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Does cotton shrink? A guide to stop cotton from shrinking

What causes clothes to shrink, and does 100% cotton shrink in the wash? Here's how to avoid cotton shrinkage in your next wash.

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Three cotton t-shirts hanging up on a clothes rail with an orange background

Cotton is a great fabric: versatile, comfortable, breathable, and hardwearing. But like many materials, particularly natural ones, it’s also prone to shrinking when subjected to extremes of temperature and the agitation of washers and dryers. However, there are a few simple things you can do to take care of your cotton; so if you’ve been wondering how to prevent clothes from shrinking, look no further.

Does 100% cotton shrink in the wash and the dryer?

Why do cotton shirts shrink? Most natural fabrics shrink to some degree for two reasons: fibre shrinkage – the natural response of plant fibres to heat – and fabric shrinkage, the consequence of tension applied to yarn and fabric during manufacture. This tension is released with the heat of washing and drying, causing the garment to shrink.

So, does cotton shrink in the wash? In the first wash, unless you hand wash cold and air-dry, probably. But don't worry: there are some simple ways of minimising the impact of washing and drying on the fabric.

Why does cotton shrink in the wash? One culprit is friction: minimise this with a fabric conditioner that smooths down the cotton fibres.

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How to prevent cotton clothes from shrinking: wash by hand

What causes clothes to shrink? Heat and friction. So, for garments you’re anxious to keep in pristine condition, the safest answer on how to not shrink clothes when washing is to either hand wash them in cool water and air-dry them, or to take them to the dry cleaners. Always check the care label and follow the instructions for the best results.

  1. Use a special detergent intended for hand washing.

    Dissolve in cool or lukewarm water, and immerse the garment for the recommended length of time. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and test on a small and inconspicuous area first if you’re concerned.

  2. Rinse thoroughly, again in cool or lukewarm water.

    Do not wring or twist the fabric as this will affect its shape.

  3. Air dry in indirect sunlight, somewhere that air can circulate.

    Use hangers to maintain the shape of the garment.

How to not shrink clothes in the washing machine

If you don’t have time to hand wash your cotton items, never fear. Most standard washing machines have settings that will help stop cotton from shrinking.

  1. Use a mild detergent intended for delicate items.

    Set your washing machine to cold or 30 degrees, and its agitation cycle to delicate.

  2. Use a fabric conditioner to help minimise friction.

    Why does 100% cotton shrink less when it's washed with a good quality fabric conditioner? Fabric conditioners smooth the fibres of your clothing, which means they can help to reduce friction in the washing machine — one of the main causes of cotton shrinkage.

  3. Wash clothes and remove them from the washing machine.

    Shake gently to remove wrinkles.

  4. Hang up and air dry as before.

    Choose a spot in indirect sunlight, in a room where air can circulate.

Does cotton shrink in the dryer?

As the main answers to the question "how do clothes shrink?" are heat and friction, it's best to avoid using a tumble dryer if you're concerned about keeping your cotton shirts in perfect shape. However, if you're pressed for time, you can minimise what causes clothes to shrink in the dryer and avoid noticeable cotton shrinkage.

  1. Start by washing with fabric conditioner.

    The way that you wash your clothes impacts how they'll fare in the dryer. As above, a fabric conditioner will help to smooth the fibres of your cotton items and minimise friction in the dryer as well as the washing machine. Try Comfort Perfume Deluxe to leave your cared-for cotton smelling as good as it fits.

  2. Set your dryer to the lowest heat.

    A high heat will cause the fibres to contract more.

  3. Check out our other tips for tumble drying without shrinking.

    For more tips on how to prevent clothes from shrinking, which apply to cotton as well as other fabrics, check out our tumble drying guide.

Has your lifestyle during the Covid-19 lockdown affected the type of stains you get on your clothes?

You've got the answers to "why does cotton shrink in the wash?" and you're ready to side-step these troublesome elements in your next laundry session. With a bit of washing caution and smart know-how, you can keep your favourite cotton items in great shape for years to come.

Originally published