Handling Shrinkage Complaints

Norm Oehlke |

One of the most complex problems for the drycleaner is handling a customer’s complaints about shrinkage. Most of these problems are not caused by the drycleaner, yet they must convince the customer that the shrinkage is due to other circumstances.
Did the garment undergo a dimensional change? If so, there should be some evidence of it. Any degree of shrinkage will be evident in a wavy zipper, puckered seams, fullness in the lining or another distortion. Some relaxation of the fabric can occur without showing shrinkage visibly. This usually goes unnoticed or isn’t objectionable to the person wearing the garment.
First, ask whether the garment actually did shrink, or if it’s possible that the snug fit was caused by the customer’s adding a few pounds. It’s a delicate topic, but one that must be considered. A snug fit may not be caused only by weight gain, but from the shifting or redistribution of certain portions of the body. Such changes often develop in one’s later years. If the garment has hung in the closet for six months to a year, then that snugness may reveal itself once worn.
Today, many garments are purchased to fit snugly, and any slight dimensional changes can result in a shrinkage complaint. Most garments can be expected to shrink about 1% or more in a drycleaning process, but this is not usually enough to cause a complaint unless the article was too tight when purchased.
In other cases, the customer may feel that the snug fit is part of the fashion today, and change their minds in the future. Shrinkage of 2% will often be enough to cause a complaint. Garments purchased as loose-fitting are less prone to cause complaints than snug-fitting garments.Relaxation Shrinkage. The most common shrinkage seen after drycleaning is “relaxation” shrinkage. This is caused by the garment having been overstretched during construction. The tumbling effects of a care process can allow a slightly overstretched fabric to relax.
This type of shrinkage is progressive. Some relaxation will occur in the initial process; additional shrinkage may occur during the next two or three cleanings. Consequently, shrinkage objectionable to the customer may not be noticeable until two or three visits have passed.
The consumer may complain that the drycleaner cleaned it correctly the first time, but did something wrong on the third cleaning. Some relaxation shrinkage actually occurred with each care procedure, but it was so subtle that no one noticed. The tumbling effects of a later cleaning will cause this overstretched fabric to relax. Even greater shrinkage occurs during a wash procedure.Swelling Shrinkage. Fibers such as wool, cotton, rayon and acetate pick up moisture from the atmosphere and distort under damp conditions. This type of dimensional change is more likely to occur during the summer months. Any excess moisture used in drycleaning can also cause shrinkage in these garments.Progressive Shrinkage. In addition to relaxation and swelling shrinkage, a condition known as “progressive” shrinkage can take place, which is shrinkage that occurs slightly with every cleaning. This kind of dimensional change is often difficult to explain. Customers think that you’ve cleaned the garment once or twice before without any changes, then did something wrong to cause the change on the last cleaning. You must then explain the phenomenon of progressive shrinkage.Felting Shrinkage. This problem is confined to wool and other hair fibers. These fibers will absorb large quantities of water from the atmosphere, and also from excess moisture used in prespotting or other drycleaning procedures. Once the fabric is damp, the surface scales on the fiber tend to swell and mat together as the fabric shrinks.
Excessive tumbling or other mechanical action while damp greatly accelerates the problem. Tumbling in hot dryer causes even greater problems with dampened wool fibers, but if the garment is left to air-dry, it probably will not shrink excessively. Any shrinkage that occurs from air-drying conditions can usually be overcome by stretching in finishing, while felting shrinkage caused by excess moisture, excess tumbling and high temperatures can’t be corrected.
Wool will not develop felting shrinkage when properly handled in drycleaning—just omit excess moisture and high tumbler temperatures. Many wool fabrics processed with modern wetcleaning procedures respond well when the mechanical action and temperature are carefully controlled.
Remember, wool and other hair fibers shrink from a combination of factors. Excess moisture, heat and/or mechanical action cause the fibers to shrink and the surface scales on wool to lock together. The fabric not only shrinks, but also becomes permanently harsh and stiff, which can result in a claim.Restoration. When a customer complains of shrinkage, take note of the suspect areas. Then try to stretch the garment, paying particular attention to those areas. Steam softens fibers, and the fabric will often stretch if tension is used while the garment is moist.
Steam, stretch and vacuum-dry the areas, bringing the head of the press down to help set the fabric. It may be a good idea to get the customer’s measurements before stretching the fabric. Shrinkage can often be corrected with proper refinishing.
Customers often judge shrinkage by stretching their arms out in front of their bodies to show how short the sleeves are. Garments aren’t made to fit outstretched arms, however, so ask the person complaining to let their arms drop down at their sides. In garment construction, sleeves are cut to fit while the arms are hanging.
Many customers complain of a snug fit in the shoulder area or a slight shortness in sleeve. This can often be corrected by stretching the shoulder area. Snugness in the shoulder causes sleeves to draw up. If the shoulder area is relaxed and stretched, the sleeve length will correct itself.
Place the shoulder area over a puff iron and gently tension the area while steaming. Try to steam out a large area so the garment doesn’t look distorted in the areas under tension. Many shrinkage complaints can be corrected with this procedure.
Shrinkage control should be built into a new garment to limit shrinkage to less than 2%. Shrinkage control is achieved with various processing procedures while the cloth is still in bolt form. Some fabrics receive specific heat-setting treatments, while others are treated with resins or special coatings to stabilize the fabric.
If the fabric is not properly heat-set, or the sizing or resin is applied incorrectly, shrinkage can occur during a later care process. This is beyond the control of the drycleaner, and customers should be forewarned.

About the author

Norm Oehlke

Retired Columnist

Norm Oehlke was the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Tips column from 1996 through 2007, as well as the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Guide. Now retired, he spent a lifetime in the industry — first in a plant, and from 1955 through 1995 at IFI and its predecessor, NID. He resides with his wife, Adeline, in Highland, Md.


Slipcovers for Loveseat --Shrinkage

Appreciate your thoughts on how dry cleaner should respond in the following situation:

I brought in custom-made slipcovers for a loveseat--7 pieces [Base cover and 6 cushion covers], 100% cotton.  Although they were "fitted" to my 2 tuxedo-style loveseats with piping, as with most slipcovers, they were not "snug".

When I asked if they could be cleaned, noting a stain from my dog laying on cushions-- He assured me that cleaning would be no problem, only that some residue from the stain might remain.  No release was offered to me.

When I picked the covers up after the agreed upon date, they look a bit wrinkled, but I wasn't too bothered until I attempted to put the covers on the loveseat. 

The base cover totally shrunk-- the largest piece cannot be closed, even after over 10 days of trying to stretch it over the frame.  The zipper runs along the back corner and can be closed only about 1/3, with huge gap of inches.  The skirt bows in each direction and the original skirt is very visible underneath- -- a  way too mini skirt.  The cushion covers are extremely tight and must be twisted to get them on to the extent I can.  It is a sad sight!

I've brought them back to the cleaners--with a few photos of the problems. He's a quiet guy, but he was less than forthcoming with next steps.  He suggested that I find a "professional furniture place" to stretch them out.  After discussion, he agreed to press them & try to stretch them-- at no charge.

Sorry to say, this did not resolve the issues. I'm just grateful that I didn't bring the covers for the 2nd loveseat in at the same time, although since they are a matched set, both will have to be replaced.

In your opinion, how should the dry cleaner handle this?

What is my recourse if he fails to assume some responsibly? 

Thank you for taking the time.


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