Polyester is used worldwide to make clothing, and you’re unlikely to ever meet a person who doesn’t own some polyester garments of one type or another. The textiles industry loves it because it’s cheap to make, easy to deal with, and really durable. Consumers love it because the price tag is low and we don’t have to put as much effort into looking after it.
But that key advantage, the durability and strength we all love and expect from polyester, can also be the most annoying thing about it. When we need consistency and long life from our clothing, polyester has our back. When we need to adjust and modify our clothing, polyester is our worst enemy.
There are ways to force that polyester shirt into doing what we want, and all of them involve the application of fairly extreme heat. From turning up the heat in the washing machine and dryer to boiling your shirt in a pot, there are options available. The techniques are not perfect, but shrinking polyester is possible.
We’re here to teach you how to shrink that pesky shirt and guide you through the process step by step. First, let’s learn exactly why shrinking polyester clothes is so troublesome, and then find the perfect ways to shrink polyester clothes.
What is Polyester Fabric?
It’s… drum roll — plastic! This fact is pretty common knowledge, but if you didn’t know it, it might come as a surprise. Plastics can do a lot of things, but until we know better we definitely don’t associate them with anything as soft as a fabric.
Polyester as a material is actually used for multiple things other than textiles—although the textiles industry is where most of it goes, producing some extremely durable fabric. The other big use is making ‘PET’ plastic bottles, like the types we drink our soft drinks from.
It sounds strange, but polyester fabric is just made from thread that is woven from the very same material as a plastic bottle; all they do is stretch it out really really thin. In fact, plastic bottles can actually be recycled into synthetic fiber and turned into polyester fabric!
The image of a polyester shirt being woven out of tiny bits of plastic bottle is actually pretty useful right now. If you think about it like that, it’s really easy to understand why shrinking polyester is tricky, or why it doesn’t really do anything but stay exactly as it is!
Now that we know what polyester material is, let’s answer the big question: is shrinking polyester even possible?
Can You Shrink Polyester Garments?
You can, but it’s unpredictable, not without risk, and definitely not the easiest thing in the world. As we touched on before, polyester is a plastic and it naturally resists the shrinking process. It was specifically designed to keep its shape for about as long as it exists. To convince it to do otherwise, and consequently, shrink polyester, you’ll need to be patient and creative.
Heat, be it hot water or simply high temperatures, is polyester’s greatest enemy. You can use that knowledge to change the size of your shirts. But if you’re not careful, you can also damage the synthetic fibers in the shirts irrevocably or even melt them.
Whenever you try to shrink polyester garments, you are walking a fine line between success and catastrophic failure, so it’s important to be delicate and gentle if your clothing resists shrinkage.
This can be an important factor to keep in mind when deciding if these techniques are the right thing for you to try. If your shirt fits and you’re fairly happy with it, but you’d just like it even more if it was a little bit tighter around the waist—then you’d be taking a fair amount of risk by trying to shrink it.
Right now you have a shirt you can wear, but if the shrinking attempts go wrong, you could end up with nothing.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got people with shirts that they are far too dissatisfied with to actually wear. This is a much safer situation, because you’re starting with a shirt you can’t wear, and in the worst-case scenario end up with a shirt you still can’t wear.
Related Read: How To Stretch a Polyester T-shirt
How Much Will a Polyester Shirt Shrink?
This is the part where it really hurts to be honest. Saying it’s difficult and risky is fine if we can also tell you the results could be amazing—but that’s sadly not always the case.
Even if you research all the ways to shrink polyester, do a brilliant job at your chosen shrinking method, follow the shrinking process meticulously by using the proper heat setting, and everything goes to plan, the effect could be frustratingly minimal.
On the other hand, it’s possible that your attempts at shrinking polyester will be successful and you’ll end up with a shirt that you love. It’s worth a try if you don’t mind the risk.
100% polyester fabric vs. polyester blends
The biggest deciding factor in how much your polyester shirt will shrink is how much polyester is actually in it. Sometimes you’ll be trying to shrink a 100% polyester shirt, and other times it will be 40% cotton cloth, 60% polyester, or somewhere in between. The higher the polyester content, the harder it is to shrink.
On the bright side, you don’t have to worry about accidentally turning your XL men’s t-shirt into a children’s top, but on the other hand, you do have to worry about melting it. A hot rinse setting is fine and a bit of hot water should be fine, but it’s easy to go overboard when shrinking polyester and accidentally damage it.
How to Shrink a Polyester Shirt in Different Ways
Method 1 – The Washing Machine
It’s always good to start from the simplest technique, so that’s what we’ll do here. This is mainly the simplest option because many people have a washing machine, so anyone can use theirs to try their hand at shrinking polyester.
100% polyester shirt
The first thing you need to do is make sure your polyester garment is clean. You could add detergent or fabric softener to the washing machine to wash the garment as you shrink it, but we don’t recommend it. You need to set the washing to the hottest setting it has, and that can be problematic for cleaning with a liquid fabric softener or another type of laundry detergent.
Next, you need to turn your garment inside out. This will help protect the colors from fading. It’s also best to only do one garment at a time, to avoid the dyes running and potentially mixing with each other.
Now add the clothing to the washing machine and put it on the hottest setting and the longest washing cycle your machine can do. If you use a rinse cycle afterward, make sure to use a hot rinse setting, too.
The method for a poly-cotton blend is exactly the same as 100% polyester, except you don’t need to go quite as hot. In fact, the higher the count of natural fibers in your shirt, the lower the temperature can be. But for a standard polyester blend shirt, we recommend a medium heating setting on the longest wash cycle.
You can also wash your 100% polyester garment on a lower setting if you’re only aiming for minimal shrinkage, and in that situation, it’s okay to add some laundry detergent. Even then, stick to the longest wash cycle your machine can support.
Once your wash cycle has finished, it’s time to dry your polyester shirt. This can be the end of the process (if the wash shrunk your shirt sufficiently) or the next step of the process if you want to get some extra shrinkage done.
If you’re happy with your shirt, you can go ahead and air dry it. If not, keep reading to achieve further shrinkage.
Method 2 – The Dryer
This method can be used by itself, or after a shirt has already been washed on a high heat setting. Here’s a very short list of things you will need:
And that’s about it. Dryers can reach very hot temperatures, so you need to be careful here not to over do it. Even if you manage to avoid a complete meltdown, you may still damage your fabric and end up making your polyester stiff and misshapen.
As mentioned in the previous method, always make sure to decrease the heat for polyester blends.
Once you have chosen a heat setting (and this will take some guesswork— just remember 100% polyester needs the most heat and everything below that needs less and less as the poly content decreases), it’s time to dry.
A convenient feature of the dryer method is that you can open a tumble dryer door as many times as you want during its cycle, so it’s good to regularly check how your shirt is coming along and whether you need to stop yet.
If you want to complete multiple drying cycles, you can, just be aware the chances of heat damage increase each time. And always be careful not to touch the inside of the hot dryer!
Method 3 – The Hot Iron
This is a heavy-duty method so take care when using it on polyester blends to try and shrink polyester.
The ironing method also begins with the washing machine—you need the polyester shirt to be wet when you begin ironing, and you might as well put it on the hottest water setting to get the ball rolling.
Once your polyester garment is washed, put it straight onto the ironing board without removing any excess water. Cover the shirt with a pressing cloth to avoid damaging it, and set the iron to medium heat. Irons can reach extremely high temperatures, and trying to iron the shirt on the highest setting will definitely damage the polyester fibers, so remember to stick to medium heat when trying to shrink polyester.
Now you need to iron the shirt until it is completely dry, which may take some time. Make sure the pressing cloth is covering the whole shirt, and make sure to not use the steam setting on your iron, because that will only make things wetter, not dryer.
Once the polyester garment is dry, it should be smaller than it was in the beginning. If you see some improvement but not quite enough, you can repeat the process again.
However, you must be wary of repeating it too many times, as too much heat will damage the shirt at some point. If optimal shrinkage has been achieved, you can go ahead and wear your clean, dry shirt straight away.
Method 4 – The Pot of Boiling Water
For this method, you need to make polyester shirt soup. Yes, it literally involves bringing a big pot of water to the boil on your stove and throwing your shirt in there. This is a good method because boiling water breaks down the synthetic fabric and helps it to shrink polyester.
There are two ways to approach this method: the constant boil and the long soak.
The constant boil
You can begin by washing your polyester shirt in your washing machine as usual, but make sure to have a big pot of water boiling by the time the cycle is finished. Add the shirt to the water while it’s still wet, and be careful not to burn your hands.
Keep the heat on and the water boiling for about ten minutes, and then use a strainer, colander or tongs to remove the shirt from the water. You could also run cold water into the pot to cool it.
Wait for the t-shirt to cool to a bearable heat and check to see if you notice a change. If you managed to shrink polyester and you’re happy to let it air dry and try it out, then go ahead and do that. If not, put it in the dryer on a high setting until it’s nice and dry. This should help you reach maximum shrinkage.
The long soak
Begin by washing your t-shirt in the washing machine (a normal heat setting is fine), and preparing a boiling pot of water. When the wash cycle is over, add the wet shirt to the pot of boiling water and turn off the heat.
Cover the pot with a lid if possible, and leave the t-shirt to soak for about an hour. This method involves a little less heat and is therefore better suited for poly blends and cases when you don’t need to shrink polyester to an extreme.
When the hour is up, remove the shirt from the pot (be careful, it could still be fairly hot) and leave it to cool a little.
When it’s cool enough to be handled, you can appraise the results and decide whether it needs a round in the dryer or not.
Shrinkage Level Breakdown
The methods listed above have a bit of a mix-and-match system, so we’ll note down here all the different combinations you can use for quick reference before you try to shrink polyester.
Minimal shrinkage (100% poly or poly blend)
- Option 1 – The washing machine method, low to medium heat setting, no dryer.
- Option 2 – Normal machine wash, followed by the iron method, low or medium setting.
- Option 3 – The dryer method, low heat setting.
- Option 4 – Normal machine wash, followed by the boiling water method (long soak version), no dryer.
Moderate polyester shrinkage (100% poly or poly blend)
- Option 1 – The washing machine method, low to medium heat setting. Followed by the dryer method, low to medium setting.
- Option 2 – Medium to hot machine wash, followed by the ironing method, low to medium setting with one possible repeat.
- Option 3 – The dryer method, medium to high heat setting.
- Option 4 – Normal machine wash, followed by the boiling water method (constant boil version), no dryer.
Maximum shrinkage (100% polyester only)
- Option 1 – The washing machine method, highest heat, and longest washing cycle, followed by the dryer method on high heat.
- Option 2 – High heat machine wash, followed by the ironing method, medium heat setting with one possible repeat.
- Option 3 – The dryer method, high heat setting.
- Option4 – High heat machine wash, followed by the boiling water method (constant boil version), followed by high heat dryer cycle.
Note: Be careful when aiming for maximum shrinkage. Even with 100% polyester you could end up with too much shrinkage or cause damage to the synthetic fibers. Polyester is a very durable material under normal circumstances, but heat is its one and great weakness.
When you’re all finished with the shrinking process, you need to give a little thought to aftercare. Shrinking polyester clothes is very hard on synthetic fiber and you need to make sure you prevent damage and further shrinkage.
Luckily, all you really need to do is keep is away from any more heat. Avoid putting the shirt or polyester pants into another hot wash, and try to air dry them for a while.
Shrinking Polyester: FAQs
Making polyester shrink is tricky, so let us give you some extra parting knowledge before you set off and begin your attempts.
Yes, you can shrink polyester clothing. It won’t be able to shrink a great deal, but it can shrink to an extent if the right amount of heat is applied (via the washer and dryer method, iron, or boiling water).
This will depend on the method you choose to try, but you can expect to need at least enough time for a full machine wash cycle, or a full dryer cycle using the washer and dryer method.
The official melting point of polyester is 260°C/482℉. However, polyester clothing is known to melt slightly when ironed on the wrong setting, or even when tumble-dried on too high a heat. Sparks from open fires can also cause melt damage.
Yes, prolonged exposure to boiling/hot water should shrink a polyester shirt to some extent. This method can be tried twice to further the results.
It depends on what your machine’s version of ‘high’ is. You need to avoid subjecting the polyester fibers to too much heat, so we recommend not exceeding 180℉.
Shrinking polyester clothing is difficult. The effects will never be that dramatic, and you are risking heat damage every time you try. But sometimes those risks are worth taking, and you can successfully shrink your polyester shirts without hurting the fabric.
If you’re willing to take the plunge, make sure to keep yourself and your polyester safe from all the heat, and follow the steps meticulously to achieve the best possible effect.