Yoga pants. Underwear. Stretchy workout gear. Skinny jeans. Socks. Bras. Stretch pants. And motion capture suits. All these useful textile goods wouldn’t be a reality today if Dupont’s chemists hadn’t given Lycra (spandex) to the world in 1959.
We all love this extremely useful, stretchy synthetic fiber. Did you know that fully 80 percent of all clothes sold in the United States contain a certain amount of spandex? Yes, that’s a fact. But does spandex shrink during normal care such as washing and drying?
This post answers this question and many more about this terrific textile so you can take care of it the right way and enjoy your clothes for longer.
What is Spandex?
Spandex is a stretchy fabric that Dupont, an American company, developed in the 1950s. The company used a foundational compound known as polyurethane (PU) to create this fiber.
To be clear, Dupont didn’t discover polyurethane; a company called IG Farben based out in LeverKusen, Germany, did in 1937. And if you’re wondering who the scientists behind the invention were, it was Otto Bayer and his nerdy team.
As the fibers pass through various manufacturing processes and stages, the equipment used piles tons of pressure upon them. Aside from the pressure, a lot of twisting happens to the threads. During spinning and weaving, there’s even more twisting happening to the yarns. What comes out the other end is a fabric that stretches substantially.
But how much does spandex stretch? Spandex stretches between 5 and 8 times its size according to Sewport.com. For the most part, you won’t find spandex used singly to make a garment.
Textile manufacturers typically mix the fiber with other fibers to produce blended fabrics. The fiber(s) they combine spandex with may be natural, organic, synthetic, or semi-synthetic such as rayon. Other names for spandex are Lycra and elastane.
The percentage of spandex in the blended fabric is always relatively small, usually not exceeding 20 percent. 97% other fiber/3% percent spandex, 98% other fiber/2% spandex, 95% other fiber/5% spandex, 96% other fiber/4% spandex, and 88% other fiber/12% spandex combinations are common.
Put another way, does spandex shrink when washed in hot water? One of the best-known qualities of spandex is that it stands up to heat pretty well. Still, spandex does shrink when washed hot or when fed into a dryer on a high-heat setting.
How much spandex shrinks depends on whether it’s spandex alone or a spandex/other fabric blend. Spandex blends tend to see greater shrinking compared to spandex-only fabrics. And if you’re wondering how much spandex shrinks, it contracts anywhere between 5% and 10%.
In case you’re interested, here’s how to shrink clothes.
When you put spandex in the dryer or washing machine on a high temperature setting, the heat causes the tension in the fibers to relax. As these relaxed spandex fibers start pulling back to their original length, the fabric naturally shrinks.
But just because spandex demonstrates incredibly good stretching ability and always returns to its shape doesn’t mean it isn’t prone to shrinkage.
How much does a fabric containing 98% cotton and just 2% spandex shrink? A fabric with this fiber combination may be expected to shrink as much as 100% cotton typically does, which is between 5 and 20 percent.
This is because 2% of elastane in a blend isn’t significant.How much shrinkage ends up happening depends on how much heat there is and how long the clothes stay in the elevated temperature situation.
Having 95% cotton means that this fabric will shrink quite a bit when in the washing machine and slightly more than the 98/2 ratio above when in the dryer.
Generally, the more the cotton in the combination, the higher the shrinkage during hot-water washing. And the more the spandex in the mix, the more shrinkage in the dryer. Still, it’s hard to state a specific shrinkage percentage of a 95%/5% fabric or any other combo for that matter.
Since 97% cotton and 3% spandex makes the fabric majorly a cotton one, expect a significant amount of shrinkage in the wash. You may also expect this cloth to shrink marginally more than a 98%/2% one in the dryer.
Why? It’s because there’s marginally more spandex in the blended fabric. And spandex shrinks more in the dryer than in the wash. Which is why textile technologists usually warn against machine-drying spandex.
A fabric with a fiber combination of 88% cotton and 12% spandex won’t shrink in the wash as much as would a combo having a greater quantity of cotton.
But since there’s significantly more spandex in the material, expect a lot more shrinkage in the dryer compared to the cotton/spandex combinations discussed above.
Below is an idea to always keep in mind when talking about shrinkage.
One factor determines how much shrinkage a fabric sees in the wash or tumble dryer: whether it’s pre-shrunk or not.
It’s become pretty much common practice for textile factories to pre-shrink fabrics before releasing them to the sewing community. They do this to reduce the odds of clothes shrinking significantly during care.
But there’s no guarantee that the fabric or clothes you purchased came in pre-shrunk. If they weren’t pre-treated to reduce shrinking, putting the cotton/spandex fabric in the washer will cause significant shrinkage in the first wash. And there’s going to be even more contraction in the dryer, especially if the combo contains a higher percentage of Lycra.
Spandex demonstrates a decent heat-resistance capacity. In fact, it tolerates heat better than most synthetic fibers. That said, this fiber starts shrinking once the temperature of the water in the washer hits 150˚F (65˚C) according to Silverbobbin.com.
The normal hot water cycle of a washing machine is hot enough to kick off shrinking for spandex. But do you know what happens to a spandex-heavy dress if you increase the temperature to 350˚F(177˚C)? Melting, that’s what. However, no one ever cranks up their washer or dryer to temperatures that high.
Yes, you can, but you need to handle the washing process correctly. You don’t want to set the machine to the hot water cycle. Because the hot water cycle will most certainly cause the spandex dress to shrink. Instead, select the cool water cycle or cold water cycle.
What about the spinning motions inside the washer, won’t they cause shrinkage to your lovely, stretchy dress? No, that won’t happen. Because spandex snaps right back to its original shape after it’s stretched out.
Polyester brings toughness, shrink-resistance, stiffness, and durability to the table while spandex contributes softness and impressive elasticity to the blend. Thanks to its elasticity, spandex helps this blend to retain its original size. But since spandex shrinks in heated conditions, the garment sure shrinks to some degree.
Here’s what happens when you attempt to shrink polyester/spandex clothes by hot-washing or machine-washing them: uneven shrinking. Polyester doesn’t shrink much, but as spandex fibers cool off and relax, this can cause warping to the original shape of the garment. Bottom line? It’s a bad idea to try to shrink a polyester/spandex textile garment.
Nylon is similar to polyester in that it’s a 100% synthetic fiber which stands really well to shrinking. Its heat-resistance profile is also good. In other words, nylon can tolerate hot washer and dryer conditions better than spandex.
The safest way to wash a spandex/polyester garment is to hand-wash it in cool/cold water with a gentle detergent. Washing it in hot water and high-heat drying will cause uneven shrinkage and even warping. And neither result does any good to the garment.
So, care for this blend as though it’s made from spandex alone. That is, cold-wash and air-dry the nylon/spandex clothing.
Rayon is a semi-natural/semi-artificial fiber that’s way more sensitive to wetness and heat than spandex. The more rayon there is in a rayon/spandex garment, the more shrinkage you may expect.
So, yes, rayon spandex shrinks. And the contraction may be significant or not much depending on how much shrinkage the other fiber in the blend usually sees.
Rayon doesn’t do well in the washer or dryer. Wetness and heat can cause serious damage to a rayon/spandex fabric over time. It’s not uncommon for such a garment to start tearing after some time due to incorrect care.
- The correct way to wash spandex clothes depends on the constituent fibers of the blend. Be sure to read the care label to know what fibers are there and in what percentages. If the garment contains lots of cotton or linen, you can safely wash it in a washing machine. And if it’s a spandex-only garment, it’s perfectly OK to toss it in the washer but run a cold/cool water cycle.
- Add a decent amount of a mild detergent to the wash.
- What if it’s a blended fabric with high quantities of a delicate fiber such as viscose rayon? In this case, it’s best to not machine-wash the garment.
- Once the washing cycle completes, lay the spandex garment flat on a surface to dry. It’s not a good idea to dry out spandex clothes in the dryer because shrinking is highly likely in such conditions.
- What if the garment came without a care label for whatever reason and you don’t know if the other material is delicate? Where you’re not certain about the constituent fibers of a blended fabric, it’s best to handwash it in cool/cold water using a mild detergent. Once the garment is ready for drying, lay it flat and leave it there until it dries up thoroughly.
- Can you dry-clean spandex clothes? If the care label says you can, then you can. But for the most part, you shouldn’t dry-clean spandex. Why? Because dry-cleaning spandex can cause the fabers to expand or swell to an appreciable degree. And when this happens, the garment may lose its original shape.
- Can you dry spandex clothes in a dryer? You technically can, but fabric care experts don’t recommend it. If you must machine-dry spandex, choose a no-heat tumble-dry cycle or a low-heat dry cycle. Still, there’s no ironclad guarantee that the machine-dried garment won’t lose its shape permanently.
- Here’s what NOT to do when washing spandex clothes: Do Not dry-clean them unless the manufacturer’s stated clearly that you can. Do not machine–dry spandex clothes on a high-heat setting. Do not wash them in hot water unless you’re trying to shrink them. Don’t use bleach on spandex, but you can ignore this “don’t” if the bleach won’t degrade the color and the care instructions allow you to do it. Do not hang spandex clothes on the clothesline because water will substantially stretch the garment as it drains out.
Over time, clothes containing spandex become a little loose or baggy. And they may not hug and support your body as they once did. When this happens, you can do one of three things:
- Eat more junk food and become a couch potato so you can add 250 pounds, ballooning into the baggy garment (seriously?).
- Throw the oversize item away because you can’t wear it anymore.
- Wash and dry the item incorrectly to initiate shrinking and squeeze the garment down to a better-fitting size.
You’re a smart person, and you want to go with option 3. So, how do you shrink a spandex garment and make it more form-fitting? You may not get the loose-fitting garment to regain its original size, but you can sure shrink most spandex garments a tad.
Here’s how to shrink a spandex dress or other garment:
- Understand what fibers the spandex blend contains. This is the only way to decide the best strategy to achieve the most shrinkage.
- Put the slightly big spandex garment into the washing machine and select the highest heat setting possible. Use some mild detergent if the item isn’t clean and don’t bleach. As the hot water starts working on the garment, it’ll start losing some of the bagginess.
- Once the first wash cycle completes, check the item to see if it’s shrunk down to the right size. Be careful not to stretch the wet garment or it will get misshapen.
- If the blend contains a synthetic fiber that doesn’t shrink much such as nylon or polyester, put the garment into the dryer on a medium to high-temperature setting. To be specific, let the highest heat setting on the dryer be what the most delicate fiber in the blend can handle or tolerate.
- Keep an eye on the dryer and check if the garment’s shrunk down to the size you want after every 10 minutes.
- How much the blend will contract depends on how much the constituent fibers generally shrink. In case you forgot, spandex shrinks between 5% and 10%. If the blend carries a high quantity of a high-shrinking fiber such as cotton or linen, the garment can shrink significantly. But if the main fabric is polyester, nylon, or other fiber that’s not known for shrinking, all you can hope for is slight tightening rather than a full-size reduction.
That’s how you get a loose spandex-containing garment to regain some of its original shape and tightness.
Spandex resists shrinkage well. To make a spandex-only garment (such garments aren’t common) shrink, you have to expose them to lots of dryer heat and hot-water treatments.
But when blended with other fibers that are prone to shrinking such as cotton, linen, and rayon,spandex clothes can shrink significantly.
When mixed with synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester, what happens is uneven shrinkage and warping. This is because the other fibers in the spandex/other fabric combo shrink at different temperatures and rates compared to spandex.
To prevent spandex-enriched clothes from shrinking and losing their original shape and tightness, give them proper care and maintenance. Wash them by hand or machine-wash them in cold/cool water with mild detergent without bleach. Finally, air-dry the clothes before storing them.