We’ve all done it: accidentally tossed our favorite cozy knit in with the laundry, only to pull out a chihuahua-sized sweater when the wash cycle is complete. Sure, we knew clothes could shrink in the dryer, but who knew the washer could ruin your clothes too? The reason knits are more prone to “downsizing” in the wash: “Sweaters are typically made from wool or cotton, which have a lot of open space within the fibers themselves,” explains Barbara Stern, fabric expert for Ottoman Textiles.“When the molecules in these fibers encounter heat (whether from hot water or hot air), they pull together, eliminating that open space and contracting the garment so it becomes smaller.” Thankfully, that doesn’t mean your favorite pullover is done for — sweaters can be re-stretched. Just read on to discover the expert tricks to help you learn how to unshrink a sweater.
How to unshrink a sweater: 4 easy steps
The key to unshrinking a sweater? Using items that relax fibers. “Materials like hair conditioner, baby shampoo, borax and white vinegar all work by relaxing the sweater’s fibers — which is what allows the garment to be re-stretched,” says Gretchen Boyd, laundry care expert for NYC House Cleaners. And if you’re asking if laundry detergent works, why not just put it back in the wash, the answer is that you need a much higher concentration of detergent than you’d get in a wash cycle.
Step 1: Grab a “relaxer”
Simply grab one of the ingredients listed below — they all work the same way, so you can choose whichever one you already have on hand:
- Hair conditioner
- Baby shampoo
- Borax/laundry detergent
- White vinegar
Step 2: Let it a soak
Then, in a large roasting pan, a small storage bin or your bathroom sink — a container large enough for you to submerge your sweater in about a gallon or less of water — add lukewarm or warm water, not hot or cold, and pour in about ¼ cup of one of the ingredients above. Place the sweater in the bin and gently press it down to allow it to soak. If it’s still floating a bit, that’s okay, says Boyd. Leave the sweater for about 15-30 minutes, and it will soak in the mixture and sink below the surface on its own.
Step 3: Give it a rinse
When it’s done soaking, remove it from the bin, then rinse it out either under your sink or bath faucet or in another bin filled with plain water. “Avoid wringing the sweater, which can cause it to become wrinkled and misshapen,” cautions Boyd. “Gently press on it or squeeze it until you stop seeing sudsy residue.”
Step 4: Press with a towel
Once the sweater is rinsed, lay it on top of a towel on a flat surface. You can either use another towel pressed on top to remove excess water or slowly roll the sweater in the towel on which it was placed until the sweater is damp but no longer soaking.
How to reshape a sweater after unshrinking it
Now that the sweater is enshrined, you’ll want to reshape it: “Simply tug on the ends of the garment, including the sleeves, in short, gentle pulls until the sweater gradually returns to its original shape,” says Boyd. “One helpful trick is to grab another shirt you own that you know fits you well and place it under the sweater — this will help guide you on where and how much to stretch it.”
Once you’ve returned the sweater to its original size, leave it lying flat on the table until it’s completely dry and it will be like new! To see the strategy described above, just check out this step-by-step video featuring Linda “The Queen of Clean” Cobb:
How to unshrink a sweater that’s just a *bit* shrunken
For less extensive shrinkage, you can also stretch a sweater using the steam setting on your iron, says Stern. “Simply lay the sweater flat on an ironing board, cover it with a damp cloth, release the steam, and press the iron over the cloth,” she advises. “The combination of moisture and low heat will relax the fibers just enough to make it stretchable.”
How to prevent shrinking a sweater
Even better than stretching a sweater? Not shrinking one in the first place! Here are two easy tips to help you avoid that:
1. Consider *these* sweater materials
“Natural fibers like wool, cotton and cashmere are more likely to shrink because their fibers absorb a lot of water and are especially sensitive to heat,” Stern explains. Synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon or acrylic, on the other hand, are less prone since to shrinkage because they are made of polymers that are more stable and less absorbent. If you find yourself having sweater mishaps frequently, it might be best to check labels and look for more forgiving materials.
2. Wash and dry knits safely
Keep water temperature on the cold setting and set the spin cycle to low — not only can hot water encourage shrinking, but agitating the fibers too much can damage delicate knits, Stern adds. When it’s time to dry them, it’s best to lay your sweaters flat and let the air do the work, but if you do want to run yours through the dryer, use the lowest (or no) heat setting and remove it while it’s still slightly damp.
For even more laundry tips, click through the links below!