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What You Need To Know About Cotton & Shrinking

Naturally breathable, comfortable, and durable, cotton is one of the best fabrics out there when it comes to clothing. Cotton naturally wicks moisture away from the skin, which helps keep you cool no matter the season. But like all clothing, cotton requires proper maintenance to keep it in top shape. Before laundry day, make sure you understand the effects of washing and drying on your favorite cotton garments. Cotton can be prone to some shrinkage but there are a few strategies you can adopt to prevent your favorite shirt, pants, or dress from losing that ideal fit.

How to Avoid Cotton Shrinking

Cotton is a natural fiber, which gives it the soft, breathable qualities we love, but also means that it’s more susceptible to shrinking than synthetic fibers like polyester. When raw cotton is spun into thread, the fibers are stretched, which creates a tension needed to weave the fibers into cotton fabric.  However, once cotton fabric is heated - say, tumbling in a dryer - the fibers lose that tension, which causes cotton’s slight shrinking after a first wash. 

But don’t despair — with just a little extra care, it’s easy to make sure your cotton clothing maintains that perfect fit. When you buy new clothing made of cotton, you’ll want to initially hand wash and air dry it to minimize any shrinkage and help the garment settle, so to speak.After that first hand wash, there are a few rules to follow when washing your cotton clothing:

  1. Hand Washing When time allows, hand wash your cotton clothing. Using a very mild     detergent and cool water, lightly scrub and then soak the clothing in the water. Five minutes should be enough for normal washes, with up to thirty minutes recommended for more soiled clothing.Once they’ve soaked, rinse the clothing thoroughly in cool water.        
  2. Using a Washing Machine If you don’t have time to hand wash, it’s fine to use the washing machine. To prevent the clothing from shrinking, wash your cotton clothing on a delicate cycle and in cold water. This will reduce the risk of excessive friction and agitation, which can not only cause shrinking but also     pilling and other unwanted wear.        
  3. Air Drying Whether you hand wash or use the washing machine, you’ll get the best results by drying your cotton clothing without heat. High temperatures are the quickest way to shrink your cotton clothes. Avoid popping your garments in the dryer and instead dry them on a clothes rack or clothes line in indirect sunlight. You can use hangers to maintain the shape of the garments. 

These rules apply specifically to 100% cotton clothing items. If the label of your clothing says it is a cotton and polyester blend, then you don’t need to worry as much about shrinkage. Polyester is a synthetic fiber, which means it is a man-made polymer made of petroleum-based chemical chains that don’t shrink when they interact with heat. Fors a blend of cotton and polyester, you can wash the clothing in a cool or warm water and dry it at a low setting in the dryer. Follow this rule of thumb: the more cotton your clothing contains, the less heat you want to expose it to when washing and drying it.

How to Unshrink Cotton Clothes 

It happens — your new 100% cotton shirt gets mixed up in the laundry and goes through the washer and dryer on high heat. And realizing you’ve shrunk a favorite garment is an awful feeling, but don’t give up hope - you can often stretch it back to its original size. Follow these steps to bring your cotton clothing back to that perfect fit:

  1. Fill your sink or a clean bucket with lukewarm water.
  2. Add two tablespoons of baby shampoo to the water.
  3. Add the clothing to the water.
  4. Soak clothing for 30 minutes
  5. Drain the sink or bucket and gently squeeze excess water out of the clothing.
  6. Lay the clothing on a towel and gently stretch it in order to reshape to the correct size
  7. Gently stretch the clothing  every couple of hours as it dries (feel free to use a fan to speed up the drying process!).

It may seem like a bit more work, but it’s worth it to keep your cotton clothing as perfectly-fitting as the day you bought it. These washing and drying techniques also apply to cotton sheets and towels. If you’re looking for quality, 100% cotton sheets, take a look at our HomeGrown Heartland brand here. All products are exclusively available at Bed Bath & Beyond. 


Whether you’re a manufacturer looking to enhance your cotton products or a customer just wanting to know a bit more, we’d love to hear from you.

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