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How to Unshrink Cotton Clothes

Written by Caro Clark


Posted on January 09 2020


Despite our best efforts, shrinkage happens. It can occur even after we take all the necessary precautions. Sometimes a garment will shrink without having been exposed to heat and simply by going through the normal wash cycle. There’s a special brand of devastation felt upon discovering a new cotton dress has shrunk just enough to make it too short. Fortunately, shrinkage is reversible in many cases! We've found that relaxing a material back to its original shape works best when you’re trying to make it longer and is less successful at making it wider.
What you’ll need

  • A large bowl
  • 2 teaspoons of hair conditioner
  • A garment you want to unshrink; I picked a cotton dress
  • 2 clean towels
  • Some sort of securing apparatus; I used chip clips because pushpins are terrifying
  • 3 or 4 heavy and nonporous items; I used three gold brick bookends

Whatever the size of your bowl, you want to make sure that the dress has enough room to mix in with the conditioner. I used a little over a quart. Add water and hair conditioner to the bowl and mix it well. The conditioner I used was pretty watered down, so I used 6 teaspoons rather than 2. You want the water to look cloudy. If you add too much, it won’t hurt; but you may need to wash it after, which puts you at risk of shrinking it again. No Bueno.
Let the garment soak for about 20 to 30 minutes. Knead it around in the water to make sure that the conditioner is being equally distributed. What the conditioner does is help relax the fibers, which prepares the dress for the gentle stretching process.
Remove the dress from the conditioner water and lay it flat on a towel. Roll the towel up burrito style to remove excess water. Then place the dress on dry flat towel and secure the top of the dress to the towel with a clip of some kind. Chip clips worked fine for me, but you want the dress and towel to be held tightly, so I placed a gold brick in between the clips.

 Once the top is tightly secured to the towel, gently pull on the areas of the dress you want stretched. The particular dress I wanted longer has bullet holes in it, so I had to be careful not to stretch those out too much. After you’ve done a little hand stretching, pull the garment to the desired length and place your something heavy at the bottom. This ensures that the dress dries at that length and that the fibers relax back in that shape. But, it’s best to come back and do some hand stretching a few times before the garment is totally dry. This will prevent the garment’s fibers from becoming overstressed and helps ensure that you’re getting the right shape without harming  the garment.

Once it’s dry, it should be back to its original state or at least stretched enough that it fits better than it did. This method will usually relax a garment only about 10--15%. It’s not a lot, but when it comes to a dress that’s just a tad too short, that percentage can make a big difference. As with everything, the results are variable and depend heavily on the manufacturing process; but this method has saved more than a few of my cotton dresses from the donation bin. It’s always worth trying, especially before you throw out or donate something you liked wearing!