How Much Will a Dress Shirt Shrink?

How much will a dress shirt shrink?

Generally speaking, dress shirts are made from woven cotton, and a nice woven cotton  shrinks an average of 2%.  All fabrics are a bit different, but 1-3% is a good rule of thumb. 2% may not sound like much, but keep in mind that for a collar size of 15″ that translates to 0.3″ in the collar size, and for a sleeve length of 35″, it can mean a full 0.7″!   Of course there are a number of caveats to this rule that should also be considered:

How the shirt is washed and dried make a a big difference

Some clients ask, “If I only dry-clean the shirt, will it still shrink?”, and unfortunately the answer is a complicated yes.  Certainly, if you rarely wear the shirt and only occasionally have it spot-cleaned by the dry-cleaner it will not shrink as much as if it is washed regularly in water.  And if you’re incredibly careful it may not shrink at all.  However, for other reasons, we don’t suggest dry-cleaning as the optimal method to wash a dress shirt.  Rather we suggest sizing the shirt such that some normal amount of shrinkage is taken into account and then washing  it in water and pressing it after.

Alternatively, if you wash the shirt in the washer, and then dry it on high-heat in the dryer, you will see shrinkage that is much more significant.

If you wash a shirt according to our suggested methods, you should see more minimal and predictable shrinkage over time, without the costs and hassle of dry-cleaning only.

Shrinkage happens over time, not all at once

The first time a shirt is washed it usually shrinks the most, but it can still be expected to shrink more over the life of the shirt.  We generally expect that the first washing gets most of the shrinkage out of it, the second gets a bit more, the third a tiny bit more, and so on in some logarithmic decreasing function (although we don’t necessarily have the data to support this).  The point is, it’s common for a shirt to be slightly smaller after fifty washings than it was after its first washing.

Shrinkage in length vs width

Generally speaking (though there are plenty of exceptions) dress shirt fabrics shrink more in the warp than in the weft.  Another way of saying this is that dress shirts tend to shrink more in the length than in the width.  Sleeve length, shirt length and collar around are where you can expect most shrinkage to occur, while generally speaking shirts won’t shrink as much in their width.

Typical dress shirt fabrics vs. some specialty casual fabrics

Generally speaking, nice dress shirt fabrics shrink in this 1-3% range.  At Proper Cloth, we test all of our dress shirt fabrics to ensure that they meet this criteria.  However, occasionally we come across a fun casual fabric that we think is just really cool and special for its look or feel that shrinks more than 3%.  In some cases we will opt to make these fabrics available (of course we do try to account for this shrinkage specially).  High shrinkage fabrics can include some of the chambrays, oxford cloths and fine printed fabrics.

Why did my shirt become looser in the torso or sleeves?

In some cases, you may find that rather than shrinking, your shirt actually became looser around the chest, midsection and around the biceps.  This is a result of a shirt being stretched out. We’ve seen this phenomenon occur when certain, aggressive cleaners clean shirts made from fabrics with a looser weave.

To understand how this can happen, it helps to understand how most shirt cleaners wash/press a shirt.  First the shirt is washed in water.  Secondly it is put through a spin cycle to wring most of the water out of the garment.  And finally, the shirt is put on some sort of rig or press where the remaining water is then steamed out, resulting in a wrinkle free and dry shirt.

The problem occurs when a cleaner pulls the shirts onto the press such that the fabric is under tension in the width direction.  This tension stretches the shirt out in the width direction, and then when the shirt is steamed dry the stretch is effectively locked into the shirt.  This can result in the midsection width being 0.5-0.75″ larger than it should be.

In most cases, washing the shirt and then drying it on low-heat in a tumble-dry will return it to it’s original size.

With a careful cleaner you won’t have this problem.  It’s also worth noting that some fabrics are more susceptible to this sort of stretching.  While we’ve generally found broadcloths to be resistant to this effect, we’ve seen it happen quite severely in some imperial twills and even pinpoint oxfords.

How Does Proper Cloth Adjust for Shrinkage?

Accounting for shrinkage is a tricky mix of art, science and legacy systems.  For better or worse, here’s how we adjust for shrinkage:

  • We add 0.5″-0.75″ to the collar size.  Less on smaller collars and more on larger collars.
  • We add 0.5″ to 0.75″ to the sleeve length.  Less on shorter sleeves and more on longer sleeves.
  • We add a flat 0.5″ to the width of the chest, midsection and bottom width.
  • In addition to the above rules, for specialty fabrics that are known to shrink more than 3%, we will also adjust all of the dimensions (length and width separately) by 1-3%.