Linen can shrink, which is why proper care of this textile is so important.
How linen material is washed and dried significantly impacts whether linen will shrink. And, if a piece of fabric shrinks, it can impact the overlook of a product, from how a garment fits to the length of curtains.
Knowing why linen shrinks is the key to preventing it. By taking a few simple steps, you can get the most out of this luxurious fabric and make sure it will last for years to come.
How Is Linen Made?
To understand why linen shrinks, it is important to understand how this fabric is constructed.
Linen is made of fibers sourced from the stems of flax plants that are grown in cooler climates throughout the world. Although Belgium, France and the Netherlands are known for their production, quality, and history of flax, the plant is grown in other regions around the world.
After a flax plant is harvested, the fibers are separated through a “retting” and “scutching” process. Retting occurs when flax is placed in water before being taken out to dry. Scutching further loosens the flax fibers by crushing the woody part of the stalk.
Once the fibers are removed, they are “heckled,” which separates the short fibers using a combing technique. This leaves behind the long flax fibers. These fibers are spun into yarn before they are woven into a textile product.
Flax fibers are very strong due to their crystalline structure. This gives linen fabric one of its most desired properties … its strength. Linen is also extremely sustainable compared to other textiles, such as synthetics.
Even better, as it ages, linen becomes even stronger and softer.
Why Linen Shrinks
If linen is known for its strength and durability, then why does this type of fabric shrink?
According to the National Cleaners Association, linen is one of a handful of textiles that experiences “relaxation shrinkage.” This occurs because during the manufacturing process, fibers stretch.
When linen fabric becomes wet, the fibers relax. This causes the fibers to return to their original size, which causes the fabric to appear as though it has shrunk.
Not all linen fabrics will shrink the same. Many industry experts agree shrinkage of up to 3 to 4% is possible, though in rare cases, fabric can shrink up to 10%. If linens are pre-washed prior to being turned into a garment, for example, consumers are less likely to see any major shrinkage once they wash the garment.
However, applying heat can also cause the natural fibers to shrink. If one linen is washed in cold water and another in hot water, the linen washed in hot water will inevitably experience greater shrinkage.
How To Prevent Linens From Shrinking
Because applying heat can cause natural fibers to shrink, it is recommended to wash all linens in cold water. Below are a few additional tips to prevent linens from shrinking and to keep their fibers strong.
In general, when cleaning fine linens by washing machine:
- Separate light-colored fabrics and dark fabrics, and linen fabrics from other types of fabrics.
- Use the gentle cycle.
- Do not overload your machine.
- Use mild detergent.
- Do not use bleach.
When hand washing linen:
- Combine water and approximately one teaspoon of mild detergent in a sink.
- Soak linens for about 10 minutes.
- Afterward, use your hands to gently move the fabric around the container.
- IMPORTANT: Do not twist the fabric or scrub it, as this can damage the fibers.
- Allow the water to drain and refill the sink. Continue this step until all of the detergent is removed.
Linens can also be dry cleaned, especially since this will save time when wrinkles are present and the fabric must be pressed.
Over drying linen can also cause shrinkage. Linen should never be tumble dried on high heat, which not only can cause the fibers to shrink, but break altogether.
Instead, if linen is pre-washed, place linens in a dryer on low heat. Remove them, however, while they are still somewhat damp. If you prefer wrinkle-free linens, you may turn your iron to its low to medium-hot setting and iron the linen while it is still damp.
Finally, it is also important to check the manufacturer’s tag to see if there is a cleaning code or cleaning directions attached. Following the tag can help reduce the likelihood that the linen fabric will shrink.
For more information on the proper way to care for linens, check out our article, How To Wash Linen.
If Shrinking Occurs
If shrinking occurs, is there anything that can be done to salvage the lost material? Possibly.
After rewashing the fabric, let it air dry on a line. After water from the fabric has stopped dripping, but the fabric is still damp, begin ironing it. Place the iron in the center of the item and move outward toward the corners and edges. Repeat this ironing pattern, as if you are stretching out the piece of linen.
While this may not recover the entire amount of fabric that has shrunk, it may help stretch out the fabric in a safe manner.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to avoid a fabric shrinking, as mentioned above, is to purposely shrink the piece of linen before designing a garment or hemming curtains. That way, it is less likely your final product will shrink, especially if the above care instructions are followed.
Does linen shrink? Yes, it can. However, by following a few easy steps such as avoiding high heat and hot water during fabric care, you can reduce the chances that this occurs.
Despite its natural risk of shrinking, linen is a beautiful textile known for its high standard of quality. Linen has very few drawbacks, making it a go-to textile for designers and manufacturers who want a winning combination of luxury and comfort for their product.