Shrink Cotton Fabrics

Cotton, a natural vegetable fiber from the seed pod of the cotton plant, can be a fickle fabric. Due to cotton's tendency to expand when wet and shrink as it dries, most everyone has a tale to tell of cotton catastrophes in the laundry room, from shrunken shirts to too-tight jeans. Occasionally though, a person may need to shrink a cotton fabric on purpose. Luckily there are a couple of simple ways to achieve that goal.


Boiling Water Shrinking

  1. Select your fabric. Be sure that your fabric is 100% cotton. Realize that the shrinking process is permanent, so make sure you really want to shrink the item on which you are using this method.
    • If the tag says "preshrunk," your efforts may or may not be in vain. Give it a try, but know that any shrinking method won't be as effective. It could also shrink in certain places and not in others. Worth a shot?
  2. Boil a large, clean pot of fresh water. Make sure to leave enough room to put your fabric in without the water overflowing. If you'd like, you can add a cup of white vinegar to keep the colors from bleeding.[1]
  3. Soak the cotton item in the boiling water for about 5 minutes. Since a bit of color loss may happen, it's important to shrink your items separately (unless they're the same color, of course).[2]You may wish to stir the fabric with a wooden spoon to ensure that it is completely soaked.
    • If you only want your item to shrink a bit, bring the water to a rolling boil, take it off the burner, and wait 5 minutes before you put your shirt in. The longer you wait, the less it'll shrink. Put directly into the water it can shrink up to 2 sizes.[1]
  4. Carefully remove the item from the water and place it in the dryer. Set the dryer for the highest possible setting and tumble dry your item until it is completely dry.
    • You're dealing with very hot objects right now. Be careful! Use an oven mitt, potholder, or towel to protect your hands -- don't touch anything directly unless it's cooled off.
  5. Repeat these steps as many times as necessary until your fabric is the size that you want. It will shrink the most in the first go-around, but it can still shrink a bit more with each successive boil.

Hot Wash/Hot Dry Shrinking

  1. Select your fabric. Again, be sure your fabric is 100% cotton and that you actually want it shrunk. If it's not 100%, it could still shrink -- just probably not as much.
    • If it's 100% cotton but "preshrunk," you'll need to weigh your options. It's possible it won't shrink it all, that it'll shrink only in certain places, or that it'll shrink just fine.
  2. Place only the fabric you wish to shrink in the washing machine. Do not run the washer with other clothing or fabrics that do not need to be shrunk or that might bleed in the wash. In hot temperatures, colors are more likely to bleed, so it's best to avoid the possibility.
  3. Set the water temperature for both the wash and rinse cycles to "hot," and start the washer. Some people recommend adding an enzyme solution to the wash, but this has not been verified. However, you may add a cup of white vinegar if you're concerned with color loss.[1]
  4. Place your fabric in the dryer once the wash is completed. Once more, set the dryer to the highest possible heat setting and wait until your fabric is completely dry. If you want it to only shrink 1/2 - 1 size, however, consider checking on it halfway through. You don't want to shrink it too much!
    • A nice, woven cotton dress shirt will shrink anywhere from 1-3%. Doesn't sound like much, but a 35" arm means about 1" will disappear![3]
  5. Repeat these steps until your fabric is the size you want. The first time you shrink it will be the most effective, but you can get it a little smaller with another few washings.

Iron Shrinking

  1. Boil the cotton fabric item in water. Follow one or other of the two methods above for this step.
  2. When you take out the boiled fabric, place it on the ironing board.
  3. Put a cloth over the cotton article. This is important to stop the direct heat from damaging it.
  4. Iron the cotton cloth until the article is completely dry. It will now have shrunk.


  • Use wrinkle-resistant fabrics, as you will have more luck with those.
  • Do not use preshrunk cotton. There is little left there to shrink, and it may shrink unevenly.
  • If you're dead set on shrinking this item, consider taking it to the cleaners. They may have a few tricks up their sleeve to remedy the problem.
  • Use only desired fabrics.


  • Be cautious using either of these methods on clothing or fabrics that have screen-printed designs or graphics on them. The images rarely hold up after the shrinking process.
  • Always be careful when placing items in or taking items out of boiling water.

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Sources and Citations