Why 5% shrinkage is fatal to a start up clothing line

The best laid plans of mice and men -are foiled by the cancellation of over 1,000 American Airlines flights. I will not be away after all. Drats. It’s not everyday that one is invited to speak at Yale. So you, my little dears, will have to put up with me this week after all. And I had nothing planned! What will I write about tomorrow? Oh I know. Something truly dreadful. It turns out that if you want to start a clothing line and you’re not doing business in the state of California but are using a California contractor, you still need a license from that state. As I said, dreadful. Till then, here’s something from my mail:

I am totally misunderstanding something about shrinkage, it seems. I have read your book and searched the forum, but my pattern maker says I should be concerned since my potential sewing contractor doesn’t press the garments and I was going to do the shrink testing at home in my washer and dryer. She said, “You could wash and dry a sample (as the end customer would do) to evaluate how much a specific fabric shrinks…. but if it’s more than 3% I would strongly advise that you look for other options.”

I’m thinking of using a 90/10 cotton/lycra knit. What am I not understanding here that makes her so concerned? Is there a book, posting or something else you could point me to so I can figure out what to do here? I keep thinking is if I wash and dry it according to my content label instructions (wash cold/machine dry), I don’t see why that wouldn’t give me enough information to go on.

I think this is a miscommunication between the two of you because I know your pattern maker is highly competent. I couldn’t reach her on the phone to confer with her or get permission to link to her, so I called Patternworks because they deal with shrinkage more often than I do.

Humberto said it was good that she mentioned the 3%; there’s a specific reason for it. He said that stores known to have good standards (like Penney’s and Nordstrom’s) have rules on the amount of shrinkage that can be passed onto the customer. Specifically, the maximum is 3%.

Sure, you can test your fabric at home according to the content label instructions to get a baseline for your patterns to be cut for shrinkage but if your contractor won’t press them and you’re not garment washing before shipping, you need to have other options. Which is what your pattern maker said. Unfortunately, you’ll have to do one of three things:

  • Get another contractor who will press or hire a separate contractor for the pressing
  • Garment washing
  • Purchasing another fabric with less shrinkage

Humberto says the customer is responsible for fabric testing (see how to measure shrinkage). In other words, so while you can test at home, if the goods shrink more than 3%, you need an alternative of pre-shrinking before you ship the finished products. Humberto says there’s a lot of difference between goods. He says they recently used a fabric from Italy and didn’t see any variation (he sounded amazed). He said that the fabric costs $15 a yard too. Lastly, maybe you have some wiggle-room depending on styling. If your items are loose and boxy like a muu muu, few consumers will notice. If the style is fitted, you’ll have to go the extra mile or else they’ll get returned.

I was thinking of doing this on all three colors (black, red, fuchsia) I’m intending to use – possibly removing or changing some colorways if they shrink very differently from the others. I’m hoping I can use one pattern for all my colorways.

I’m chuckling. Can you hear me? It is unlikely you’ll be able to use one pattern for all colorways. Maybe you can use the same pattern for the red and fuchsia but I’d bet money you need a separate pattern for the black. It won’t be that big a deal though. Your pattern maker has a CAD system. The shrinkage adjustment is very easy!

What am I not understanding here? I have a horrible feeling it is going to turn out to be something big and expensive.

Well, I don’t think it’ll be as dramatic as all that but one way or another, it’s going to cost you a little more. But it won’t bury you. Unless of course you take a chance and ship unshrunk. I suppose you could tell your customer on the hang tag that the garment will shrink x amount but they may not read it and buy the wrong size.

I finally got a hold of your pattern maker. Rocio says that if it shrinks too much, customers will get the impression that this is just another cheap product line. She says anything over 5% is going to ruin the reputation of your brand.

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  1. Birgitte Mutrux says:

    I’m so sorry your flight was cancelled :-(

    Another great post, clearing up a few matters for me. Just one question: In the book you state that it’s nearly impossible for manufacturers to pre-wash fabric. What is the specific reason for that? Cost, accuracy, something else entirely?… If you already answered this somewhere, bump me in that direction please :-)

  2. Lisa Bloodgood in Portland says:

    Yes, that is too bad you don’t get to go speak at Yale.

    I wash my own fabrics and a lot of the fabrics I use for my customers–whose garments are usually one-offs–because the chemicals on the fabric bug me, but I can see how difficult it would be to wash a whole roll of something just to see if it would shrink.

    Good to know about the percentage. I don’t remember that part in the book. I guess that means it’s time to go through it again. :-)

  3. Dana says:

    A number of large companies have high quality standards that include things like fabric shrinkage. Nordstom’s, Penney’s are examples. Haven’t seen their product standards in years but I used to work in quality/technical design at Lands’ End and the fabric shrinkage standards varied by fabric type. 3% for a cotton knit seems really tough to me. My memory of it was closer to 5%. 2-3% is more of a woven number. And the shrinkage was calculated after each of 3 washes in the lab.

    This is an ongoing battle for companies that deal with knits. The options are: build in extra to accommodate and hope the customer will understand that it will fit big at first, pre-wash fabric or garment, try to find a care instruction that mitigates the issue a bit, ignore the whole thing (many companies do), find alternate fabric source, or build in some but not all of the shrinkage to your pattern to try to strike a balance between initial fit and post wash fit. Companies can do any of the the above. I don’t see how your factory’s pressing garments would completely solve your problem as it won’t remove all the shrinkage anyway.

    You really need to think this through and keep your customer and styling in mind. The answers aren’t always black and white. Evaluate your fabric shrinkage (width and length) and then look closely at each style. What are the critical fit points in your garment and then evaluate the risk. For example, in a basic long sleeve t-shirt I would consider the sleeve length and probably the body length to be the most sensitive to shrinkage from a consumer standpoint because if my sleeve shrinks 3″ I can’t wear the top any more. Most fabrics shrink more in the length than width, and most knits have decent cross grain stretch. So 10% shrinkage in length is going to be a problem and I have to pre-wash or swap goods. If the shrinkage is closer to 5% maybe I can safely add length to the sleeve and body patterns and call it a day. All depends on your fabric and your style if pre-washed or garment washed are not appropriate. Personally I would never ignore shrinkage all together but we’ve all got garments in our wardrobe that proves some companies do.

    I’m not advocating ignoring the issue or advocating a blanket approach that routinely adds x % to everything. You need an intelligent fabric/style decision that includes reviewing care instructions and hangtags too. Customers understand that knits shrink a bit, they don’t understand a pant leg shrinking 3″ which is about what you’d get with 10% shrinkage. Keep in mind that you occasionally find fabrics that shrink in length and grow in width. Yet another issue. And then there is torquing, one of my common annoyances in knit fabrics. Fun stuff!

  4. esther says:

    I agree with all that Dana says. Many pattern books advise adding equal amounts of shrinkage in the length and width. Definitely does not work with knits and some wovens.

    I once toured a knitting mill. They had very cool (and large) washing machines. The washing was considered part of the finishing process to remove some of the shrinkage. It doesn’t remove all of it though. You also must consider fabrics prepared for printing or dyeing. Those fabrics can have significant shrinkage if not pre-washed.

  5. J C Sprowls says:

    And, while we’re on the topic… let’s also include PFD or garment dyeing. You can (and, should) test the PFD fabrics, threads, etc before cutting the pattern. But, then those patterns will need to be adjusted based on the results of the lab dip and garment washing tests.

    RE: shrinkage. Yeah, I can’t remember which book suggested this. But, I distinctly remember this from school. I got into an argument because of it, too. It simply wasn’t how we did things just a few blocks down the street.

    At that factory, we shrink graded the length and width, distinctly. We also had tolerances for each of the fabric types we brought in. I believe that natural fibre knits needed to be between 3-5%; shirtings were definitely And, while we’re on the topic… let’s also include PFD or garment dyeing. You can (and, should) test the PFD fabrics, threads, etc before cutting the pattern. But, then those patterns will need to be adjusted based on the results of the lab dip and garment washing tests.

    RE: shrinkage. Yeah, I can’t remember which book suggested this. But, I distinctly remember this from school. I got into an argument because of it, too. It simply wasn’t how we did things just a few blocks down the street.

    At that factory, we shrink graded the length and width, distinctly. We also had tolerances for each of the fabric types we brought in. I believe that natural fibre knits needed to be between 3-5%; shirtings were definitely <2%. I'll have to hunt for the rest.

    I agree with the spirit of Rocio's assessment, though. You do want your goods as consistent and as stable as possible before it hits the table, especially if you're producing for certain markets. If you're buying in sufficient quantity, you can sometimes enforce this at the mill's end - it'll cost a little extra. But, you guarantee the tolerances on the goods by doing this.

  6. THANK YOU!! This is a big help. I’m glad, Kathleen, you don’t think it will destroy my budget, but I’ll mentally prepare for the forthcoming adjustments.

    I’m still confused, though. I’m going to see what other fabrics I can find – maybe some will be more stable. I would like a spandex that isn’t slippery and shrinks almost not at all, but perhaps I’m dreaming. :)

  7. Yahzi Rose says:

    oh man, Kathleen. I’m sorry your speaking engagement was affected by AA.

    I think I’m missing something, what does final ironing have to do with the garment shrinking?

    Also, how accurate is the shinkage % you get from the mill, or salesperson of your fabric? I always ask them first, should I disregard what they say?

  8. Sorry to hear about your cancellation!

    Yahzi, I’ve found it depends on the supplier: some tend to be more accurate than others, but I would definitely test fabrics from a new supplier, and with some suppliers I test all of them anyway.

    Dana and JC make some very good points. One company I used to work for used 100% cotton interlock a lot, and not only was the length shrinkage around 10%, the garment hems tended to stretch width-wise in the first wash. The t-shirt patterns looked odd (very long and skinny) but after washing and pressing (pre-delivery) they were perfectly fine. Money well-spent, especially as the retailers could confidently tell customers that there would be little or no further shrinkage.

    Like Yahzi, I’m not convinced, though, that mere pressing will shrink the garments, at least in knits with larger than 3% shrinkage (esp. length)? But happy to be corrected if that’s the case.

  9. Lesley says:

    I don’t usually have much to add, so my first post. I was really struggling with this since I am a really small company and could never meet any of the mills’ huge minimums to get items pre-shrunk. Then I discovered a wonderful local company called Tumbling Colors in Raleigh,NC. They have NO MINIMUMS and specialize in exactly this topic:testing & dyeing. They will give you an exact shrinkage report. The guy who owns in has been in the business forever and is idealistic in his desire to help out small designers. They also do tons of work for Abercrombe & alot of big players too. You can check out their website if it is ok to post it (?) at http://www.tumblingcolors.com

  10. J C Sprowls says:

    RE: Testing. Okay, I don’t wanna come right out and say it. But, some folks are liars.

    I know, I know. That was harsh. The truth of the matter is, the supplier just can’t know. Most suppliers deal with many mills for their goods. Some mills adhere to their own specs. Some don’t.

    Suppliers find out too late to enforce the spec, and that’s a whole other level of heartache. Let’s just say the supplier doesn’t know there’s a problem until the contractor tells them. And, then it’s way too late to do anything about it unless that contractor has a lot of clout.

    Jobbers buy up left overs from contractors and mills. The content and other technical information they get is just bogus – consider the source. Again, it’s not their fault that they’re misinformed. Most will certainly try to do the right thing. This reflects poorly on their reputation. But, it’s all a matter of clout.

    I’ve used Thomas Mason shirtings for *years*. And, yes, I keep going back because of stability, finish and color selection. Yes, I can almost bank that the shrinkage will consistently be less than 2% X 2%. But, will I? Nah… On a custom clothing level, I just pre-wash. On an industrial level, I can’t. Repeat after me: “Testing is not overrated”.

    Do I trust any written info about fabrics? Nope! I test everything. I can’t count how many times I’ve bought 62/60″ fabric (meaning 60″ is cuttable) and it gets here to find out it’s *really* 58″ cuttable because the 62/60 numbers were taken off the roll before it was dyed.

  11. Jennifer E. says:

    Here a little bit of information to add – I promise I write about it later after I finish a history book due on Monday
    the 3% does not come out of nowhere is actually a standard found in the ASTM standard performance specifications for many types of fabric e.g. D 4038 – Standard performance specification for Women’s and Girls Woven Dress and Blouse fabrics Dimensional change to laundering 3% max in both warp and weft. Also under I believe under CAN/CGSB 4.2 No.58 a Canadian standard for dimensional change it list a maximum as 3% – now this is going from memory. This standard is then used for the labeling act for wash symbol so it actually important keep you shrinkage in check.

    and i second JC comment

    “Testing is not overrated”.

  12. All extremely useful information! This really helps me out since this is the first time I’m doing my fabric testing.
    I have one question: Does the 3% also apply if the fabric stretches? I have a linen that shrinks one way and stretches out the other and I’m not quite sure what to do about that.

  13. Patty says:

    Do you have to wash the fabric before it is cut and sewn or can you also adjust the pattern for shrinkage and wash the finished garment to get out the shrinkage? My pattern maker has told me the latter is preferred, but then i hear that it’s better to first wash (makes more sense). I also found that it’s very expensive at the places I’ve called who do this. Does anyone know of any places they use in the NYC area that they’ve had a good experience with and is “reasonably” priced?


  14. Avatar photo

    I second your patternmaker’s suggestion to adjust the pattern for shrinkage. Many people have tried the alternative of having goods washed but have failed to do it successfully (read: cost effectively). The latter only works if you are doing your own, very small production.

    The only low cost wash alternative is commercial laundries (uniforms, hotel sheets etc) but they will not have the know how or ability to rewind the goods on the bolt, evenly or wrinkle free.

  15. Patty says:

    Thanks for the response! yes, adjusting the pattern is the route that I’ve decided to go. Now I have to deal with the seam puckering that occurs after the garment has shrunk. I’m doing higher-end sweatshirts (french terry and rib from Japan) – 100% cotton. the fabrics wash well on their own, but as a garment, I guess because they shrink differently (the rib vs. the terry), there is some puckering. The factory may try adjusting the thread tension, but not sure this will do anything. Boy is “pre-washing” proving to be much more difficult to deal with than i thought!

  16. Dravy Sommay says:

    Hi There, I have a question for you, I worked at Chef works in PD department.
    I mainly deal with testing the fabric before moving into production. but I done all the testing on fabric in our in-house lab and SGS.
    our standard tolerance for fabric is – or + 3.0% and our finished garment standard tolerance is 1.0% but when we received finished garment from our factory and inspected the finished garment came in at 3cm out off tolerance. to meet the specs do our pattern department need to give more tolerance instead of 1.0%. Please advise. Thank you.

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