How to prevent clothes from shrinking in the wash

We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling when our favourite clothes come out of the washing machine looking smaller than before. Not only is it frustrating to see our beloved garments ruined, but it can also be costly to replace them. However, there are measures you can take to stop clothes from shrinking in the wash.

In this guide, we walk you through the reasons clothes shrink during the washing process and investigate ways to prevent this from happening in future.

Why do clothes shrink in the wash?

When you wash your clothes, several factors can cause them to shrink. Understanding why can help you reduce the risk of shrinkage in the future.

Here are some of the main reasons clothes shrink in the wash:

  1. Agitation: During the washing cycle, mechanical movement can cause clothes to lose their structure, leading to shrinkage.
  2. High water temperatures: Hot water can cause fabric fibres to contract.
  3. Fibre content: Different fabrics react differently to the washing process. Natural fibres like cotton can be more prone to shrinking.

All the above can cause the fibres in your clothes to lose their tension, making them smaller after washing.

What materials are prone to shrinking?

Different materials are prone to varying types of shrinking, depending on the fibres that make them up.

Here are three types of shrinkage in clothes.

1. Felting shrinkage
Felting shrinkage occurs when clothes are exposed to moisture and excessive heat. The scales open and trap water. As they dry, the scales mesh together, which causes the fibres to contract and the clothes to shrink.

Materials affected: Any made from animal hair fibres, including wool, mohair and cashmere.

2. Relaxation shrinkage
Natural fibres are normally curly. However, during the weaving process, they are stretched. When these fabrics are exposed to warm or hot water, they absorb water, which releases the tension created during manufacturing. As a result, the fibres begin to revert to their naturally curly state, leading to clothes shrinking. This is known as relaxation shrinkage.

Materials affected: Cotton, silk and linen.

3. Consolidation shrinkage
Consolidation shrinkage happens because of the harsh nature of the washing process. The mechanical agitation from the washing cycle, combined with the heat and moisture, takes its toll on your clothes. As a result, the fibres in your clothes relax, leading to shrinking.

Materials affected: Any – it can especially impact newer clothes.

How to prevent your clothes from shrinking

You can take plenty of measures to prevent your clothes from shrinking during the washing process, from checking care labels to carefully selecting the correct cycle.

  • Analyse care labels

    It’s essential to read care labels and familiarise yourself with how to wash your clothes properly. You’ll find all the key information on care labels, including whether your clothes are machine washable, the temperature you should wash them at and how you should dry them.

  • Dry at a lower temperature for shorter cycles

    Tumble dryers can also be a culprit for your clothes shrinking. If you’re using a tumble dryer, select a lower temperature where possible. Exposing your clothes to excessive heat can harm fabric fibres, similar to what can happen with a hot water cycle in a washing machine. Choosing a gentler drying setting helps maintain your clothes’ size and quality.

    It's also vital here that you check care labels, as some clothes aren’t suitable for tumble drying.

  • Consider hand washing

    Hand-washing clothes is a solid alternative. If clothes are only lightly stained, avoid putting them through the rigours of a machine wash by filling the sink, grabbing some detergent and giving them a gentle wash.

    This is particularly useful for delicate items, which are more prone to shrinking and damage in the washing machine.

  • Opt for a cold rinse

    Cold water washes are far less likely to cause your clothes to shrink. They’re gentler on your laundry, and the lack of heat helps prevent damage to fabric fibres.

    However, there are a few instances when you’ll need to use a hot water cycle, such as when you’re washing whites, bedding, towels and clothes that are heavily soiled.

  • Choose the right cycle

    Selecting the appropriate washing cycle is vital for maintaining your clothes and reducing the risk of shrinkage. For example, if you’re washing clothes made from wool, make sure you choose a cycle specifically for woollen items.

    Avoid fast spins, high temperatures and heavy-duty cycles where possible – these are all harsh on your clothes and can cause shrinking and other damage. Instead, opt for delicate cycles, which are designed to be gentler and operate on shorter cycles.

Upgrading your washing machine and dryer

Considering upgrading your washing machine or tumble dryer? AEG offers a range of products, each with different features that can protect your clothes from shrinkage and damage.

Our 7000 ProSteam series includes a ProSense feature that automatically adjusts the time and water for a cycle. By doing this, you can spend less money on energy and your clothes are protected for longer.

Alternatively, opt for a model from our 8000 PowerCare series. These washing machines include a PowerClean feature, effectively removing stains in short cycles (under one hour) and lower temperatures.