How Much Does Cotton Shrink?

It's always a sad day when you pull an item out of the dryer, only to see that it's almost half the size it was when it went into the washer. Sometimes clothes that are supposed to be air-dried are accidentally thrown into the dryer with the durable garments. Hey, it happens! 

If you've found that your favorite cotton shirt or child's cotton underwear are shrinking, you might be wondering how much cotton is supposed to shrink and how to make it stop.

The Amount Cotton Shrinks Depends

So, how much does cotton usually shrink? The way cotton garments become smaller in size is because their fibers are shorter than other garments' fibers. When these garments go through manufacturing, these fibers stretch out. When you wash your cotton shirt or underwear, these fibers shrink back down with agitation and heat

How to Reduce Cotton Shrinkage

You don't have to remain stuck in the cycle of washing cotton clothing, machine-drying it, and trying to stretch it out enough to wear it. There are other options you can try to reduce some of the shrinkage that comes along with cotton. It may take a little extra time and care, but it's worth it to preserve the shirts, undies, sweaters, and other cotton clothing you adore. 

Machine Washing 

Sometimes it becomes too easy to throw all the laundry in together. It takes extra work to ensure you're doing what's right for your cotton garment, but it's worth it to keep your clothes for longer. 

If you want to keep using your washer on cotton clothing, make sure to set your washer to the coldest setting on a delicate cycle. 


The best option for maintaining your clothes' integrity is handwashing them. This method gives your cotton clothing the best opportunity to retain its shape and lengthen its life. Here are a few basic steps to follow when handwashing your cotton garments:

  1. Prepare a clean sink or tub with warm water and soap made for washing clothes by hand. 
  2. Soak the cotton garment in the tub and gently agitate it with your hands. Let the clothing sit in the water for as long as the soap packaging recommends.
  3. Drain the tub or sink after the clothes have soaked for the appropriate amount of time. 
  4. Re-fill the tub with cool water and gently agitate your clothing articles again until no soap comes out of them. 
  5. Carefully squeeze the excess water from your garments, but don't wring them out. 
  6. Finish by drying your items with either low heat or a method using no heat. 

Dryer Settings 

If you prefer drying your clothes using your tumble dryer, you can still do so with caution. The most crucial thing to remember is to set your dryer to a low-heat setting. High heat causes the fibers to contract, making them shrink. The lowest heat and most delicate setting will give your garment a better chance at retaining its shape. 

Alternative Drying Methods

If you'd like to be even more careful about drying your favorite cotton basics, there are additional options for you. One method to try is a drying rack. Lay your garments on each rung to dry out safely. You can also try the towel method: lay your clothing on a clean, dry towel and flip it until it dries. 

How to Handwash Clothes to Make Them Last Longer

Ultimately, if you'd like to give your well-worn clothing basics their longest lives, you'll want to prioritize handwashing them. It takes a little more time, but we're confident you'll be happy with the result. 

Each of your clothing basics may have special wash instructions, so be prepared to care for them uniquely. Here are specialized methods to handwash the clothing you and your family wear most frequently.


In a washbasin or tub, add a small amount of mild laundry detergent and lukewarm water. Carefully agitate the water so that the detergent mixes in well. Place your bra into the tepid soapy water and let it soak for 10-15 minutes. Then, gently massage the soap into the bra to ensure it is clean. After this, rinse your bra in cool water until no more suds are evident. 


Washing your tights can lead to snags and tears if you don't do it carefully. To handwash your tights, follow the same steps as with a bra, adding a small amount of mild detergent to a tub of lukewarm water. To further protect your tights, turn them inside out. 

Next, soak them in the soapy mixture and gently agitate problem areas. Rinse them with cold water, wring them out, and place them flat on a towel to dry. 


For your favorite sweater, add lukewarm water to the tub or washbasin, along with mild detergent. If your sweater has become particularly odorous, try adding a few drops of white vinegar as well to neutralize the smell. 

Once you've turned your sweater inside-out, agitate it gently with your hands, working the soap into the armpits. After it soaks, rinse it with cold water and hang it to dry. 


When washing your favorite pair of cotton underwear, you should first assess whether there are any stains. Pre-treat any marks you find with baking soda and white vinegar. After those ingredients soak into the undies for a few minutes, use an old toothbrush to gently work the stain out.

Then, handwash with a mild detergent and rinse with cool water. Use any heatless drying method that you fancy. 

What to do If Your Clothes Shrink

Are your clothes beyond rescue if they've already shrunk? They might be. Unfortunately, cotton can't withstand the same gruff washing and drying that other garments can sometimes withstand. Caring for cotton clothes takes a little bit more intentionality. If you notice your cotton clothing item has shrunk, you can try these two options:

Handwash to Unshrink Them 

If you threw your favorite cotton maxi dress into the washer and it came out of the dryer as a mini dress, there is a solution you can try. Rather than machine-washing your garment, handwash it. 

After you've soaked the garment and gently washed it, lay it flat to try or hang it up to airdry. Doing this will give your cotton clothing item a chance to stretch slightly and dry without heat shrinkage and harsh agitation.

Replace Them with Sustainably-Made Clothing 

Perhaps the cotton garments you shrunk are too far gone. If you've tried everything you can, you might need to bite the bullet and replace your family's shrunken clothing. The good news is that you have a chance to upgrade to sustainably-made clothing basics you'll love. 

Did your child's underwear shrink in the dryer? Now is your time to replace them with comfortable cotton undies that they'll love wearing. At Mallary by Matthew, our Boys' Briefs are durable, breathable, and comfortable. They're designed with high-quality cotton, so they'll be long lasting whether you toss them in the washing machine or handwash them.


Cotton does shrink by nature. Its fibers stretch and then contract with heat and agitation. These fibers are also what makes cotton one of the most comfortable fabrics to wear. It takes a little more time, but handwashing your cotton garments will save them over time. Your cotton undies will thank you in the end.



How to Wash Clothes by Hand | Better Homes & Gardens 

Does Cotton Shrink in the Wash? Learn More | Cleanipedia 

How to Keep My 100 Percent Cotton Clothes From Shrinking | Hunker