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What is Fabric Shrinkage?

Fabric Shrinkage

Have you ever excitedly taken home a new piece of clothing, only to find that it no longer fits after just one wash? Or perhaps you’ve spent hours creating a beautiful garment, only to have it shrink and become unwearable after its first cleaning. 

These frustrating experiences can all be attributed to a common problem: fabric shrinkage. In this article, we’ll explore what fabric shrinkage is, what causes it, and how to minimize its effects. 

Whether you’re a seasoned sewist or simply someone who wants to keep their clothes looking and fitting great, understanding fabric shrinkage is key.

Let’s dive in.

Causes of Fabric Shrinkage

There are several factors that can cause fabric shrinkage, including:

  1. Heat: Exposure to high temperatures, either through washing or drying, is one of the most common causes of fabric shrinkage. Heat can cause the fibers in the fabric to contract and tighten, resulting in a smaller overall size.
  2. Water: Exposure to water can also cause fabric shrinkage, especially if the fabric is made from natural fibers like cotton or wool. When these fibers absorb water, they swell and can become distorted, leading to shrinkage.
  3. Tension: Pulling or stretching the fabric during washing or drying can also cause shrinkage. This is especially true for fabrics that are not pre-shrunk or that have a loose weave.
  4. Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals, such as chlorine bleach, can also cause fabric shrinkage.

By understanding these different causes of fabric shrinkage, it is possible to take steps to minimize their effects and prevent shrinkage from occurring in the first place.

Types of Fabric Shrinkage

There are two main types of fabric shrinkage: relaxation shrinkage and progressive shrinkage.

Relaxation shrinkage

This type of shrinkage occurs when the fibers in a fabric relax and return to their natural state after being stretched or manipulated during the manufacturing process. Relaxation shrinkage is most commonly observed in fabrics made from natural fibers such as cotton, linen, and wool, and typically occurs early in the life of the fabric. 

During production, these fabrics are often subjected to tension during weaving or finishing, which causes the fibers to elongate and become distorted. When the tension is released, the fibers naturally relax and contract, resulting in shrinkage.

Progressive shrinkage

This type of shrinkage occurs over time as the fabric is exposed to washing, drying, and other environmental factors. Progressive shrinkage is most noticeable in fabrics that are not pre-shrunk or that have not been treated to prevent shrinkage. 

Fabrics made from natural fibers are particularly prone to progressive shrinkage, as these fibers are more susceptible to damage from water and heat. Progressive shrinkage can also be caused by tension or mechanical stress on the fabric, such as rubbing or pulling during washing or wearing.

Understanding the type of shrinkage that a fabric is likely to experience can help in selecting the appropriate methods for pre-washing, cutting, and sewing the fabric. It is important to note that some fabrics may experience both types of shrinkage, so it is important to always take steps to minimize the risk of shrinkage.

Measuring Fabric Shrinkage

Measuring fabric shrinkage is an important step in understanding and managing this common problem. The following methods can be used to measure fabric shrinkage:

  1. Pre-wash measurement: Before washing the fabric, measure its dimensions in both length and width. After washing, measure the dimensions again and compare the difference to determine the percentage of shrinkage.
  2. Sample swatch method: Cut a small swatch of the fabric and measure its dimensions before and after washing. This method can be used to test the effects of different washing and drying methods on the fabric.
  3. Controlled testing: In some cases, it may be necessary to conduct controlled testing in a laboratory setting to accurately measure fabric shrinkage. This method involves subjecting the fabric to controlled washing and drying cycles and measuring its dimensions before and after each cycle.

By measuring fabric shrinkage, it is possible to select appropriate washing and drying methods, as well as adjust patterns and garment sizing to account for expected shrinkage. Additionally, measuring shrinkage can help identify fabrics that are prone to excessive shrinkage and may not be suitable for certain applications.

Minimizing Fabric Shrinkage

While some degree of fabric shrinkage is unavoidable, there are several steps that can be taken to minimize its effects:

  1. Pre-washing: Pre-washing the fabric before cutting and sewing can help remove any residual tension or sizing that may cause shrinkage later on. Be sure to follow the care instructions for the specific fabric to avoid damaging or distorting the fibers.
  2. Drying: Avoid drying fabrics on high heat, as this can cause excessive shrinkage. Instead, air-dry fabrics or use a low-heat setting in the dryer. To further reduce the risk of shrinkage, remove fabrics from the dryer while still slightly damp and stretch them out to their original size.
  3. Fabric selection: Choosing fabrics that are pre-shrunk or treated to resist shrinkage can also help minimize the risk of shrinkage. Fabrics made from synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon are generally less prone to shrinkage than natural fibers like cotton and wool.
  4. Garment construction: When cutting and sewing the fabric, be sure to account for expected shrinkage. For example, if the fabric is expected to shrink by 5%, increase the pattern size by 5% to ensure a proper fit after washing.

By taking these steps to minimize fabric shrinkage, it is possible to produce high-quality garments and textiles that maintain their shape and size over time.


Fabric shrinkage is a common problem that can affect the quality and longevity of textiles and garments. By understanding the causes and types of fabric shrinkage, as well as methods for measuring and minimizing shrinkage, it is possible to produce high-quality fabrics and garments that maintain their shape and size over time. 

Whether you are a home sewer or a professional textile manufacturer, taking steps to minimize fabric shrinkage can help ensure the longevity and durability of your products.

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