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.
If this happens to you or to a loved one who is simply trying to help before you discard the sweater or give it to your dog to wear, try this unshrinking technique that could save your clothing investment and your temper.
Working time: 15 minutes
Total time: 24-48 hours
Skill level: Intermediate to Expert
Before You Begin
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.
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.
If you cannot begin the process of returning the shrunken sweater to its original size right away, allow it to air dry flat. It's best to work on it as soon as possible, however, for the best results.
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 often 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 away.
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. While the sweater is drying, take a few minutes to learn how to wash and reshape sweaters correctly for the next time. Drying time 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 and it is possible that the fibers will continue to relax and stretch a bit more during the repeated process.
It Didn't Work, Now What?
When wool is subjected to wet, high heat, the fibers tangle and lock to create felt. Technically, felt is a non-woven fabric with tightly interlocked fibers that will not ravel when cut. But you can create a similar product by submerging loose or knitted wool fibers in hot water.
If your sweater is beyond redemption, you can take the felting process further to create a wonderful natural fiber crafting material. The combination of high heat and agitation by hand or washing machine will turn the knitted wool fibers into a nearly solid fabric that will not ravel. Every sweater will react differently but you'll end up with a rustic, felted fabric for crafting.