Almost everyone has mistakenly thrown a wool sweater into the washer in hot water or an acrylic sweater into a hot dryer and found that it's 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 synthetic fibers like acrylic or polyester. Natural hair fibers have more give and a better ability to stretch than manmade fibers, which are often heat-set to retain their shape. It won't hurt to try unshrinking a synthetic knitted fabric, but the results might not turn out as well.
How Often to Try Unshrinking a Sweater
The process outlined below can be repeated if you see progress but it's not quite enough to get the sweater back to an appropriate size. However, 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 can't start right away, allow it to air-dry flat.
Equipment / Tools
- Sink or large tub
- Heavy bath towels
- Cork bulletin board or knitting blocking boards
- Stainless-steel T-shaped pins
- Cool water
- Baby shampoo or liquid fabric softener
Skip the Dryer
When you first open the washer and see that your favorite wool sweater has shrunk, 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 shrunken fate forever.
Mix a Soaking Solution
Fill a sink or large tub with cool water, and add 2 tablespoons baby shampoo or liquid fabric softener. Mix the solution well.
Add the Shrunken Sweater
Add the sweater, and gently swish it through the water solution to ensure all the fibers are thoroughly wet. Soak for at least 30 minutes or up to two hours. 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, but don't rinse. Gently squeeze out excess moisture without wringing or twisting the garment. Allow the solution to drain out of the sweater.
Remove Excess Water
Place the sweater flat on a thick cotton towel, and roll up the two together 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 as well as stainless-steel T-shaped pins or push pins (to prevent rusting), gently begin stretching the sweater back into its original shape and size on the board(s). Pin the sweater 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 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. The sweater may take up to two days to dry.
Repeat as Needed
If more unshrinking is necessary, start from the beginning step (soaking the sweater). The fibers may continue to relax and stretch a bit more during the second process.
Tips for Unshrinking a Shrunken Sweater
- When trying to unshrink a 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), stuffing clean white paper in the sleeves, or wearing the wet sweater to help stretch out the damp wool.
- Use the same unshrinking process with wool socks, hats, or throws.
- When wool is subjected to wet, high heat, the barbs on the fibers tangle and lock, creating a non-raveling felt. If your sweater is beyond redemption, turn it into a rustic felted fabric that you can use for crafting felted dryer balls, coasters, a purse, or even slippers.