How to Unshrink a Shrunken Sweater

Shrunken sweater
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Almost everyone has mistakenly thrown a wool sweater into the washer in hot water or an acrylic sweater into a hot dryer and watched it shrink to nearly doll-size. This was one of the first laundry disasters I encountered as a kid helping with laundry. My mother had placed a red wool sweater in the laundry hamper as a reminder that it needed to be cleaned so she could hand wash it later. I was trying to be helpful and tossed it in the washer.

Tragedy ensued.

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.

This process will work better on protein or hair fibers like wool, cashmere, mohair than on man-made fibers like acrylic or polyester. Natural hair fibers have more give and 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 fabric but the results may not be as good

Supplies Needed to Save a Shrunken Sweater

  • Cool water
  • Baby shampoo or liquid fabric softener
  • Heavy bath towel
  • Cork bulletin board 
  • Stainless steel pins - t-shaped pins are best

Steps to Save a Shrunken Sweater

First, when you take the sweater from the washer and see what has happened to your favorite wool sweater take a deep breath and stop.

NEVER put the sweater in the dryer. A trip through a hot dryer will probably seal the sweater's fate as shrunken forever.

Instead, fill a sink or large basin with tepid (cool) water and add two tablespoons of baby shampoo or liquid fabric softener. Mix the solution well. Gently swish the sweater through the water and shampoo or fabric softener solution to be sure that all fibers are thoroughly wet.

This will often soften and relax the wool fibers enough to allow for reshaping. Soak for at least 30 minutes or up to two hours is fine. Remove the sweater from the water solution without rinsing. Gently squeeze out excess moisture. Do not wring or twist the sweater. Allow the solution to drain way.

Lay the sweater flat on a thick cotton towel and roll the towel into a jelly roll to absorb as much moisture as possible.

Using a sturdy cork bulletin board 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.

Place the cork board 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.

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 hot water and knitted wool fibers. 

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 finish for crafting.

The felted fabric can be used to make felted dryer balls, coasters, a purse or even slippers. You may find a new hobby!