How many times has this happened to you? You put on a load of laundry, wait patiently for both machines to finish their thing, and you take your clothes out. And then — lo and behold! Nothing fits you anymore because it has shrunk! So you’re left with a question — do clothes shrink in the washer or dryer?

It’s only natural to point fingers, so to say. So if you’re wondering which one of your lovely appliances is the culprit for having a jumper that only fits your pet cat now, the answer is, unfortunately, both.

Well, better said, both machines CAN shrink your clothes if you’re not careful. So let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of hows and whys.

The Main Causes of Shrinkage

Shrunken laundry is a real first-world problem. However, everyone deals with it. That is great because it doesn’t make me feel like an utter failure. But it does make everyone an instant “expert” on the subject. Old wives’ tales about doing this and that to prevent shrinkage are a dime a dozen.

That’s why I decided to dig a little deeper and unravel the truth. First of all, why does any article of clothing shrink? Furthermore, is it the dryer that shrinks the clothes or the washer? And, finally, how do I stop it?

Natural Fibers

Natural fibers that make up fabrics like cotton and linen are not straight. Furthermore, unlike artificial materials, natural fibers are only as long as nature permits. Thus, being all wavy and of different lengths, when manufacturers weave them into the fabric, they have to straighten, stretch, and connect them.

Stretching, in particular, changes the molecular state of the fiber. That, in part, makes the entire fabric more susceptible to change due to heat and moisture. When exposed to heat (be it in the dryer or the hot water in the washer), natural fibers curl.

Once the fibers curl, the entire fabric shrinks, and you’re left with an item of clothing that’s entirely too small for you (or, often, any human in your vicinity).

Synthetic Fibers

Unlike natural fibers, synthetic ones are straight. Therefore, knitting them into the fabric won’t change their molecular state. Does that mean that synthetic fibers won’t shrink in the washer and/or dryer? Not necessarily. Pure synthetic fibers like polyester won’t change their shape at all. However, most garments are made out of fabric blends (a blend of natural and synthetic fibers) and are, therefore, susceptible to shrinkage.

The Three Ways That Both Washer and Dryer Shrink Your Clothes

Consolidation

Consolidation is the triple threat. It’s the combined effect of heat, moisture, and the wear and tear that happens when the machines tumble. All three factors diminish the tension that’s holding the fibers together.

Therefore, the entire garment gets a bit deformed each time we wash it in hot water and dry it on high heat. The fibers shorten due to heat exposure, which changes the length and the overall size of the garment.

Relaxation (and not the good kind)

Just for the sake of it, let’s call this “double trouble,” since the relaxation of the fibers happens when the fabric is exposed to moisture and heat. That can happen when you’re washing clothes in hot water or when you’re drying them on a high-temperature setting.

Most natural fibers will swell when put in hot water, and, as a result, shrink. However, the shrinkage won’t be as dramatic as you might think — only around 1%. The only exception is silk, which will come out looking much smaller than when it came in, which is why everyone recommends washing silk in cold water.

Felting

Felting shrinkage happens only on natural fibers that are scaly. Fabrics like wool or other materials derived from animal fur have scales on the surface that can compress if you expose them to high heat. Thus, our jumper analogy from the beginning of the article. Everyone’s shrunk a sweater or two in their lifetime!

The Usual Suspect — Heat

As you can see, the two factors that cause shrinkage are moisture and heat. The latter, of course, is the main culprit when it comes to your clothes coming out deformed after a load of laundry.

Exposing the clothing to high heat is never a good idea. Don’t get me wrong — I understand the urge! Washing my clothes in hot water and using extended, drawn-out programs for both washing and drying was my way of making sure everything’s properly cleaned. That’s especially important when it comes to specific laundry loads like baby clothes, whites, and delicates.

But high heat will be detrimental to your clothes and your budget. You’ll find yourself shopping for outfits more often than you’d like (or can afford!) if you keep doing it.

So what’s the ideal solution? How can you avoid shrinkage?

How to Avoid Shrinkage

You CAN avoid ruining your clothes without having to banish the washer and dryer from your home. I’m not preaching hand washing here — just a bit of caution!

When you’re buying cotton clothes that are prone to shrinkage, make sure to get the cotton with an “anti-shrinkage” finish. You can also find wool that’s been treated with a similar finish. Thus, you can say goodbye to cat sweaters!

Furthermore, make sure always to follow the washing and drying instructions that you’ll find on the label. Don’t forget that not all garments are washer- and dryer-friendly. If you’re not interested in having to spend money on dry cleaning, then pay extra attention to labels when you’re shopping.

Finally, try to buy polyester-cotton blends because they are more durable and enduring. You can also buy clothes that have been pre-shrunk by the manufacturer. Pre-shrunk garments have already had the tension in their fibers released, which means that they have already shrunk as much as they can. That’s the number-one way to avoid any surprises!

A Few Parting Words

All in all, both your washer and your dryer can shrink your clothes, but only if you’re not careful. If you take precautions and pay attention to both the instructions and washer/dryer settings, you’ll never shrink another article of clothing again!

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