How to Unshrink a Sweater That You Still Want to Wear

It can happen without you even realizing it: You dump a load of laundry into your apartment building's commercial washing machine, pop in your coins and walk away without checking if the previous person had set the washer to its hottest setting. Only when you pull out the jumble of twisted, wet clothes do you see that your comfiest wool sweater is now the perfect size — for your dog.

As a renter, you might not have your own washing machine. That means you can't ever be certain that the delicate cycle you chose for your expensive cashmere cardigan will safely wash your item, because some apartment laundry room machines aren't serviced regularly. As a result, your gentle cycle could end up as a rough and tumble experience for your clothes. When wool gets wet, high heat, its fibers get tangled and locked, causing it to shrink.

So, now that you have teeny-tiny knitwear, here are some tips and tricks for how to unshrink a sweater.

Is there a way to unshrink a sweater?

Thankfully, you can often unshrink a sweater that looks ruined. Chances are, you probably have the sweater-saving ingredients at home. Here's how to restore your item so your pet isn't better dressed than you.

First, don't ever put a sweater that seems to have shrunk into the dryer. The high heat will seal in its new size, and you can't unshrink it at that point. As soon as you take your sweater out of the washing machine, you'll want to start working on unshrinking it.

Read the label to see if you can stretch your sweater.

How do you fix a wool sweater that has shrunk?

First, figure out what your sweater's made of by checking the label. You can save most items made of natural fiber, such as wool, mohair, cashmere or other natural yarn because they have more give. Synthetic and blended materials like acrylic or polyester don't usually respond well to unshrinking because they're heat-set to keep their shape.

If you can see the individual fibers in the wool and can pull it in opposite directions, there's a good chance you can unshrink your tiny sweater. However, if the wool has felted — meaning the fibers fused together — and there's very little give when you pull it, you're probably out of luck.

Gather your supplies

Here's what you need to unshrink your sweater:

  • Sink, bathtub or large bucket
  • Baby shampoo, liquid fabric softener or hair conditioner
  • Thick, clean bath towels
  • About 20 stainless-steel T-shaped pins
  • A large piece of foam or cork bulletin board

Get to work

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Fill your sink, tub or bucket with enough lukewarm water to cover the sweater
  2. Add about 1/3 of a cup of shampoo, fabric softener or conditioner. Mix with your hands.
  3. Submerge your sweater in the water, working the softener into it with your hands
  4. Let it soak for 20 to 30 minutes to relax and soften its fibers, making it easier to stretch
  5. Drain the water, and carefully squeeze out excess water from your sweater. Don't rinse it or wring it dry
  6. Place a clean towel on the floor or any flat surface and spread the sweater on the towel
  7. Roll up the sweater in the towel, squeezing gently to absorb more water. You can repeat this step with another dry towel if your sweater is still very wet.
  8. Lay the damp sweater on top of a sturdy cork or foam board, or on another dry bath towel and slowly stretch in each direction. To get it back to its original shape, concentrate on the sleeves, bottom edges and neckline — sections that probably shrunk the most in the wash.
  9. Pin the sweater in place every few inches after you've stretched it. You might have to re-adjust the sweater's shape a few times; just keep stretching it gently.
  10. Check your sweater after about 60 minutes to see if you can stretch it further. Re-pin if necessary. Keep checking and repeating this step until the sweater is back to its original size.
  11. Allow the sweater to air-dry flat in a warm spot, but keep it away from direct heat or sunlight. It can take a day or two to dry completely.
  12. If, when you try on the sweater, it's still too small, repeat this process from the beginning. The fibers might relax even more the second time around.

How to prevent your wool items from shrinking in the first place

Unless you have lots of free time to continue unshrinking all your wool sweaters, socks, hats and throws, take care of these items properly to prevent this from happening again. Always read the manufacturer's care instructions on the label. You can safely wash some wool items in a washing machine, as long as you double-check the water and set the cycle correctly before you start the process. Dry clean very expensive items for best results.

Prefer to skip the dry-cleaners? You can wash wool items at home: Use mild detergent and hand-wash when possible in cold water, making sure to rinse thoroughly and get all the soap suds out. Never wring wool items dry; just squeeze them gently to make sure the shape stays in place.

With the proper care and attention to detail, your wool sweaters can last for years.

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