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It happens even to the best of us. Sorting through the clothes that have just come out of the washing machine, we pull out of the still-damp pile a sweater that we especially like when, surprisingly, something goes wrong. The sleeves are rolled up on themselves. The collar seems tight. Its breadth has disappeared. Your favorite top doesn’t look like anything anymore, it’s unrecognizable. From a tight M, the sweater has become a small S. In short, it shrunk.
Obviously, the first culprit can only be this insensitive clothes-killing washing machine (no question is possible at this point, and one quickly forgets that one had neglected to look at the garment’s label and its washing instructions). In the face of disaster, we look for answers: why this sweater? Why did he shrink like this? What to do next time to avoid this drama? And of course, “What am I going to be able to wear tonight instead?”? Well, unfortunately, we are not going to answer that. But for the rest, we have some explanations.
You’ve probably experienced it the hard way: some fabrics are more prone to shrinkage than others. Natural fibers, such as wool and cotton, are especially sensitive, and the slightest step through the machine is a real torment for the nerves. On the contrary, synthetic fibers like polyester are more resistant, but they are rarely the ones that make up your favorite clothes. This is the whole answer to our question: in the machine, the clothes are not equal in terms of the risk of shrinkage, and it all depends on the composition of their fabrics.
The natural fibers used to make clothes are made up of long molecules: cellulose in the case of vegetable fibers in cotton, and proteins in sheep’s hair. In order for the fibers to hold together and form the fabric, these long molecules interact with each other through different connections, including so-called “hydrogen bonds” (formed by two hydrogen atoms), explains Maxi Sciences. A fragile interaction, which the first step through the machine puts to the test.
Hot water has a full impact on these bonds which, with heat, tend to partially crumble. Thus, the fibers loosen, relax. The opposite of a contraction, you say? Yes, until the violent twist (the one that makes your machine salsa dance) happens. This phase of water evaporation quickly tightens these bonds, much more than before washing! And again, it’s nothing compared to the drying stage, the scarecrow of all fibers worthy of the name.
Well relaxed by a little invigorating wash, in the cool, the fibers of the fabric suddenly tighten as they dry. New hydrogen bonds are generated, denser, closer to each other. So much so that your famous sweater, the one you love so much, has just visibly shrunk.
Therefore, it is not the washing, but the drying that can sometimes shrink clothes. Small consolation: the shrinkage is usually much less noticeable later, during the following washes.
But if there were still any, subsequent washes. Because sometimes, the first step to the drum is fateful: barely introduced to his friends in the dressing room, the clothes that have outgrown him no longer have their place on the shelf.
On the side of the polyester thread, we absorb the impact more. Formed from a single, very long filament (and not several short fibers), synthetic fibers are more stable and really leave no room for shrinkage.
Now that we know the background of these dreaded narrowings, certain simple gestures allow us to get around them. Pray while the precious garment is put into the machine or shout “Alea boasts this!” closing your door will surely not do you much good. No, it’s better to just read the garment label, especially if you’re about to launch the program at 90°C in a cashmere sweater.
Generally speaking, hot cycles promote shrinkage. For the most fragile garments, therefore, it is necessary to wash them cold (or by hand) and avoid the fateful passage to the dryer. A drying rack or string will work well, if you have time.
Another tip: anticipate a few inches of shrinkage when shopping for new clothes. Strategic, not always easy to implement, but effective up to a point.
Otherwise, you can always resort to second-hand clothes. You’ve probably already experienced this first pass through the machine, seen others, and recovered! At least you see them as they will be.