We’ve all been there: We purchase a new t-shirt from our favorite store, only to end up shrinking it in the wash. As it turns out, the reasons for this ‘shrinkage’ are actually quite scientific.
Whether or not your t-shirt will shrink depends on a number of factors, the first one being the type of fibers that make up your shirt. Synthetic fibers are made of raw materials, like petroleum or wood pulp, and are used to create fibers like polyester and spandex. Because these raw materials are not natural to the environment, they are unlikely to shrink in the wash.
Natural fibers, on the other hand, are made of things like cotton and wool. If you can picture a ball of cotton or a sheath of natural wool, you’ll see that the fibers are balled up into tight curls. To make the clothing we wear, manufacturers need to straighten these fibers, pulling them into long, taut strands that create threads to weave into shirts and pants. Because of the naturally curly state of these materials, they are more likely to shrink in the wash.
Why do Natural Fibers Shrink?
When natural fibers are exposed to heat, even just a small amount, the tension in the fibers is released. This is called relaxing. Over time, heat can cause these fibers to continue to relax, or curl, causing your shirt to shrink.
Heat can also cause a phenomenon called felting. This is when the fibers themselves get shorter as the warm water works its way into each strand and expands, pulling the fibers wide and reducing their length. This can also make your t-shirt feel thinner and more uncomfortable.
Natural fibers are also more sensitive to harsh washing conditions. The mechanical action of the washing machine can damage the natural fibers, causing them to curl toward their natural state. This is called consolidation and can also lead to things like pilling.
How to Prevent My T-Shirt from Shrinking
Check your fabric. Synthetic clothing shrinks much less, if at all. If you’re not well-versed in the laundry room, or simply worried about shrinking your clothing, consider synthetic fabrics.
Stay away from heat. Heat is public enemy number one to your clothing, especially that made of natural fibers. Wash your natural fibers in cold water and dry them on your lowest heat setting. Whenever possible, it’s best to hang dry clothing made of natural fibers to prevent any curling or damage.
Wash on the gentle cycle. The mechanical energy from your washing machine can cause damage to the natural fibers in your t-shirt. In turn, these fibers will recoil and curl, causing shrinkage and stretching. The gentle cycle will reduce the risk that your clothing will shrink and keep them looking new longer.
Purchase preshrunk or shrink-proof clothing. High-quality t-shirt manufacturers, like Bella Canvas, have invested a lot of time and money into creating preshrunk t-shirts. These shirts have a maximum shrinkage of 5%, while other manufacturers have a maximum shrinkage of up to 10%. That’s a huge difference! If you have a serial history of shrinking your clothing, preshrunk clothing was made for you.
Be conscientious of your clothing choices. Denim and tightly woven cotton only shrink a little, while other natural fibers have higher shrink rates. Wool, for example, can shrink by up to 17%, and sweaters can shrink up to 30%!
For more tips on how to wash your screen-printed t-shirts to prevent shrinking and maintain quality, check out our blog post on the best tips for washing screen-printed t-shirts here.