Linen 101: Does Linen Shrink?

Linen is a durable material, but it needs to be well cared for. Natural fibers, like linen, have the propensity to shrink. We want to avoid that, of course, to keep your bedding in top shape for as long as possible. So, let’s get into the reasons this material could shrink and how to avoid it. 

Why does linen shrink in the first place?

Let’s think of linen like an elastic band. When cellulose is taken from the flax plant stems to create the linen fiber, there is a stretching process. The stretching causes tension, just like if you stretched out an elastic band or wrapped a hair tie a bunch of times around a ponytail. But, when you expose linen to water, or water and warmth, the stretched fibers relax, just like if you were to release the elastic band, or take the hair tie out of your hair. With the fibers, the relaxation causes them to return to their original size. And since the stretched fibers are what makes the bedding, once the fibers relax, the material shrinks down. 

Many factors can contribute to the shrinking. Water that’s too cold. Water that’s too hot. A rough wash cycle. A hot and aggressive dry cycle. Linen is essentially the Goldilocks of bedding materials in this way.

So how much does linen shrink when washed or exposed to heat? That can depend. When discussing with our manufacturers, we’re told the level of shrinking is a relatively small percentage, less than 5%. 

Of course, it is totally possible to avoid intense shrinking by washing items carefully. This is not to say that your items will never shrink. Fabrics can be temperamental, and even with careful washing, there is a chance that at some point, you may experience linen that shrinks a bit. 

Does linen shrink when washed? Yes. It can. So it’s important to wash it on a cooler (not cold, but cool) water cycle to help avoid this as much as possible. Cold water can cause shrinking as well. Likely not as much as hot water, but that’s why it’s important to mind the water temperatures of your machine, if you’ve chosen to machine wash. 

Some people prefer to hand wash smaller items, like linen pillow cases or shams, which is great, as it allows you to have a bit more control over the wash temperature, and lets you choose cool or lukewarm water, which will help avoid that shrinking. 

This is also why tumble drying on a low, gently tumble dry cycle is helpful. The heat of the dryer allows those fibers to relax, as we discussed in our little elastic band analogy, which leads to shrinking. So ensuring it’s dried on the gentlest possible cycle is important in ensuring the material won’t shrink, or, at the very least, won’t shrink much. Air drying may also be a helpful alternative to avoid this material from shrinking. Breeze and outdoor warmth are obviously much gentler than a dry cycle. 

The perils of dry cleaning:

Linen can be dry cleaned, and it is something we suggest if you prefer not to machine or hand wash your linen bedding. It does. Linen shrinks when exposed to heat, and the steam of the dry cleaning machines paired with the absorbency of linen (especially if it is a looser weave), could cause shrinking. That’s not to say this will be a high percentage of shrinking, or that this will happen every time, but it is entirely possible. If you plan to dry clean your linen bedding, we suggest reaching out to your dry cleaner to discuss their process and whether they take any steps to avoid possible fabric shrinking. This quick step could help save your bedding! 

If you’ve made an error, or the linen shrinks, do not fear! Sometimes, you can’t help what a material does. Linen shrinks in some cases, and it can luckily be reversed. Natural fibers are amazing in that they’re almost malleable. If you think about it, the fibers are stretched in the material creation process. So, this reasonably can be done again, with care of course, to reverse shrinking.

So, how do you “unshrink” linen? Follow these steps:

  1. Soak the linen in lukewarm water. You can use a gentle detergent along with the water if you prefer. When I tried this myself, I used my most delicate laundry detergent, and even then, just the tiniest bit of it. Give this several minutes to just sit and soak. 
  2. Rinse. You’ve used soap or detergent, so it does need to be rinsed out. This is akin to a hand wash process. Rinse the linen carefully in lukewarm or in cool water. 
  3. Let it dry gently.This is important! Do not put it back in the dryer, especially if that is how your linen material or bedding shrunk in the first place. You can let it drip dry or simply roll it up gently in a towel. 
  4. Give it a little stretch. Lay the still wet (not dripping wet, though) or damp linen out. Give it a tiny, gentle stretch on each side. 
  5. Option 1: Iron it out. Using light pressure, while this is damp, stretch out the fabric and gently iron it
  6. Option 2 (my preference): Let it air dry. Place it on a flat surface if you have the space, and weigh it down after you’ve done the light bit of stretching as outlined in step four. This should help it hold its place.

Bedding such as sheets or duvet covers may require a lot of space and can make this a time and labor intensive process, but it is worth it if you’re concerned about the amount that the items have shrunk. It will, of course, be a simpler process with our smaller items like pillow cases and shams. I tried the above steps myself on a linen top, and have been happy with the results.

Whether you’re trying to keep your Sijo French Flax linen bedding from shrinking, or you’re doing a little damage control in case your linen does shrink, we hope this has been helpful. Gentleness is the key when it comes to washing and drying linen, and keeping it from shrinking. Keep this information and these tips in mind as you plan your future bedding care.

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