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The fashionista’s guide to washing fabrics that shrink

Marilyn Monroe said: “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you’re a woman, but loose enough to show you’re a lady.” So we buy the most perfect-fitting sweater, but then shrinking fabrics go and mess everything up.

OK, we know cotton shrinks. And I can feel my mom’s pride from miles away whenever I’m at the store and remember to check the tag. Ah, 50 percent cotton. This one will be fine, I think. The other 50 percent stuff will surely negate the contraction of cotton!

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Fast-forward to a couple of weeks later and… I’m shipping my recently purchased, one-time-washed tee to my 1-year-old niece. Now I’ve lost my mom’s pride and my new favorite shirt.

Why does fabric shrink?

So why do fabrics shrink in the first place? Well, there are two reasons for shrinkage:

  • Relaxation: When clothing is made, the fibers that make up the fabric are twisted and spun and pulled and stretched. So when we wash them for the first time, the fibers are actually shrinking back to their natural tension.
  • Progressive: This occurs over time, as your items may get smaller and smaller with each use. It’s because the natural fibers, like our hair, have tiny cuticles. The more we wear and wash and tumble our clothes, the more these cuticles rub on each other, ruffle and bunch up. Thus, tinier clothes.

Fabrics that shrink

Now, I love my niece and all, but I need clothes too. So let’s smarten up!

Here are the fabrics we need to watch out for if we are trying to keep our clothes the same size. That said, you don’t necessarily have to avoid buying these fabrics, but instead, pay close attention to how to care for these fabrics.

This means you may have to put a little more work into your laundry routine. (Hey, but think about how our grandmothers had to wash clothes.)

Fabrics that shrink
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

How to reverse shrinkage

But do not fear! Even in your worst-case scenario, you can actually reverse shrunk clothes — somewhat.

First, remember why clothes shrink? It’s because of those cute little cuticles. Heat (washing in hot water, drying in hot air) causes the cuticles to fray outward, while any friction causes them to frizz more and tangle.

More: 7 Laundry tips you’re probably not using but should be

This is where Hair Care 101 comes in: Conditioner mollifies this process. It bonds to the fiber (or hair) and keeps the cuticles smooth and calm. So to unshrink your favorite shirt, soak it in a warm (not hot!) water and conditioner mixture (about 2 tablespoons of conditioner to 1 quart of water). Roll the shirt in a towel to squish out the extra water, then gently tug and reshape it, and leave it to dry completely on a flat surface.

When all else fails, just send it to your niece.

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