Unshrinky-Sink: That Time I Became a Sweater Wizard

Like any person who has devoted 8 years of her life to the study of textiles, I am very bad at taking care of textiles. Naturally.

Simply: I am bad at laundry. Not in an active, “this sweater will probably be fine, so I’m going to throw it in the hottest dryer cycle!” way, but more in a lazy “I was day-dreaming about a music video to the tune of “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO, and wasn’t watching what I threw in the dryer” way.

And then the righteous anger that floods me as I pull my now child’s sweater out of the dryer dies quickly when I remember that A) I am to blame as I have no roommates and have not yet been able to summon woodland creatures to do my chores for me like I saw in the documentary Cinderella, and B) I should absolutely know better.

It became an issue this week, however, when the temperature plummeted, and I started to unpack all my winter clothes. The first sweater to emerge was my ski-man sweater. I shrank this one hard.

Sigh.

I metaphorically laughed in the face of the care instructions, and this sweater now appears to be for the new hipster American Girl Doll. (She also comes with a  collection of plaid blanket scarves and a box of tissues for when you want her to cry about her student loans! Her story is about writing her young adult novel in a coffee shop in Brooklyn.*)

I didn’t want to get rid of it because I was sure when sweater weather rolled around again, we would have the technology to fix this.

I kept pulling out sweaters, and they kept being weird.

I have, what is logically and reasonably described as: the longest torso on any human ever by roughly three feet.

My actual proportions:

Believe it or not, this is a pencil sketch and not a picture of a real human.

When I packed up these sweaters last Spring, I don’t remember saying to myself, “these will be perfect when I have my torso-reduction surgery.” I do remember hating to get rid of my sweaters in bulk, when the fact was, through various laundering methods, they were all a little too short for my Godzilla-torso. I guess I kept them.

Who knew you’d get to read so much about another person’s torso today?

But here we are again. On the cusp of another winter, and I’m still in Wisconsin. Conclusion:  I need sweaters that fit.

I’ve also been on this crazy kick of not spending money when I don’t need to. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. I think it’s technically called, “saving money.”

Exhibit A: I mended all my socks yesterday. I’m basically a pioneer. A pioneer who isn’t very fun to be around. My past times include talking about fiscal responsibility over the butter churn and drinking water, but not being happy about it.

So, as God as my witness, I do not want to buy more sweaters! I needed to find a way to unshrink these guys.

And as it turns out, the technology to do so has been around for awhile.

Being a serial sweater-shrinker, I’d heard mention of the fabric softener unshrinking method (letting a sweater soak in lukewarm water and fabric softener and then stretching it out) through various friends and Pinterest boards, but in my trademark reaction to things found on Pinterest boards, I sighed, said “that probably doesn’t really work,” and moved on.

And then, unpacking my sweater collection, I remembered that new clothes are expensive. A quick Google later, I realized a person can also use hair conditioner!

See!? Totally different than fabric softener. I can continue to resent Pinterest for always trying to make me download their app and making me forget my password to my account I made that one time and for my friends suggesting it all the time which is never something I take kindly to.

But we’re not here to discuss my weird aversion to Pinterest. The question: can you unshrink a sweater?

Let’s try it, and if we’re careful, we just might learn a thing or two on the way!

Don’t worry. I hate me too.

Supplies:

  • A sweater
  • Hair conditioner
  • A sink or basin
  • Two towels

1.Start by filling up your sink or basin with lukewarm water. If sink is your water receptacle of choice, consider the really hilarious name of “unshrinky sink”!

It’s funny because it rhymes with shrinky-dink….eh, I give up.

2. Add half a cup of hair conditioner.

Warning: Conditioner doesn’t naturally mix with water, and 
will initially look like alien. 

One can only assume this is an absolutely accurate representation of alien larvae.

One can only assume this is an absolutely accurate representation of alien larvae

3. Add your sweater to the water, and soak for 20 minutes.

Textile fact #1 coming at ya!: Wool is naturally water resistant!
You’ll have to help submerge the sweater because wool is just too good at its job and will float on top.

See you on the side, sweater.

4. When you’re pulling your sweater out of the sink, gently squeeze out the
excess water. Don’t wring  it. Why? Get excited…

Textile lesson #2: Wool has a couple natural factors that allow for shrinking and stretching. Wool fibers are covered in tiny scales that lock on to each other when heat is applied and the fibers are agitated (like in a dryer!). Shrinking happens when the scales lock onto each other. (In extreme cases, sending a sweater through the dryer can felt the fibers, and there’s no hope for unshrinking) As you dry it, wringing it puts too much pressure on fibers that are still currently locked together and could potentially break the threads. Squeezing gets the excess water out while still being gentle on the fibers.

Are we having fun yet?

It already looks like it’s made for adult humans again, even if those humans are tiny and also probably pretty boring. Also, that towel is owned by a grownup.

5. Lay the sweater flat on a clean towel, and roll up the towel with the sweater inside to absorb excess water.

6. Once the sweater is damp-not-dry, lay out another clean towel on a flat surface, and place your sweater on top, gently stretching the sweater as you flatten it.

Textile fact #3: Wool has a natural “crimp.” That just means there is a waviness to the fiber that allows for stretching and resiliency. Since we’re stretching the fabric as we flatten it, there’s less pressure on the fibers, and we can take advantage of the stretch that comes with the wool’s crimp and the sweater’s knit.

Living in a tiny apartment, my flat surfaces consist of kitchen table (covered in folded laundry) and an aerobic step next to a box from Amazon.

7. Keep the sweater flat as it dries. I returned every few hours to stretch it out again.

Did this method fix everything? For my ski-man sweater…not everything. It still feels pretty snug, and doesn’t quite cover my torso like it once did, but I can wear it! And I don’t  feel like I’m dying. Which, let’s face it, is an admirable goal for all sweaters. It looked like it was almost felted though, so it was asking a lot for a full return to normal.

Before and after

Early on in the process, I saw that the worst that could happen here is the sweater doesn’t un-shrink, so I went through the same thing with one of my other sweaters I didn’t wear anymore (still technically fit but seemed to only shrink vertically, like a weird winter crop top), and it was immediately successful. That sweater was never sent through a full cycle in the dryer, however.

So I guess the takeaway is: soaking a sweater in hair conditioner to undo shrinking is not a science, but it is relatively successful depending on the sweater.

Optional takeaway #2: pay more attention to what you throw in the dryer.


*I call dibs on this idea! I could totally see hipsters who don’t know they’re hipsters buying the dolls to make fun of hipsters. They’d sell them at Urban Outfitters.

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