How To Unshrink Wool

Made a terrible laundry error and shrunk your favorite jumper? Just one accidental spin in the dryer can be enough to turn your woolen wardrobe into something that a toddler would wear.

If you want to fix your mistake, congratulations! You have come to the right place!

Everyone has laundry accidents sometimes, and it is nothing to worry about. Fortunately, just about all shrunk woolen garments can be expanded with a bit of work.

The unshrinking method that is most likely to be successful is the warm water and hair conditioner or fabric softener trick.

How To Unshrink Wool

You may also find success with some warm water and baby shampoo, vinegar, or some Epsom salt. 

Keep reading to find out how to use these tricks to stretch out your shrunken wool clothes. 

Can You Stretch Wool?

After you have shrunk something made of wool, most people immediately ask if it is possible to stretch it back out again.

Luckily, it is super simple to get those miniaturized fibers back to their original length.

Before we go into how to stretch out wool, you need to understand why wool shrinks in the first place.

Keep in mind that wool is a natural fiber that is produced by animals – usually sheep. This means that part of the integral structure of a wool fiber comes from protein.

Protein gets smaller when it is exposed to heat.

The main reason why wool shrinks is because of its unique structure. It is not uniform and twists, curls, and crimps into all sorts of weird shapes.

As such, there are small pockets of air within a strand of wool. It is these air pockets that give woolen garments the majority of their weather-resistant properties.

When you create a woolen garment, you stretch out the fibers, so the strands are smooth.

When these fibers are exposed to heat and friction – be it in a dryer or a hot wash – they will return to their original, jumbled form.

This is what will make your garments shrink.

Each individual fiber of wool has a rough outer shell that catches other fibers. When the fibers are spun like they are in a washing machine, the outer shell is shaken up.

Because the outer shell is coarse, it makes it easier for other fibers to get caught up with each other. Now you have shrunken fibers tangled up with each other!

The other downside of fibers tangling up is that they can cause felting. Felting will cause your woolen garment to appear flat and lifeless.

But what can you do to stop this process? No one has the time to handwash!

Thankfully, modern manufacturers are aware of the potential pitfalls of woolen clothes and so deliberately coat the wool fibers with chemicals to help limit damage from heat.

These chemicals act a bit like a hair conditioner and coat the outer shell of the fibers, smoothing it down to limit tangles. 

So, as long as you have a fairly modern jumper, you don’t need to worry too much about machine washing your wool.

This is because the chemical coatings will encourage all the fibers to stay flat.

We recommend washing on a delicate cool cycle to be safe!

But what if something goes wrong? Keep reading to find out about the many unshrinking techniques at your disposal!

Ways To Unshrink Wool

Unshrinking wool is super simple, and you can do it with things you have lying around your house.

You do not need any special skills or knowledge, but you do need to have a bit of patience and be prepared to put in a bit of effort. 

All the following techniques focus on the same principle – using something to loosen up and relax the wool fibers and then pulling them out so that they are straight again.

Is It Worth It?

Sometimes people are tempted to just give up on saving the woolen garments that have shrunk without even trying to get them back out to size.

We always recommend that you at least try to make your shrunk wool wearable again!

Wool has a number of wonderful properties like heat retention and water resistance.

It is also a natural fiber that can’t be mass-produced like polyester – this can make it quite expensive if you need to regularly replace it! 

Method 1 – Blocking

The first possible method that you could use to stretch out some shrunken wool is blocking. Blocking involves using cool water or steam to induce relaxation in the wool fibers.

You then use a rubber mat to stretch out the garment to its original, retailed size. It is the same technique that is sometimes used by avid knitters.

One big plus for this style of stretching is that it gives the stretcher a lot of control over the final size. This is why it is most often used and recommended by professionals in a rescue job.

On the other hand, you do need to get hold of some fairly specialized equipment, and it can take a while!

In order to block, you need a blocking mat, and some blocking pins and blocking wire to keep the garment in place. These are widely available in well-stocked knitting stores.

How To Block

  1. First, you need to prep your shrunken garment. You can do this by submerging it in some water or by using a hand-held steamer. You need to handle the garment carefully while you prep it and avoid running water as this is likely to damage the fibers even more.
  2. If you soaked your garment, you now need to get rid of excess water. Do this by gently pressing on it or by delicately rolling it up inside a clean towel. Do not wring it as you will ruin the shape even more!
  3. Place the garment on the blocking mat and smooth it out, so it lays flat.
  4. Use the markings on the mat to work out how much you need to stretch the garment. You do not need to stick to the mat’s recommendations, and you can eyeball your stretching if you prefer.
  5. You now need to secure the garment, so it stretches evenly. Pull blocking wire up the straight edge of your woolen garment in the same way that you would move a needle and thread. You do need to move the wire carefully, so you don’t snag the wool.
  6. Now you need to stab blocking pins through the wool and into the board. This will keep all the wool stretched to your chosen shape as it dries.
  7. If you feel that the wool is not stretched enough you can repeat these steps.

Method 2 – Vinegar

Method 2 – Vinegar

We recommend using vinegar to stretch out particularly itchy wool as it will help soften up the garment a bit.

How To Use Vinegar

  1. Prepare the wool you are going to stretch. You can either run a delicate cycle with two cups of distilled vinegar, or you can soak the garment in some cool water with two tablespoons of distilled vinegar for around 20 minutes.
  2. Once prepped, you need to take your item in need of stretching and get rid of excess water. You can either press the garment or roll it carefully in a towel. Do not wring out the wool.
  3. You need to find a large, flat, and clean surface to work on.
  4. Spread out the garment and gently pull it so that it is the right shape again.
  5. Continue pulling the garment evenly and gently until it is the desired size.

Method 3 – Epsom Salt

If you are in a pinch and can’t get hold of distilled vinegar or a blocking mat, Epsom salts are the next best thing. The salts will relax the fibers enough, so you can easily pull them back into their retailed shape.

How To Use Epsom Salt

  1. Put your garment into the washing machine and run it on a cool and delicate cycle with one cup of Epsom salt in the machine.
  2. When the cycle has finished, take out the garment carefully and spread it out onto a large and flat surface.
  3. Gently pull out the item so that it is lying flat. Carefully stretch out the edges slightly until it is the correct size.
  4. Leave the freshly stretched garment out to dry. You can put a fan nearby to help speed up the drying process if need be. Whatever you do, do not put it in the dryer!

Method 4 – Baby Shampoo

Using baby shampoo takes a bit longer to stretch out than other methods, but it can work just as well. It has the added benefit of being super cheap and fairly easy to get hold of.

How To Use Baby Shampoo

  1. Mix in two tablespoons of baby shampoo with a basin of cool water. Churn the water for a moment until some foam appears on the top.
  2. Fully submerge the shrunk garment into the solution. 
  3. Leave to soak for around half an hour. If you have a particularly large item of clothing in need of stretching feel free to leave it in the water for a bit longer.
  4. Remove the item from the soaking solution and roll it up inside a clean towel. This will get rid of any excess water. Keep in mind that you do not need to rinse out the garment before rolling it in the towel.
  5. Place a second towel on a flat surface. This will act as a drying mat. Spread out the soaked garment, so it is lying flat.
  6. Gently stretch the item by pulling on the sides and edges until it is the correct shape.
  7. Leave on the towel to dry for it to keep its newly formed shape.

Method 5 – Hair Conditioner

Hair conditioner works in the same way as baby shampoo. It will coat the coarse wool fibers and help untangle them. If you think about it, wool is just the sheep equivalent of human hair, so it makes sense to use a hair conditioner to untangle wool fibers!

How To Use Hair Conditioner

  1. Fill up a basin with water and add around a ⅓ of a cup of hair conditioner. Mix together so that the hair conditioner is well integrated.
  2. Fully submerge the to-be-stretched garment in the solution for around 10 minutes.
  3. Pour out the water and take out the garment. Do not wring it out as you will ruin the shape of the piece of clothing.
  4. Roll it up in a clean and dry towel to remove excess water.
  5. Spread it out onto a second clean and dry towel. Gently pull and stretch the edges of the garment until it returns to its required size.
  6. Leave it to dry on the towel. Try not to move it before it is dry or the fibers will become distorted again.

Method 6 – Fabric Softener

Got a tub of fabric softener sitting around? Put it to use here.

Follow the same steps as you would for hair conditioner, just use fabric softener instead. Feel free to double up on a relaxing solution if you have a bigger item to stretch.

If you don’t have a large enough basin to properly soak, you can run a cool and delicate cycle on your washing machine. Just add ⅓ cup of fabric softener to the drum before you press start.

Method 7 – Specialist Wool Products

If you have a very valuable wool garment that has, unfortunately, shrunk, it may be best to do away with at=home remedies and go straight to some professional products that have been created for this very purpose.

Woolite, for example, is a specialist detergent that will work wonderfully at untangling shrunken wool fibers.

Use Woolite or other specialist wool products in the same way that you would hair conditioner.

Stretching Clothes

You can use any of the above methods for any item of woolen clothing. But are there any tips and tricks for specific garments?

Keep reading to master the different stretching techniques that you can use for different types of clothes.

Jacket

Jacket

Is there anything chicer than a well-fitting wool jacket?

Wool jackets are generally pretty simple and easy to stretch using any one of the soaks and pull methods.

However, older or very shrunken jackets may be more fluted and are beyond saving.

If you are able to stretch out your wool jacket you do need to be mindful of the size. Jackets are often designed to fit in a certain way and are rarely baggy.

So don’t just pull and hope for the best! Take the time to measure yourself with a fabric tape measure, so you know the maximum size that you can stretch your jacket to.

You may also find that you have a lining to your jacket. If you have a silk lining you do need to exercise a bit more caution as silk does not do well with water.

You may even find that your only option is to take your jacket to a professional dry cleaner to ask for their assistance.

Sweater

Wool sweaters are perhaps the most commonly shrunk wool item. Fortunately, saving them is quite simple using any one of the seven specified methods above.

For the best stretching results, we recommend that you pay particular attention to the sleeves.

You don’t want them to come out of this uneven! They are easily overstretched so do be careful not to pull them too much.

Make sure that you are stretching outwards evenly by folding the sweater in half along the centerline from the neck to the waistband.

This allows you to compare the two sides and check that one half hasn’t been stretched wider than the other.

Scarf

Who doesn’t love a woolen scarf? All of the above methods can be used on a woolen scarf but, if it is very long, you may find it a bit challenging.

The biggest issue with a long and thin rectangle is that it is difficult to keep straight. Any wonky bits will get rid of your scarf’s parallel lines and cause crookedness.

To stay safe, we recommend that you stretch out your scarf on something that you know is straight.

Like the edge of a table or a flat towel. Doing this means that you will always have a straight line to compare your work to.

Socks

Because wool is so good at body heat regulation, it makes a great material for socks. Wool socks are also one of the easiest things to stretch back out after a shrinking disaster.

It is a good idea to keep a pair of non-shrunk socks nearby while you are stretching.

You will now have something to use as a size guide, so you are less likely to over-stretch and make a pair of stockings.

If you are not faint of heart, you can try this drying trick to get your sock to conform to your foot shape.

You can let a wet sock dry on your foot. Your foot will act as a mold, so your sock is guaranteed to fit.

Blanket

Hot washing a woolen blanket can be a disaster! Even if you do follow all the steps mentioned above, you are going to be stretching for a while!

Not only are wool blankets very large, but wool also gets very heavy when wet, so a soaked blanket is very difficult to maneuver. But stay calm and practice patience!

With a bit of work, you should find that your wool blanket can be easily stretched back out into its original size.

As blankets are a little different from an item of clothing, we recommend using a different method to stretch them back out.

For the best results, bung your blanket into the washing machine with some Woolite.

Then you can peg it out onto a clothesline to dry. You will find that the weight of the water does a lot of the heavy lifting stretch-wise. Hopefully, this makes things a bit easier!

Don’t forget that you can always have a go soaking a wool blanket in a bathtub with a lot so hair conditioner or fabric softener if you really need to stretch out a treasured wool blanket.

Just remember that it will be very heavy!

How Do You Stretch Merino Wool?

Merino wool is famed for its high quality and its impressive properties. It can feel very different from standard wool, so many people wonder if it can be handled in the same way.

You can use any of the above methods to stretch out an item made of merino wool.

We have found that you do need to be a little more gentle with merino than bog-standard wool, but there are no special techniques involved! 

As a side note, we recommend that you try the hair conditioner method first. For some unknown reason, this method works very well for merino wool!

What Is Merino Wool?

What Is Merino Wool?

So what is it about merino wool that makes it so agreeable to the hair conditioner technique?

Merino wool is just wool from a specific breed of sheep. These sheep produce very fine fleece with very delicate fibers.

These delicate fibers are woven together to create one of the world’s softest materials. It is not the warmest of wool blends available, but it does look good and acts as an excellent base layer.

How Do You Wash Wool?

We all know the old saying – prevention is better than cure. This is certainly true for wool. Knowing how to not shrink wool is just as important as being able to stretch it back out again.

But just how do you do it?

The first thing you need to do when learning about washing wool is to look at the instructions on the garment’s tag.

These are instructions straight from the manufacturer and so following them makes it very unlikely that you will damage or shrink the garment in question.

If for whatever reason, you do not have tags or don’t trust them, there is no need to panic.

Washing on a cold and delicate cycle is unlikely to cause any damage or cause shrinkage to your garment.

If you have the time, you could handwash in cold water. Just be sure to use gentle movements to avoid scrunching up or tangling the wool fibers.

But remember – the best care instructions will always come from the manufacturer. The tag with the care guide is usually on the neckline or on a side seam.

Detergents

While following the manufacturer’s guide is the best, they often fail to specify what type of detergent you should use.

You should avoid using normal detergent at all costs as the chemicals in it are too harsh for the delicate wool fibers. 

Wool destruction is usually caused by the enzyme content of detergents. Enzymes are added to help lift proteins out of fabric in order to remove stains.

Unfortunately, these enzymes can’t tell the difference between unwanted food proteins and wool proteins!

Water Temperature

You will just about always find a maximum washing temperature specified somewhere on a care guide label. This is because water that is too warm can be disastrous!

Warm water does not mix with wool as it will cause the fibers to seize up and clump together.

For more information, read the above section to find out what causes wool shrinkage.

Keep in mind that you want to avoid very long soaking times as the water will weigh down the wool, leading to unwanted stretching and gaping. 

Dryer

Dryer

Never put your wool in a dryer!

The heat from a dryer can take people by surprise, but it will, without doubt, cause the fibers in your woolen garment to bunch together and lead to a shrunken appearance. 

Air drying wool is the only way to go. You still need to take the time to lay out your garment so that it is flat and not dangling off the end of a drying rack.

This could lead to unwanted stretching as the weight of the water will drag that part of the garment down. Make sure that you flip the garment over at least once to counteract the effect of gravity.

To speed up the drying process, you could always place a cool fan near the drying rack. This will increase the circulation of air without the need to introduce heat.

Unshrinkable Wool

Modern technology is a wonderful thing and has led to the development of unshrinkable wool.

This is a wool blend that is made from synthetic polymer fibers or a coating over the natural wool fibers.

These synthetic materials act as a protective layer between the delicate and sensitive wool and any source of potential disaster.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Wash Wool?

Yes, you can wash wool. You just need to make sure that you are not washing in a way that will cause damage to the garment.

We recommend washing per the manufacturer’s instructions. This will usually be a cool, delicate wash cycle or by hand in cool water.

Why Does Wool Shrink?

Wool shrinks because heat causes the natural wool fibers to seize up into a tangled mess.

Heat and friction – the type of friction you get from a rough washing machine cycle – can cause these fibers to knot up into an even more tangled mess.

When this happens, your wool has felted and is beyond repair!

Can You Fix A Shrunken Wool Sweater?

Yes! Almost all shrunken wool items can be saved with a bit of time and patience.

All you need to do is soak the garment in a solution that will help untangle the wool fibers and then gently pull it out into its original shape. 

What Is Merino Wool?

Merino wool is a type of wool that comes from the fleece of a specific breed of sheep – the Merino sheep.

They are reared in Australia and New Zealand and have very fine and soft fleece that sets them apart from regular wool from other sheep breeds.

It does not need to be treated any differently – it is still just wool!

Final Thoughts

There is nothing worse than shrinking your favorite woolen items. They can be expensive to replace so, with a bit of time and patience, we always recommend that you try stretching them back out.

All stretching methods involve soaking the garment in some water and conditioning product – either for the hair or for fabrics – and then gently pulling the item of clothing into the correct size.

These methods will work for all sorts of woolen items – from socks to scarves to jumpers, you can stretch them all!

Amanda Brown

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