Can you really fix a shrunken sweater?

from Real Simple Magazine November 2020

Marketing advertisements at their worst present information that is either completely false or deceptive. Marketing products on the internet, which promote better health of humans can tread on dangerous territory. The internet is also filled with DIY hacks for fixing the endless number of household problems, some worthy of trying, some not so much. I noticed a comment from a reader of Wool and The Gang’s Instagram feed that putting wool sweaters in the freezer “cleans” them; a claim worthy of skepticism. But a recent DIY fix that caught my eye was a solution for fixing shrunken sweaters in the November 2020 Issue of Real Simple Magazine. Researching this claim online led me to many hacks on stretching not only knits, but other clothing including jeans and T-shirts. These fixes defy my knowledge of textile science.

The Fix

The recipe for fixing a shrunken sweater made of wool or cashmere is to soak the item for awhile in warm water with a small amount of olive oil, fabric softener or baby shampoo. After the soak, remove it from the water bath (no rinsing) and roll in a towel. Place on a towelled flat surface, and gently stretch to its original size. Let the sweater dry and its shape “should be” restored.

The Facts

Fabrics composed of natural fibers like wool, cashmere, mohair and cotton are subject to what is called progressive shrinkage – the fabric shrinks a bit more with each laundering. This happens with wool because of felting shrinkage. That’s why wool should be hand washed in cold or room temperature water without twisting or agitating, to preserve the integrity of the fibers and prevent shrinkage. Superwash wools are treated to prevent felting shrinkage, rendering the knits machine washable. Felted fabric does not stretch because the fibers are permanently set in an entangled, matted state. So a sweater that has felted will not stretch from exposing it to this type of treatment; in fact you may even felt the item further.

Blocking is an essential step in the finishing of knit projects. It’s the process of wetting or steaming knit pieces, or completed projects to even stitches and fibers, flatten edges, and “shape”. Some resources inaccurately describe stretching the pieces to a “correct” size. If you haven’t achieved an accurate gauge, no amount of stretching will change the garment size, and may damage the knit fabric. If your sweater has shrunk to a “doll” size there is no going back, regardless of what you do.

Wool fibers and other specialty fibers are resilient and respond best to blocking or shaping. However, if your sweater is made of cotton yarn, which is less resilient than wool, stretching a cotton sweater will likely cause it to lose its shape. Wet blocking synthetic sweaters, like those made of acrylic yarn will not change the nature of the fibers because they don’t absorb water; this fix is useless for these types of fabrics.

Shrunken sweaters already have a lot of stress placed on the individual fibers. Over stretching these sweaters further subjects them to more stress and damages the fibers, making them less durable. There is also the potential to rip seams by pulling the item tightly.

I wouldn’t want to risk further damage of a wool or cashmere sweater, and one solution is to gift it to a young person. On the other hand, if the reality is a shrunken sweater that isn’t felted or made of cotton, I guess it might be worth trying the fix to see if you can get a little more life out of the sweater.

I think these types of hacks are mostly deceptive, as there are many caveats placed on the fix. There is certainly disappointment of a loved wool or cashmere sweater having found its way into the washing machine. There is a very small possibility that you may “unshrink” your favourite garment, but I would rather see it have a longer life on someone who can wear it.