Sourced from natural plant fibers, cotton is exceptionally soft and endlessly versatile. The moisture-wicking fabric also draws sweat away from your skin, and it's inherently breathable, meaning air can pass through.
Cotton is the world's most popular natural textile — and for good reason. Though the fabric is durable and long-lasting, it's up to you to maintain its integrity. Like many people, you might be wondering, Does cotton shrink, and if so, can you keep cotton from shrinking?
Ahead, answers to these questions, along with tips on how to prevent cotton from shrinking and general best practices for maintaining cotton clothes and bedding.
Does Cotton Shrink?
Yes, cotton can shrink after washing it. Like linen, hemp and other textiles loomed from natural plant fibers, the yarns or threads sometimes contract when wet and dried. That said, you can usually prevent cotton from shrinking with proper care.
Cotton-blend fabrics containing polyester or other synthetic fibers aren't as susceptible to shrinking — but they also aren't as breathable and usually don't last as long. So, why does 100% cotton shrink? Keep reading to find out.
Why Does Cotton Shrink When Washed?
Figuring out why cotton bedding and cotton shirts shrink can help you prevent it from happening in the first place. Natural cotton fibers are spun into threads or yarns, then woven into fabric. The twisting, stretching and pulling processes create tension, which gives a garment its shape.
But when the textile gets wet, especially in warm or hot water, some of the tension is released. In this slightly relaxed state, the fibers contract. And if cotton is then dried with hot air, the fabric may retain its shrunken form or contract even further.
The laundering process is the most common culprit. However, this effect could also happen if, (for instance) you stepped in a puddle while wearing canvas sneakers, then set them outside to dry in the warm sun.
Do you want tips on the best ways to do laundry and other chores around the house? Explore the Ultimate Household Chore Checklist for more advice
How Much Does Cotton Shrink?
The extent to which cotton shrinks depends on a few factors, including the type of cotton, the weave and how much heat is applied during the washing and drying process.
Synthetic blends typically don't contract as much as 100% cotton. Polyester and spandex aren't as absorbent, so they don't soak up as much water. (This is the one downside of cotton's natural moisture-wicking ability.)
So, how much will 100% cotton shrink? Bedding and clothes may shrink as much as 5% in the wash. However, if the label says an item is pre-shrunk, you might not notice any shrinkage. And if you're careful, you can avoid it altogether.
Does Cotton Shrink Over Time?
Luckily, cotton typically only shrinks once. The fibers could continue tightening if you keep washing the item in hot water and tumble-drying it on high heat. But generally speaking, most of the contracting will happen on the first laundry cycle.
This is one reason why some brands garment-wash (aka pre-wash) their products before getting them into consumers' hands. Whether it's bedding or clothing, this gives you a true-to-size fit right off the bat. Garment-washing also gives cotton a soft, lived-in feel.
Check out these blogs to learn about the highest-quality cotton fabrics:
How to Properly Care for Cotton
In addition to preventing cotton from shrinking, properly caring for your fabrics will help them last longer. Find tips for washing, drying and maintaining this natural textile below.
How to Prevent Cotton From Shrinking
When buying new cotton bed linens or clothes, be sure to check whether they were pre-washed, and always follow the brand's recommended care instructions. And if it's 100% cotton, avoid heat as much as possible.
This means washing the fabric with cold or lukewarm water. Reshaping your garments and laying them flat to air-dry is ideal. Line drying is okay, but the warmth of direct sunlight could cause shrinkage. If you choose to tumble-dry, always use low heat.
How to Unshrink Cotton
At this point, you know how to prevent cotton from shrinking, but can you unshrink it? Sometimes, yes. It's possible to stretch and reshape a shirt or dress back to its original size.
When you pull a piece of clothing out of your washing machine and see that it's much smaller than when you tossed it in, the best thing to do is immediately reshape it. Gently pull on the sleeves and body of the garment, then lay it flat to dry.
If the item has already been washed and dried, another option is to soak it in lukewarm water for about a half hour to relax the fibers. Next, gently wring it out until it's just slightly damp. Then gently pull on the sleeves and body until it's back to its normal size, and allow it to dry on a flat surface.
How to Launder 100% Cotton Bedding and Clothes
Hand washing is the best defense against shrinking cotton, as you can control the water temperature and ensure the fabric is handled as gently as possible. Of course, this may not be a realistic solution for some people. Still, if you can hand-wash your cotton at least the first time, you might side-step any potential shrinkage.
When using a washing machine, running your fabrics on a delicate cycle with cold water is ideal if you want to prevent cotton from shrinking. Laundry soap doesn't always dissolve as easily in cold water. However, it can help to add the detergent first, let the drum fill with water, then place your clothes or bedding inside.
Find step-by-step instructions here:
Does Cotton Shrink in the Dryer?
Air-drying your fabrics on a flat surface is the best way to dry cotton without shrinking. But as mentioned, tumble-drying is usually OK as long as you use low heat. Wool dryer balls can help reduce drying time by preventing twisting and encouraging better airflow, ultimately minimizing the amount of heat that comes into contact with the fabric.
Learn more in our blog, Do Dryer Balls Really Work? Everything You Need to Know About Wool Dryer Balls.
Shrinkage is typically more of an issue with clothing than bedding and towels. In addition to garment washing, many brands account for a small amount of contracting in the wash with an extra inch or two of slack. There are some exceptions, but it's unlikely your sheets will shrink so much in the dryer that they no longer fit on your mattress.
Read these articles for more expert tips and insight:
The Best Cotton Materials
Don't let the potential for shrinkage deter you from buying cotton. This natural textile has many redeeming qualities, and with proper care, you can prevent cotton from shrinking and maintain its size, shape and integrity.
High-Quality Cotton Bedding
You’ll find a wide range of cotton bed linens at Parachute — but it’s not just any cotton. Egyptian cotton and Turkish cotton plants have exceptionally long fibers. When spun into threads and woven into bedding, the fabric is incredibly durable and softer than everyday cotton. What's more, it actually gets softer with time. Organic cotton is similarly strong and long-lasting, as the fibers aren't weakened by chemical processes.
Read these blogs for a deeper dive into the different types of cotton:
Eco-Friendly, Garment Washed Cotton Clothing
From organic tops and bottoms to waffle-weave robes and gauzy beach cover-ups, you'll find a broad selection of cotton pieces in Parachute's loungewear collection. To keep the pants and shirts from shrinking and ensure a buttery-soft feel on the first wear, most items are garment washed.
All cotton fabrics are also Oeko-Tex certified, ensuring they're made without substances that could potentially harm you or the planet. Shop our cotton collections today!
Read these articles to learn more:
1. Kim HA. Moisture Vapor Permeability and Thermal Wear Comfort of Ecofriendly Fiber-Embedded Woven Fabrics for High-Performance Clothing. Materials (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 14,20 6205. 19 Oct. 2021, doi:10.3390/ma14206205
2. Drew D and Yehounme G. The Apparel Industry's Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics. World Resources Institute. 2017.
3. Islam S, et al. Identifying the Shrinkage Properties of Cotton Polyester Spandex Denim
Fabrics of Different Fiber Content. Journal of Textile Science & Engineering. 2019.