Does Hot Water Make Cotton Shrink?

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Cotton has been used as a primary component of clothing for at least 7,000 years. Today, it is used in a majority of conventional attire, such as denim jeans. It is important to know what water temperature to use when cleaning cotton, as high temperatures will often alter its size.

Shrinkage

  • Washing a cotton product in hot water can and often will cause it to shrink. This is known as shrinkage. As a result, tight-fitting clothes should not be exposed to hot water; it can make the clothes uncomfortable or impossible to wear. Hot water is typically used to wash products like lingerie, bathrobes, washable rugs, delicates and white clothing.

Process

  • Cotton shrinks due to a process known as relaxation shrinkage. Relaxation shrinkage occurs due to the manner in which cotton is constructed and woven. When a cotton T-shirt is made, for example, the cotton fibers are stretched and woven together to create a product that is tougher and more resilient to damage. This creates a natural, persistent tension within the cotton fibers. According to cotton.org, "the tension is released when the fabric is washed or steam pressed, causing it to shrink to its natural size."

Significance

  • Shrinkage can create issues with sizing. For example, an individual who normally wears size medium may find that his size medium cotton T-shirt fits too snuggly after a few washes. As a result, companies that produce cotton products will often wash and dry them in advance to limit future shrinkage. This is known as pre-washing. A cotton product that has been pre-washed will typically say so on the tag next to the washing instructions.

Prevention/Solution

  • The simplest way to avoid shrinkage is to wash cotton products in cold water (75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit) and hang-dry them. Hang-drying cotton products will allow them to avoid the high temperatures of a conventional dryer, which can also cause shrinkage.

Intentional Shrinkage

  • If a cotton product fits too loosely, it can often be intentionally shrunk in the washer and dryer. Cotton products that have not been pre-washed will experience the most shrinkage when exposed to hot water. Pre-washed cotton products may still experience some shrinkage, but the effects of hot water on these are not as severe.

References

  • Photo Credit Cotton plant -1 image by Alexey Burtsev from Fotolia.com
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