Almost everyone has mistakenly thrown a wool sweater into the washer in hot water or an acrylic sweater into a hot dryer and found it has shrunk to nearly doll-size. Before you discard a shrunken sweater or give it to a toddler or pet to wear, try this unshrinking technique that could save your clothing investment.
This process will work better on garments made from protein or hair fibers like wool, cashmere, or mohair than on man-made fibers like acrylic or polyester. Natural hair fibers have more give and an ability to stretch than man-made fibers that are often heat-set to retain their shape. It won't hurt to try with a man-made knitted fabric but the results may not turn out as well.
For the best results, begin working on fixing a shrunken sweater as soon as possible after it's taken out of the wash. If you cannot begin the process of returning the shrunken sweater to its original size right away, allow it to air-dry flat.
Working time: 15 minutes
Total time: 24 to 48 hours
Skill level: Intermediate to Expert
What You'll Need
- Cool water
- Baby shampoo or liquid fabric softener
- Sink or large tub
- Heavy bath towels
- Cork bulletin board or knitting blocking boards
- Stainless steel pins—t-shaped pins are best
Skip the Dryer
When you first open the washer and see what has happened to your favorite wool sweater take a deep breath and stop. Never put the sweater in an automatic dryer. A trip through a hot dryer will seal the sweater's fate as shrunken forever.
Mix a Soaking Solution
Fill a sink or large tub with tepid (cool) water and add two tablespoons of baby shampoo or liquid fabric softener. Mix the solution well.
Add the Shrunken Sweater
Add the sweater and gently swish it through the water and shampoo or fabric softener solution to be sure that all fibers are thoroughly wet. Soak for at least 30 minutes or up to two hours is fine. This will help soften and relax the wool fibers enough to allow for reshaping.
Remove the Sweater Without Rinsing
Remove the sweater from the soaking solution without rinsing. Gently squeeze out excess moisture. Do not wring or twist the sweater. Allow the solution to drain out of the sweater.
Remove Excess Water
Lay the sweater flat on a thick cotton towel and roll the towel into a jelly roll to absorb as much moisture as possible. Repeat with a second dry towel if the sweater still seems excessively wet.
Block the Sweater
Using a sturdy cork bulletin board or blocking boards and stainless steel t-shaped or push pins (to prevent rusting), gently begin stretching the sweater back into its original shape and size. Pin it into place every two inches or so as you move around the edges. You may need to readjust the shape several times as you go.
Allow to Dry
Place the corkboard in a warm spot, but away from direct heat or sunlight. Allow to air-dry, checking on it every few hours to reshape as needed if the shape begins to distort. Drying time for the sweater may take up to two days.
Repeat As Needed
This process can be done again if you see progress but it is not quite enough to get the sweater back to the appropriate size. Start from the beginning step of soaking the sweater. The fibers may continue to relax and stretch a bit more during the repeated process.
Tips for Shrunken Sweaters
- When trying to unshrink the sweater, use hair conditioner if you don't have baby shampoo or fabric softener on hand.
- Next time you hand-wash your salvaged wool sweater, you'll wash out the shampoo, conditioner, or softener used to unshrink the garment. Or, bring the sweater to a dry cleaner and explain what you did and that there may be some soapy residue in the fibers.
- Alternative ideas to help the unshrinking process include air-drying the sweater upside down from a pants hanger (so the weight stretches it longer), stuffing clean white paper in the sleeves to stretch them out, or putting on the wet sweater once you can get it on and if you're willing to deal with the discomfort of wearing tight, damp wool.
- Use the same unshrinking process with wool hats, socks, or throws.
- When wool is subjected to wet, high heat, the barbs on the fibers tangle and lock to create a non-raveling felt. If your sweater is beyond redemption, turn it into a rustic, felted fabric you can use for crafting to make felted dryer balls, coasters, a purse, or even slippers.