Why do T-shirts get shorter and wider?
March 5, 2008 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Why do T-shirts become wider and shorter over time, and not the reverse? And is there any minimal-effort way to avoid this?

I am a fairly thin-to-athletic-topped guy who likes his shirts kind of "fitted", and an endlessly frustrated that simply by regular washing, all my favorite shirts eventually seem to do this. And its not just me - going to thrift stores I find that most t-shirts have already succumbed to this phenomenon.

WHY!?! Can one buy particular KINDS of shirts that don't do this? Do I have to cold-wash, flat-dry EVERYTHING I own to keep this from happening? Is there a way to bring (for instance, used) shirts that have already gone this way "back from the dead" without scissors and a sewing machine?
posted by stuckie to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
They get wider but not shorter because they're stressed in the horizontal direction but not the vertical direction. Your sides pull the shirt out to the sides, and the shirt is not anchored vertically. I bet singlets get stretched vertically.

I really don't know how to prevent this from happening, but I'd guess that hang drying them would help.
posted by ignignokt at 4:20 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hang drying does not help. The heat from the dryer helps them snap (somewhat) back into shape. I spend all summer looking even scruffier than usual because of this.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:28 PM on March 5, 2008

Knit things also generally shrink more lengthwise than widthwise, due to the general nature of knit fabrics.

I am unconvinced that the shirts are any more reparable than a heavily felted wool sweater.
posted by that girl at 4:29 PM on March 5, 2008

It is for this reason that I never use a dryer on my fitted t-shirts (actually, most of my clothing). They will inevitably shrink in all the wrong ways. I lay them out to dry flat, or hang dry them. Wrinkles can be an issue, but you can always use an iron. Hang drying will only help if you've never put the shirt in a dryer, though--once they shrink in there I don't think there is any going back.
posted by Polychrome at 4:32 PM on March 5, 2008

You can gently stretch the shirt out while it is still damp. Also, try hanging the shirt upside down and letting the weight from the collar and sleeves add to the stretch effect. Other than that, just lay them out flat to dry.
posted by misha at 4:36 PM on March 5, 2008

Yeah, reshaping while damp helps. Although rather than "gently" stretching my method is to hold the t shirt by the shoulders and let the bottom drag on the floor, stand on the hem, then pull up on the shoulders with all my might.
posted by fire&wings at 4:49 PM on March 5, 2008

This bugs me too.

Best solution I've found is to buy better quality stuff. Banana Republic T shirts don't do this as much in my experience, for example. Also, T shirts with some percentage of synthetic material keep their shape better than 100% cotton.

My guess is there's a warp and weave issue involved, and since fabric will shrink in one (two, really) direction, they make it happen on the length vs. width to keep seams and such fitting with each other.

This bugs me because I have a hard time keeping T shirts tucked in after a few dryings, unless they're just really big to begin with. Which looks stupid on a thin person.

Also, I suspect that clothing is generally targeted towards the shorter, more rotund, and greater part of the populace.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 4:51 PM on March 5, 2008

Response by poster: misha / fire&wings: Does this approach really work? Seems what would be ideal is to dryer-dry to shrink the sides somewhat, then.... re-wet? and stretch it lengthwise?
posted by stuckie at 4:55 PM on March 5, 2008

Do I have to cold-wash, flat-dry EVERYTHING I own to keep this from happening?

I wore a lot of kids' shirts in college, and I wasn't particularly petite. So, laundry day meant the dorm sink and a drying rack (and the sides of the bed, and the chair, and a lamp). It may be an inconvenience, but it's better than the alternative.

Really, your laundry routine should be as gentle to your clothes as possible. Unless you're getting them really sweaty and dirty, there's no reason not to wash most things in cold water and either air-dry or dry on the lowest setting.

Cotton-blend shirts might be less prone to getting out of shape than 100% cotton; synthetic fibers often keep their shape.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:56 PM on March 5, 2008

Various fabrics have different stretch axis: one-way, two-way, four-way (diagonally.)

The T shirt I'm wearing now is made of a fabric that stretches more horizontally than vertically.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:59 PM on March 5, 2008

It's also worth mentioning that the shrinkage will occur more in the vertical axis, just because a t-shirt is longer than it is wide. Just like jeans will shrink an inch in the waist and two or three in the legs.
posted by YoungAmerican at 5:10 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hate this phenomenon. I put my shirts in the drier for about 5-10 minutes just so they tighten up a little bit after the washer stretches them out. Then I hang dry and iron.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:14 PM on March 5, 2008

I find that 50/50 cotton/poly shirts don't stretch out in this manner. I like the ones from American Apparel.
posted by zippity at 10:46 PM on March 5, 2008

Depending on the area in which you live, it might be the water that's the problem. I live in a city with very hard water and I have extended the life of my shirts by 1-2 years by using citric acid "softening" tabs in each wash load.

You should be able to buy such tabs in the drugstore or (maybe) hardware store. The citric acid abosrbs the calcium in the water and your shirts come out of the laundry softer.

I air-dry my clothes year round, and the tabs have really made a difference in the texture of the fabric when my shirts come out of the wash.
posted by laconic titan at 3:32 AM on March 6, 2008

Is this also why T-shirt sleeves get shorter?
posted by Rash at 2:27 PM on March 6, 2008

My guess is there's a warp and weave issue involved, and since fabric will shrink in one (two, really) direction, they make it happen on the length vs. width to keep seams and such fitting with each other.

There's actually no warp and weft in knitted fabrics; what happens on the vertical and horizontal is called wales and courses. You can actually knit jersey fabric from a single yarn.
Single knit jersey (which is most commonly used for t shirts) is not as stable a construction as double knit, so it tends to warp and shrink more. Knit, fiber, and garment construction quality will determine shrinkage. Jersey tends to shrink more vertically just because of how it is knitted, but if the fabric is properly pre-shrunk before being cut and sewn, it won't happen as badly after you've worn it. Heat shrinks cotton fibers, so I agree with everyone who said to avoid heat. I lay knits flat to dry because hanging can stretch out the collar.

Certain labels seem to be better than others- American Apparel is pretty good for the price. Everything I've owned by Beefy-T has gotten outrageously short.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:04 PM on March 6, 2008

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