The washing machine has long represented the point of no return for woolens. Drop something in there by mistake, and, unless the yarn has been specially treated to be machine-washable, you’ll likely end up with a fuzzy, shrunken piece of heartbreak.
Felting is irreversible. Limited success can be had by soaking your felted garment in hair conditioner or fabric softener, which helps lubricate the fiber surfaces to allow for some movement when stretched. But rarely can you get a severely felted garment back to its original shape. The enmeshment of fibers is permanent.
Or is it?
A new product called Unshrinkit is causing quite a stir. Unshrinkit claims to unshrink wool that’s made an accidental journey into the wash. In a company video, we watch a young woman in a laundromat discover that her favorite top and skirt have shrunk in the wash. A handsome man notices her distress and hands her a bottle of Unshrinkit. The clothes are saved. She cancels plans with friends and goes out with him instead. (Note to single men in laundromats: Keep a bottle of this with you at all times.)
The video doesn’t feature your favorite handknitted sweater, or any sweater at all. The skirt looks like cotton, as does the top. But that’s a minor point. The concept of this product is so grand, so revolutionary, that it’s been sending knitters into a tizzy.
To the Laundry Room We Go
Hype makes me weary, so I ordered a bottle and picked a sweater to sacrifice for testing.
After taking careful measurements, I ran a lovely blue wool pullover through a hot wash cycle with some towels and jeans.
As expected, the sweater shrank considerably. I measured a reduction in chest circumference of two inches. The arms grew 1.5 inches narrower, and the sweater shrank in height by three inches. All in all, just enough to make the sweater very uncomfortable (and unflattering) for me to wear.
In addition to the shrinkage, the fabric surface was transformed from thin and crisp to thick and fuzzy. This is the part of felting no product can undo. You’d need millions of tiny fingers to reach in and realign each fiber end with each stitch. Impossible.
Unshrinking the Unshrinkable
Time to try Unshrinkit. The instructions are to fill a sink with 3 liters of warm water, then add the entire bottle of Unshrinkit. Which is my first observation: One bottle per garment, or $9.99 plus shipping for each sweater you want to rescue. That’s steep for everyday use, but still reasonable for those garments you really, really love.
Unshrinkit has no fragrance, nor did it make any bubbles or visible change to the water. The bottle does come with a few cautions, though.
First, the product contains sulfites, and you should avoid contact with eyes and use in a well-ventilated area. And second, in case of eye contact, immediately flush eyes with water for 15 minutes. If swallowed, do not induce vomiting. Call a physician immediately. (My translation: Treat this like medicine for emergencies, not something you casually slosh around on a daily basis.)
I dropped in my sweater and squeezed and squeezed (and squeezed) until it seemed fully saturated. The Web site claims you can treat multiple garments with one bottle. But 3 liters is only about 12 cups of liquid, and my sweater soaked up every last drop without blinking. While I probably could have squeezed in a pair of socks if I’d needed, it’s still pretty much a one-bottle-per-sweater product.
Nervous about those warnings on the back of the bottle, I rinsed my hands well. They smelled faintly of, I couldn’t quite trace it, perhaps vinegar?
Instructions said to soak the clothing for at least 30 minutes for maximum effectiveness. At that point, they say to rinse clothing under cold running water, then gently stretch to preferred size. Only then, as a separate step, are you to squeeze out excess liquid and lay the item on a towel to dry.
I waited a full 30 minutes. When I went back into my laundry room and took one sniff, I finally understood what Unshrinkit was most likely doing to my sweater.
In that sniff, I smelled every permanent wave I’d ever gotten back in junior high. What follows is speculation; I am no chemist. But it’s possible that Unshrinkit uses chemicals similar to those used for permanent waves or hair relaxers.
A common ingredient in home relaxers is ammonium sulfite (remember, the bottle warns us that it contains sulfites), which act by weakening the bonds within protein fibers. The weaker the bonds, the more you can stretch and manipulate the fiber without it breaking. If this is true, it’s actually quite a clever application of something we’ve used for years on our own hair.
The sweater emerged even smaller than when I began soaking it. I tugged and stretched until I heard tiny ripping sounds (oops). I lightened up my touch but continued to tug and stretch, feeling more disheartened by the minute. When I tugged the sweater one way, it would shrink in the other direction. It was like trying to roll out a reluctant pie dough.
I finally managed to get the chest back to its original width. But in doing so, I lost an inch and a half in height. Back and forth I went, getting increasingly frustrated.
By now, the sweater was dry enough that I could slip it on. This did the trick. The human body is a perfect blocking device. I pulled and tugged and stretched until the sweater was remarkably close to what it’d been before—albeit with an extremely fluffy, clearly machine-washed appearance.
I carefully removed the sweater and set it on the towel to measure. I was within a half inch of the original height, and the width was spot-on. The only casualty seemed to be the sleeves, which refused to give back more than an inch or so.
A Miracle Cure?
In saying that the product worked, it’s important to note that what I ended up with was not the same as what I had before. Unshrinkit is not a time-traveling machine. It allows you to stretch felted clothes back to within a reasonable range of what they were before the accident. But you’ll still be left with a felted fabric that’s been chemically manipulated and stretched.
I’m not ready to stand on the rooftops and say it’s a miracle, but this is a very interesting idea and I’m glad someone is pursuing it. For any knitter who must juggle precious handknits in dangerous proximity to a washing machine, Unshrinkit may become more valuable than jumper cables or a spare tire.
The Nose Knows
My one caveat would be smell: Even though I rinsed it well, my sweater still smells like that perm solution. I’m hesitant to undo all that stretching and blocking by rinsing it again right away, but that’s the natural next step.
Will this stretched shape endure forever, or just until the next wash? Based on my understanding of how yarn manufacturers use heat and moisture to “set” the twist in a wool yarn, I would think I shouldn’t wash the sweater in water any warmer than what I used for the treatment. Then again, those chemical bonds may have been permanently re-set, making us safe. I will give it a test and report back.
Speaking of tests, I had tossed a second sweater into the wash. It was a beautiful periwinkle cashmere cardigan with (gasp) several moth holes. My goal was to felt the sweater so much that the holes sealed themselves up. Then, I could use Unshrinkit to stretch the sweater back into shape. (Since I bought my bottle, they’ve X’d out the word “cashmere” on the product description page.)
Alas, the sweater didn’t felt at all, and the holes unraveled even more. So much for that theory—but the experience did hatch an idea for my next fix-it project.
Unshrinkit is manufactured in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s available online, currently priced at $12.99 per 8 oz bottle, and the company offers a money-back guarantee if you aren’t completely satisfied.
Find locations online: Unshrinkit
Purchased from Unshrinkit