Shrinkage is a perennial peril

25 October 2023

Richard Neale and Roger Cawood get to grips with shrinkage problems and how best to deal with them

All items shrink slightly in washing, drycleaning or wetcleaning. Washing generally produces the greatest shrinkage, with some cotton items losing 7 – 9% in size. This represents a loss of around 6.9cm (2½“) in a 86.5cm (34”) waist – a loss of over one full size. This occurs because cotton fibres swell in water and then pull back on each other as they dry. The higher the wash temperature, the greater the shrinkage.

Wetcleaning involves much lower mechanical action and generally lower temperatures, with special chemicals to reduce shrinkage of this type, so the loss in size is much less and can normally be largely recovered by skilled finishing.

Drycleaning in solvent involves very low moisture levels, so it avoids the perils of wash shrinkage, but it can still give perceptible loss in size. This is because most new fabric is finished under tension and has a slight stretch set into it. This set is released in any form of cleansing (even drycleaning), leading to a typical loss of up to 3% during the first clean. This means that even a very good quality tailored garment could lose 2½cm (1“) in a 92cm (32”) waist. This is obvious if the garment was originally a comfortable but snug fit, which might no longer be the case after cleaning! It also explains why a long loose sofa cover might not go back on the frame, even after drycleaning.


Shrinkage in drycleaning or in wet cleaning is a fact of real life and the professional cleaner has to learn to cope with this and take the customer along on the journey. Careful reception, good customer communication and some expert rectification skills are what makes the difference between a very successful cleaning operation and the rest of the market. Good luck!

Curtains shrink and then lining hangs down

Fault: The outer fabric to these cotton curtains shrank when drycleaned in perc on a standard household cycle using a reputable detergent, resulting in the lining fabric hanging visibly below the bottom hem, and the hem no longer brushing the floor.

Technical cause: good quality lining fabric is generally made with very little relaxation potential, so that it does not display much relaxation in drycleaning. In contrast, most curtain fabric retailed in the UK and elsewhere is made with an inbuilt ‘set’ of around 3%. The British Standard for curtain fabrics and drapes (BS 5867 part 1) actually allows the cloth maker a maximum relaxation of 3% when test drycleaned in accordance with BS EN ISO 3175, which usually involves three test cleans to bring out the full relaxation potential. This might not sound like much, but a loss of 3% in a curtain with a drop of 213cm (84”) represents shrinkage of 6cm (2½“), which the customer often finds unacceptable. Complaints to the retailer are often met with the response that all their curtain materials are tested and meet the British Standard, so any claim is rejected!

Responsibility: the cleaner should not be taking the blame for relaxation shrinkage of these curtains because there has not been any cleaner error. However, this is a national problem, which is probably not confined to the UK, so it needs to be addressed. The best way in the short term is for the receiving cleaner to record the curtain dimensions at reception and warn the customer that shrinkage of 3% could well occur, even with well-made curtains from a reputable supplier. We suggest you ask the customer to sign the record sheet as an acknowledgement that they have been warned.

Rectification: the standard method for rectifying curtain shrinkage is to steam finish the curtains under tension on a Sandershade type curtain finisher. If left overnight to cool, dry and set, they should retain the new size when tension is released. Many specialist curtain cleaners offer this rectification service to single unit cleaners facing this problem.

COMPARING LENGTHS: This lining fabric did not shrink by much in cleaning, so comparing the length with the outer after cleaning gave a good indication of the amount of shrinkage that occurred

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