Can You Unshrink a Wool Sweater?
Unfortunately, the answer is almost always no. But with our expert-approved tips, you can keep your favorite knits in excellent condition for years to come.
Wool has some amazing abilities: It can last for decades and keeps you toasty when the weather's cold; even when the fiber is wet, it can keep you warm. But it does require special care, and unfortunately, once wool shrinks, the damage is considered irreversible. "Once an item shrinks, there's no way to salvage it," says Lindsey Boyd, cofounder of The Laundress.
The makeup of wool strands and the washing machine's movement are to blame. Each wool fiber is covered with tiny overlapping scales, much like the tiles on a roof, which repel water. Once fibers are spun into yarn and woven into fabric, the scales play a role in shrinkage: As the washing machine twists, turns, and churns a wool sweater, the scales catch on one another and wind up permanently locked together. The result is an item that's thick and matted—and smaller by a size or two. Rewashing and stretching are likely to be in vain; the fabric will only spring back to its newly smaller self.
To keep from suffering the disappointment of another ruined garment, be sure to check labels. Some will indicate that the clothing has been treated so it can, in fact, be cleaned in a washing machine on the gentle cycle; the fibers in such pieces are coated with a resin that keeps the scales from interlocking. "Both hot and warm water can cause certain fabrics to shrink, so if you're worried about a particular item (or items), err on the side of caution and use cool or cold water when washing," adds Gwen Whiting, cofounder of The Laundress. "The chillier the water, the less likely the item is to shrink!"
Many wool items can also be dry-cleaned, but the very best way to wash a wool sweater is by hand: Place the sweater in cool or lukewarm water, sudsy with mild soap—try The Laundress Wool & Cashmere Shampoo ($19, thelaundress.com) for woolens—for three to five minutes, swishing it a bit. Rinse, and then gently squeeze the water out of the sweater; do not twist or wring it. Roll it up in one towel to remove more moisture, then lay it flat on a fresh towel, away from direct heat and sunlight, until dry.
Avoid heat sources—including the common culprit of shrinkage, your dryer—as these can also cause shrinkage. "Instead, set the items on a drying rack or flat surface in their natural positions to air dry," explains Whiting. "Be careful not to place near anything that gives off heat, like a radiator or even a sunny window—both can cause the fabric to shrink."