth washing by hand. But, for most of us civilians, washing on ‘cold’ and ‘gentle’ is perfectly fine.

There are additional benefits to low and slow washing. Clothes washed at home (not dry cleaned) tend to have a longer life span. But, if you’re not sure, check the instructions on the garment label.

Bonus tip: for all clothes that can be washed at home (not dry cleaned) cold washing and low heating or air drying will extend the life of the garment. That goes for more than just the cotton ones. This even works for some of those lower quality pickups that tend to wear out quickly.

2. Reduce Washing Frequency

Taking step 1 into consideration, another way to prevent that cotton from shrinking is to reduce the number of times you actually wash your garment. The fewer times it’s exposed to the washer and dryer, the longer it will last without shrinking.

If it has no stains and no smell, you’re probably safe to just hang or fold it back up without bothering with your cotton shrinking it in the wash at all. 

3. Buy Pre-Shrunk Cotton

When a label says “Pre-Shrunk” that means the item has already been through its first wash, which is typically where cotton shrinks the most.

The good news is there shouldn’t be much to worry if the manufacturer already took care of it. It’s still wise, however, to care for your garment the way we mentioned in step 1.

For more information about how companies pre-shrink cotton and other fabrics, check out this article.

4. Buy Cotton Blends

The other way to prevent your cotton from shrinking is to buy a garment with other fibers woven in. There are a couple ways to do this.

If a garment is, say, 60% cotton and 40% manmade materials like polyester or nylon, there is less natural fiber to shrink. As we’ve previously discussed in our in-depth article about why clothing shrinks, the garment may still shrink- just less.

However, manmade fabrics are often cheaper to manufacture and, while they tend to hold less moisture, they’re far less breathable than cotton.

5. Size Up

If you have no other choice but to buy the 100% cotton garment and shrinking that piece of clothing remains a fear, consider sizing up. You can account for the eventual shrinkage.

In this case, you might be doing the first wash and shrink of your own garment at home. You can essentially pre-shrink the cotton clothing yourself.

Does Cotton Stretch Back?

Actually, yes! Cotton can shrink and stretch. However, if you’ve experienced the shrink in the wash before, it can be difficult to reverse it.

If you already shrank that favorite cotton tee there is still some hope you can undo the damage. You’ll first want to rewet the item in warm water. This article recommends using hair conditioner during the process as well, along with a few other steps.

Then, stretch the garment out on a flat surface to your desired shape. Use books or weights to hold it in place and allow the item to air dry. Lastly, keep your fingers crossed (always a good practice)!

When Would You Want Your Cotton to Shrink?

Is there even such a time? Well, as we noted before, you may find yourself in the position of pre-shrinking your own cotton garments. In that case, yes, you will want your cotton to shrink to get to your preferred size.

The simplest way to shrink your own cotton is to basically do the opposite of what we told you to do to prevent it. Make sure to wash your garment on its own with both the wash and rinse cycle water temperature set to hot. Once washed, you’ll then want to dry it at a high heat as well to make sure your cotton properly shrinks.

how to stop cotton t-shirt from shrinking

However, this is certainly a risk-you could overshrink it. It’s also worth noting cotton tends to shrink vertically instead of horizontally. So, this may be effective if you’re looking to shorten a hemline on a T-shirt, but won’t do much good if you’re looking to slim the torso of the shirt as well.

What To Do With Your Cotton After it Shrinks

If you weren’t intentionally shrinking your cotton, you might be left wondering what to do with that item you can’t fit into anymore. Before you throw it away, consider trying to reuse it to extend its life!

It can be turned into a hand-me-down for a relative or someone who might fit it better. It’s also still an excellent candidate for donation.

You can also turn that bad boy into a reusable rag for chores and cleaning at home. If you can’t wear it, at least you can still use it.

Final Thoughts

To recap: all cotton shrinks because of the way it is woven. That tension is the key. If you’re worried about your clothes suddenly coming out of the dryer two sizes too small, focus on buying pre-shrunken garments and washing them in cold water/low heat.

There is a chance you can get your cotton garment back to its original size and shape, but we don’t recommend counting on it. Best to prevent than repair!

Have a question about cotton or clothing shrinkage? Ask one of the experts in our online community!