How to Unshrink Clothes in a Few Easy Steps

By Alexa Erickson


From expensive fabrics to meaningful gifts, clothes deserve to be taken care of. Unfortunately, not all items can handle the washing machine and dryer. Whether you forgot to read the tag, or someone else in the family was on laundry duty and didn’t know what to hang dry, clothing mishaps happen. More specifically, your favorite sweater comes out shrunken to two sizes smaller, or your jeans no longer button—even though they fit you a few days ago.


Luckily, some laundry mistakes are reversible, and we’re here to show you how to flip your favorite garments back to their original state. Read on to find out why clothes shrink and how to unshrink them.

metal hanger and multicolored sweater with keyhole button

Photo via Claire at Pillarboxblue


Why Clothes Shrink

Many fabrics are totally fine going through the washer and dryer, which is why more clothes make it through entire laundry cycles than ones that must be put aside for special care. It really comes down to the fabric, which is why it’s so important to get to know your clothes and read their tags.


Materials respond to heat and rotation differently:

  • As durable and comfortable as cotton clothes are, they’re prone to shrinkage because, under heat, cotton fibers lose tension and relax, shrinking down when the clothes start to cool off. Many manufacturers will actually pre-shrink cotton clothing before retailing it so that initial shrinkage is over with before it reaches the consumer.
  • Animal-based fabric like wool is made up of a bunch of tiny little proteins in its fibers. The combination of heat and movement in a washer/dryer can cause the proteins and frays in the fabric to latch onto each other and bind fibers closer together, therefore shrinking the garment.
  • Synthetic fabrics are pretty resistant to shrinkage. In fact, it may take several hot wash and dry cycles before you even realize that your polyester or rayon garment has shrunk. Harsh detergents can also cause the fibers in synthetic fabrics to shrink.
  • It happens to just about everyone: Your freshly-clean and folded denim jeans fit a little too snug. That’s because heat from the washer and dryer relax the denim fibers, causing them to expand and then contract when they return back to room temperature.


Pick Your Denim Right

When shopping for a new pair of jeans, be sure to read the tag. Polyester is often added to denim for softness, but that also means that the jeans are bound to shrink after several washes. It’s not impossible to reverse, but it’s something to keep in mind.


How to Unshrink Cotton Clothes

How you unshrink clothes is dependent on the material you’re working with. Here, we’ve covered cotton, wool and other animal fibers, and denim.


We’ll show you how to unshrink cotton clothes with conditioner. Conditioner, which softens and relaxes hair, will soften and relax cotton fibers so that they can be stretched back to their original tension before they were heated.


Tools and Materials Needed

  • Lukewarm water
  • Hair conditioner (make sure there are no added dyes)
  • Bath towel
  • Safety pins


Step 1: Fill Sink with Water

Plug your sink drain and fill it with lukewarm water. Add in the shrunken cotton garment.


Step 2: Add Hair Conditioner, Soak

Add two tablespoons of hair conditioner to the sink. Use your hands to work the conditioner into the fabric and stretch the fibers at the same time. Soak the garment for 30 minutes.


Step 3: Drain Sink

Drain the sink and wring out the fabric. Do not rinse out the hair conditioner.


Step 4: Dry Flat with Safety Pins

Lay the garment flat on a towel. Roll the garment up in the towel to remove excess moisture. Unroll, then use safety pins to pin each side of the garment flat onto the towel. Allow to fully dry and it should be ready to wear. However, if the garment does feel stiff from the conditioner, wash it according to the garment’s tag directions and let it air dry to avoid shrinking it again.


How to Unshrink Clothes from Wool and Other Animal Fibers

Precious fabrics like wool and cashmere need to be treated with care. Here’s how to undo shrink damage to get your clothes back to their original condition using borax and some shaping.


Tools and Materials Needed

  • Lukewarm water
  • Borax
  • Rubber gloves
  • Bath towels


Step 1: Fill Sink with Water

Plug your sink drain and fill it with lukewarm water. Add in the wool or other animal fiber-based garment you’re trying to unshrink.


Step 2: Add Borax, Soak

Add two tablespoons of borax to the water and clothes. Use rubber-gloved hands to work the powder into the fabric and stretch the fibers at the same time. Let the garment soak for 30 minutes.


Step 3: Drain Sink

Drain the sink. Gently wring out the fabric, being careful not to damage it, but do not rinse out the borax.


Step 4: Stuff the Garment with Towels, Hang Dry

Stuff the garment with towels until it appears close to its original size. Stretch out the garment and smooth out the silhouette, then let dry with the towels still inside.


How to Unshrink Clothes Made from ​​Synthetic Fabrics (Rayon, Polyester)

Although synthetic fibers don’t shrink as easily as the above fabrics we mentioned, it still happens. As with cotton, conditioner is successful in relaxing synthetic fibers so they can stretch back to their original taut state.


Tools and Materials Needed

  • Lukewarm water
  • Hair conditioner
  • Bath towel
  • Safety pins
  • Steamer


Step 1: Fill Sink with Water

Plug your sink and fill it with lukewarm water. Add in the synthetic fiber garment.


Step 2: Add Hair Conditioner, Soak

Add two tablespoons of hair conditioner to the sink. Use your hands to work the conditioner into the fabric and stretch the fibers at the same time. Soak the garment for 20 minutes.


Step 3: Drain Sink

Drain the sink and gently squeeze out the garment. Do not rinse out the hair conditioner.


Step 4: Gently Stretch and Steam

Gently stretch the fabric to release stiffness. Place a handheld steamer over the fabric to further loosen the fibers.


Step 5: Dry Flat with Safety Pins

Use safety pins to pin each side of the garment flat onto a towel. Allow to fully dry.

denim jeans and yellow scarf with pink and red floral print

Photo via Claire at Pillarboxblue


How to Unshrink Denim

All you need to loosen up tight jeans is some lukewarm water and your hands.


Tools and Materials Needed

  • Clean spray bottle
  • Lukewarm water


Step 1: Fill Up the Spray Bottle

Use a clean spray bottle that doesn’t have leftover cleaning residue from other products in it. Fill the bottle with lukewarm water.


Step 2: Lay Denim Flat

Lay denim flat on the floor, smoothing out the silhouette, and if you’re working on pants, leaving room between the legs of the jeans.


Step 3: Spray the Denim

Working in sections, spray the water on each pant leg (or section of whatever article of denim you’re working with). Once the section is noticeably damp, use both hands to pull and stretch the section of the denim. Repeat until all sections of the denim have been soaked and stretched.


Step 4: Air Dry

Hang the denim clothing item to air dry.


Take a Denim Bath

If you’re feeling up to it, you could also take a bath with the denim. Simply squeeze into your shrunken jeans, fill a bath with warm (not hot) water, and get in the tub and soak for 30 minutes. Remove the jeans, wring them out, and hang them to dry. (Don’t do this with new jeans, which will bleed in the water!)

gray knit sweater laid flat on a wood table

Photo via Chas' Crazy Creations


How to Prevent Clothes from Shrinking

Fibers prone to shrinking require special attention when it comes to cleaning them. For fibers like the ones listed above, avoid heat and tumbling by washing your garments by hand in cold water with a little laundry detergent. If you must wash them in the washing machine, wash them on a delicate setting with cool water and let air dry. When in doubt, always check the washing instructions on the tag of the garment.


Do you have any laundry woes you need help with? Ask your questions below!

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