Shrinkage is when fabric becomes smaller than its original size. It usually occurs during the first few washes. The cloth can shrink lengthwise and create problems in fitting into them. Shrinkage depends on fabric, composition, properties, structure, and finishing. Some high shrinkage fabrics, while others are low shrinkage fabrics. High shrinkage fabrics, including natural fibers.
So when natural fibers like these are exposed to moisture and excess heat, the fiber compresses and meshes together. On the other hand, low-shrinkage fabrics are usually synthetic and human-made, such as polyester and nylon. Synthetic fibers do not shrink because the washing machine does not get hot enough. So the petroleum-based fabrics remain unchanged in size.
More work needs to be done to prevent the shrinkage of natural fibers. These include submerging the new fabric in water before cutting the garment. So after it has shrunk, the fabric comes to its original size and can be used to make clothes to control shrinkage in line garments. The best combination of two fabrics should always be in the same shrinkage time, meaning high-shrinkage fabrics work best with similar high-shrinkage lining.
Why do clothes shrink in the wash?
Clothes can shrink in the wash due to various factors, including the fabric type, temperature, mechanical agitation, and moisture. Here are the main points explaining why clothes may shrink:
Fabric Type: Different fabrics have different properties and behaviors when exposed to water and heat. Natural fibers like cotton and wool are more prone to shrinking than synthetic fibers like polyester. Natural fibers have a structure that can tighten or contract when exposed to water and heat.
Temperature: High temperatures can cause fibers to shrink. When clothes are washed in hot water or exposed to high heat during drying, the heat can break down the fibers’ structure and cause them to contract. Therefore, it’s essential to follow the care instructions on clothing labels, which specify the recommended temperature for washing.
Mechanical Agitation: Aggressive mechanical action during washing, such as heavy agitation or vigorous spinning, can contribute to shrinking. The friction and stretching caused by these movements can distort the fabric and lead to shrinkage.
Moisture: Moisture can also affect fabric behavior. When fibers absorb water, they can swell and shrink as they dry. This can happen during washing if the fabric absorbs significant water and is exposed to heat.
Combination of Factors: Shrinkage results from the combined effect of factors such as high temperature, mechanical agitation, and moisture. For example, if you wash a cotton shirt in hot water and then tumble dry it on high heat, the heat, water, and mechanical action can cause the cotton fibers to contract and shrink.
In Layman’s terms: you do laundry, like controlled chemistry! A couple of fibers are used to make clothing: synthetic and natural. Synthetics are artificial polymers like polyester, rayon, Kevlar, or acrylic. Their fibers are strings of petroleum-based chemical chains. Synthetics from petroleum products don’t typically shrink in the laundry because the washer and dryer do not get hot enough to mess with their structure.
Natural fibers, on the other hand, come from animals and plants. Cotton, wool, or silk fibers are naturally curly and tangled. When you want to weave these threads into fabrics, you must stretch and pull them to make them straight. But if allowed to return to the natural curly state, they will. Scientists have discovered that laundry machines’ heat and mechanical energy let them do that in shrinkage.
There are three kinds of shrinkage:
Relaxation: Relaxing is the immediate release of that stretching and pulling tension left behind from the straightening of the natural fibers. That tension exists on a molecular level and is leftover from the manufacturing process. When tepid or warm water is added to the natural fabric, the warmth will let the fabric swell, reducing the size by about 1 percent.
Felting: Felting shrinkage is when the fibers themselves get shorter. Magnifying wool in an electron microscope makes it of tiny scales, like human hair. According to a paper in the Textile Research Journal, the heat from the washer can expand these scales letting water get between them. Water is slippery, so it reduces the coefficient of friction. Like a retracting car or radio antenna, those scales slide together, contracting rootward!
Consolidation: The third type is Consolidation shrinkage, which happens in the laundry process itself. The mechanical bouncing action of the washer and drier beats up the fibers, curling them back up again. A 2002 study in The Research Journal of the Association of Universities for Textiles found the structure of the fabric affects shrinkage.
Denim jeans are tightly woven cotton, so they only shrink slightly, but sweaters are mostly air! So they can shrink as much as 30 percent. Even the natural moisture content of the fibers themselves can affect shrinkage: cotton has about 5 percent, and wool has about 17 percent. So over-drying can inevitably cause clothing to change shape.
Nazi scientists added plastics to wool to fill the spaces and solidify the fibers in World War II. Today this continues with manufacturers weaving in non-shrinking synthetics. Chemists invented anti-shrinking agents to cover natural fibers and keep them from curling up.
Scientists who wrote papers on shrinkage quickly pointed out that everyone does laundry differently. Water temperature, time, detergent, clothing fibers, and machine manufacturer add variables to the laundry at-home science project.
What causes clothes to shrink?
We can break clothing fibers into synthetic, plant-based, and animal-based categories. Each of these fibers has a chemical makeup that will respond to cleaning methods differently, and many clothing garments can be made of a mix.
Synthetic: Synthetic fibers are polymer chains built from small units, or monomers, usually derived from petroleum. It includes materials like polyester, nylon, polypropylene, and many more. Most synthetic fibers are hydrophobic or water-hating. It is why they’re often used as outerwear to shed water or underwear to breathe and let moisture escape the skin. For the most part, these types of materials have no issue with water and don’t shrink when machine-washed.
Plant-based: Plant-derived materials contain cotton, linen, and hemp with fibers with chemical structures made of cellulose, which are long polymers of glucose molecules. These materials are excellent to clean in your washer at home because the cellulose fibers are polar. Therefore hydrophilic or water-loving. This quality allows these materials to absorb and release water without affecting their structure.
Be careful, though, because high temperatures with washing and drying can potentially warp these materials. For this reason, many clothing manufacturers pre-shrink thread, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Animal-based: Protein-based fibers like silk and wool are a different story. These materials have polar and nonpolar sections arranged in tube-like structures, making the inside hydrophilic and outside hydrophobic. These exteriors are excellent for light exposure to water, like when it rains, because it rolls right off. But when things get wet garment is in big trouble because water can eventually break through into the hydrophilic interior, where it sticks around.
This is why wool takes so long to dry once fully soaked. These water molecules cause the interior of the fiber structure to swell. To accommodate that swelling, the exterior of the fiber has to contract lengthwise.
When the water evaporates, the fibers remain in this shortened configuration, and the sweater is now misshapen or too small. Regular detergent interacts with the hydrophobic surface, helping transport water into it, causing damage to its structure. A low temperature, short wash time, and mild detergent help reduce stress on fibers and limit damage.
Remember, The manufacturer can produce high-quality clothes while assuring customer satisfaction. For example, top-dresses or skirts are in rayon fabric. The fabric, the lining fabric, should be made with rayon. But as for synthetically made fibers, if the garment line is low shrinkage, the best material for ironing is polyester or other synthetic fabric.
Shrinkage in the fabrics is negligible. If the garment demands low-shrinkage body fabric with high shrinkage, lining fabric, or high-shrinkage body fabric with low shrinkage, lining precautions must be taken. Users complain that the lining may come from where the body fabric shrinks after a few washes.
If manufacturers use polyester or synthetic fabric for the body and quaternary fabric for the lining, the outer body is the same after a few washes. So manufacturers need to take necessary precautions and preach the high shrinkage.
Frequently asked questions
Does hot water shrink clothes?
Hot water does shrink clothes sometimes. That depends on temperature and cotton quality. Hot water shrinks clothes to their maximum shrinkage capacity after one wash. On the other hand, warm water gradually shrinks them over multiple washes.
How do you Stop clothes from shrinking?
Make sure to reshape clothes when you lay them to dry, or the wool may dry misshapen. There’s dry cleaning, which saves clothes from any contact with water. If you read “dry clean,” it’s more of a recommendation than necessary when looking at the label. You should do so when it says “dry-clean only” because these clothes are prone to shrinkage.
Contrary to what you might think, dry cleaning isn’t dry. Instead of using water, this cleaning method relies on perchloroethylene, or “perc” for short. This chlorinated molecule can’t penetrate protein-based fibers, so it doesn’t cause any shrinkage.
- Use cold water and avoid the dryer.
- Remember that natural fiber clothing is made from the parts of living things!
Professional cleaners use a mixture of perc and detergent with specific purposes. Perc is an oil-loving, nonpolar solvent, so it does a great job lifting nonpolar stains from fabric, like that sweat ring around your collar or that greasy spill from lunch. The detergent helps lift any water-soluble stains that the perc can’t interact with on the cleaning method.
After a final perc rinse, the laundry gets spun and tumbled dried, all within the same machine. But caution: Some synthetic fibers can dissolve in dry cleaning solvents. Plants and synthetics are good to go in the water. But protein-based animal fibers will always need special attention and even dry cleaners. Yet another reason to keep chemical knowledge fresh and clean!
Annis, Patricia, Understanding and Improving the Durability of Textiles. Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-85709-764-4.
“AATCC Test Methods, Technical Manual & Standards.” AATCC Online.
“LP1 Home Laundering: Machine Washing”.
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