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How Much Do Jeans Shrink When Washing and Drying?

jeans in wash water

Washing and drying naturally results in fabric shrinking. Controlling the process by lowering water and dryer temperatures helps reduce how much blue jeans shrink.

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By Mary Gagliardi
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Shrinkage is a natural byproduct of machine washing and drying pants. How much a pair of blue jeans might shrink depends in part on whether the manufacturer took steps to control shrinkage during production.

Understanding relaxation shrinkage

During the process of spinning fibers into yarn and weaving or knitting yarn into fabric, the yarns and fabric are held under tension. When the fabric gets wet, the tension is released, the yarns and fabric weave “relax,” and the dimensions of the fabric shrink.

If you’ve ever noticed that your blue jeans get tighter in the waist when you first put them on after washing, but then loosen up a bit after an hour or so, that’s relaxation shrinkage being reversed because you reintroduced tension that stretched the waistband.

jeans waistband

More washing can cause progressive shrinkage

The first wash cycle usually causes most of the shrinkage a garment will undergo through relaxation. Additional shrinkage in the next few wash cycles is called progressive shrinkage. Usually after 5 wash cycles, shrinkage is complete and clothing won’t shrink anymore over time.

How much will jeans shrink?

In general, expect up to 3–4% shrinkage, which on a pair of jeans with a 32″ inseam would mean shrinking about 1″–1¼” in the length. The width is much less prone to shrinkage because there is less applied tension in that direction during fabric construction. This can vary from brand to brand and style to style. Shrinkage over 5% is generally considered unacceptable by the garment industry.

Reduce shrinkage using cold water

Adjusting your laundry habits can help limit or prevent shrinkage that is otherwise considered normal.

  • Select a lower wash temperature. Washing in hot water can increase fabric shrinkage, so switch to cold water to help preserve fabric length.
  • Select a lower dryer temperature. Just like warmer wash temperatures can increase shrinkage, so can higher dryer temperatures.
  • Air dry. Instead of tumble drying, let your jeans air dry.
washing machine controls

Look for pre-shrunk jeans

If the fabric manufacturer includes any processes that reduce future shrinkage, or if the jeans manufacturer pre-washes the fabric so it relaxes before the jeans are sewn together, they should label those items “Preshrunk” on the hang tag. A garment that is preshrunk may still shrink a little with home laundering and drying, but not very much. Pre-shrinking processes generally try to limit shrinkage to 1%.

What about “shrink to fit”?

Some blue jeans are designed to fit you properly once they have been washed and dried, with some shrinkage expected to make this work. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, including what size to buy, so once the jeans have shrunk they fit you properly.

Reversing blue jean shrinkage

It’s harder to reintroduce tension to the length of a pair of jeans to get the legs to stretch out, although hanging wet blue jeans to air dry from the hemline of the legs instead of the waist can help. That’s because the weight of the wet fabric applies a little tension to the legs, helping them stretch back out.

Frequently asked questions

How do I shrink jeans on purpose?

Wash them in hot water and dry them on high heat, exactly the opposite of what you’d do to prevent shrinkage. Note that this will also likely result in some fading.

Will jeans get clean if I wash them in cold water to prevent shrinkage?

You can always improve cleaning in cold water by adding Clorox 2® for Colors, which improves the cleaning and brightening performance of your favorite detergent. Adding Clorox 2® along with your regular detergent gets your clothes cleaner, even in cold water.