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How to Keep Cotton Clothes from Shrinking

By Shirtspace | Apr 07, 2015 |  Updated Oct 23, 2020

How to Keep Cotton Clothes from Shrinking

With nearly 29 million tons produced each year, cotton is one of the most popular fabrics in the world. But there’s one issue most people face when dealing with it, and that’s unwanted shrinking.

We’ve all been there before. After a long day, you toss your clothes into the washing machine without giving the care instruction label a second thought. And then, after drying, you notice that your favorite cotton shirt is two sizes smaller than it was when you bought it. 

If this sounds like you, then you’re not alone. It’s happened to just about everybody, and it’s no doubt a frustrating experience. 

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel: With a little knowledge of basic cotton apparel care, you can avoid shrinkage and even unshrink your favorite clothing. 

Does 100% Cotton Shrink?

Cotton shrinks after the first wash due to the chemical tension that was applied to the fabric and yarn during its production. Because of that process, most cotton items will shrink from the heat and steam in washers and dryers. 

Cotton shirts shrink as a result of chemical tension applied to the fabric during production.

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Caption: Production of cotton clothing and its chemical process

That’s why most care labels will tell you to wash on cold and dry on low. 

But there’s some good news when it comes to most cotton clothing. While 100% cotton clothing will shrink if you don’t wash it the right way, lower percentages of cotton may not shrink as much. 

So the next time you buy a cotton shirt, look at the label for the exact blend percentages. A good rule of thumb is that anything over 50% cotton will likely shrink at least a little bit, which is why preshrunk cotton or cotton blends are also popular choices. 

But if you’re one of the many who loves their 100% cotton, then there are steps you can take on how to prevent your clothes from shrinking. 

How to Prevent Cotton Shirts from Shrinking

The last thing anybody wants is for their brand new cotton shirt to shrink after just one wash. The easiest thing is to buy preshrunk cotton clothing, but preshrunk cotton isn’t always readily available in your favorite apparel. 

The next best thing you can do is adhere to the label’s care instructions. Most of us will admit that we don’t take the time to look at these labels, but when it comes to something as delicate as cotton it’s wise to take the extra few seconds to do so. 

“When buying clothes, you should opt for quality cotton pieces that fit, and you should check the label and follow care instructions closely to keep your cotton items newer longer,” says Suzanne Holmes of Cotton Incorporated.

You’ll usually see the following care instructions and labels on a 100% cotton t-shirt: 

Clothing care symbols: machine wash delicate or cold.

Machine wash delicate or cold

Clothing care symbols: tumble dry normal or low temperature.

Tumble dry normal or low temperature

Clothing care symbol: do not dry clean.

Do not dry clean

Clothing care symbols: do not iron or do not steam.

Do not iron or do not steam

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Not everybody knows what all laundry care symbols mean, which is why it’s wise to know the basics before you throw in your next load of laundry. It can help you avoid a costly mistake!

But if you’ve already made the irreparable mistake of washing your cotton shirt the wrong way, and are now stuck with something way too small, then you can try to unshrink it.

Can You Unshrink a Shirt?

If you accidentally shrunk your favorite cotton clothing, you don’t have to throw it away or give it to your younger sibling. Instead, you can unshrink it! 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Gentle conditioner

  • Plastic bucket or a plugged up sink

  • A quart of water

  • Two large absorbent towels

  • Paperweights

  • Spray bottle (optional)

Before you begin, make sure to have all your supplies together, including the piece of clothing you want to unshrink.

Step #1: Fill the Bucket

Step 1 to unshrink a t-shirt: fill the bucket with conditioner and a quart of water.

The first step to unshrinking your shirt is to fill the bucket with one tablespoon of gentle conditioner and a quart of water. The water can be cold or lukewarm, so you can take it directly from the tap in your bathtub. The conditioner is essential in this process since it will soften and relax the fabric, allowing the fibers to stretch out again.


Quick Tip: You can fill up the bucket as much as you’d like, but be sure that you add a tablespoon of conditioner for each quart.

Step #2: Soak the Cotton Shirt

Step 2 to unshrink a t-shirt: soak the cotton t-shirt completely in water.

When you’ve filled up the bucket with conditioner and a quart of water, soak your cotton t-shirt completely. You can move it around and mix it up for a couple of minutes, but make sure that you let it sit fully immersed for at least 30 minutes. 

Step #3: Lay and Roll Up the Shirt

Step 3 to unshrink a t-shirt: lay the shirt down and roll it up in a large, absorbent towel.

Remove the shirt from the bucket. Although it may be tempting to wring the shirt when you take it out, leave it completely soaked. You want to be sure that the conditioner remains in the fibers for elasticity during the stretching process. Next, place the shirt on a large absorbent towel and roll it up with the shirt inside. Leave the shirt rolled up for about 15 minutes until it’s damp. 

Quick Tip: If the shirt becomes too dry, then spritz with a spray bottle to dampen it, and then move onto the next step. 

Step #4: Stretch The Shirt

Step 4 to unshrink a t-shirt: slightly stretch the shirt and allow to air dry until it's ready to wear.

Unroll the first towel and lay your second absorbent towel flat on a flat surface. Then, place your damp cotton shirt spread out on top. With a firm grip, gently tug at opposite sides of the shirt as if you’re stretching it. Do this carefully so that the shirt will remain proportionate while also stretching slightly. Use the paperweights to place on the edges of the clothing to ensure that it stays stretched out. Allow it to air dry until it’s ready to wear again!

Shop Cotton Apparel at Shirtspace

Cotton clothing is among the most comfortable and popular materials in the world, but taking care of this fragile fabric might intimidate many. Luckily, there are ways to prevent shrinkage or stretch out your favorite cotton shirts so that next time you go shopping, you can shop confidently.  

ShirtSpace has thousands of shirts, hats, sweatpants, and hoodies that are made up of 100% cotton, preshrunk cotton, or a breathable cotton blend—all at wholesale prices. Find your new favorite cotton apparel today!


mark - Jul 19, 2021

Hang shirt up in front of a fan, after washing.

Donald Lanngren - Apr 24, 2021

Thanks for the information

Marren Mace - Apr 24, 2021

I love the quality of content on your blog. The images used gives a better understanding. Thank you for sharing.

Brian - Mar 12, 2021

The heat that causes the most shrinkage comes from the washer not the dryer. The dryer causes shrinkage from all the tumbling which causes new fabrics to tighten up , hence shrinkage from the dryer. Thanks for the tip about un-shrinking.

Alan the domesticated Husband - Jul 04, 2020

I always buy quality brands like Polo Ralph Lauren. I always dry 100%cotton shirts on Ultra-low heat and put on a hanger immediately so it doesn’t wrinkle. The shirts are always slightly damp but if you immediately hang up to finish drying you don’t have to iron! If I have a cotton/polyester mix I never put them in the dryer. I hang to dry and wrinkles fall out.Remember high heat kills the color and shrinks the Fabric!

Raymond March - Jan 07, 2020

The shrinking cotton clip was very Informative. Thank You for the opportunity to purchase quality clothing at a very affordable price.

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