Why Do Clothes Shrink in the Wash?

iStock/aurumarcus
iStock/aurumarcus

It's an everyday tragedy of the modern world: you have a favorite piece of clothing that fits just so, but when it comes out of the wash, it's shrunk. Did you offend the clothing gods with your style? Is Maytag in league with American Apparel to keep you buying new clothes? No. In fact, your shrunken clothes didn't even really shrink. Let's take a look at what's going on.

The name's Bond, Broken Bond

A cotton t-shirt is made of cloth -- made of woven together threads, which are in turn made up of cotton fibers. These fibers are constructed of long molecular chains, which are linked end-to-end by hydrogen bonds. As the fibers are spun into thread and the thread is woven into cloth, the fibers and the polymers they're made of get pulled, stretched and twisted and the hydrogen bonds holding everything together get stressed.

This stress is relieved when you throw the shirt in the wash. The energy in the heat and agitation that clothes are exposed to during washing and drying break the stressed out bonds and the polymers are free to relax and return to their natural, pre-stretching size. In turn, the fibers, the threads and the cloth get smaller and you wind up with a shirt just big enough to fit the cat (come here, Mittens, it's time to play dress up!)

Wooly Bully

Pull out a piece of your hair (c'mon, it'll be fun). Pull it through your thumb and pointer finger by the root end, and then again from the opposite end. It doesn't feel as smooth the second way, right? That's because the hair is covered with small raised scales that are arranged sort of like shingles on a roof, all pointing in the same direction. Wool fibers have these scales too, and processing these fibers and making a wool sweater disrupts the natural fiber alignment and allows the scales to snag one another. The heat, water and agitation that meet the sweater in the washer and dryer basically ratchet the scales together and tighten up the contact between the fibers in the yarn and the yarns in the fabric, clumping everything together and giving the cat yet another clothing option.

Avoiding Shrinkage

"¢ Buy shrink-proof. Clothes made from cotton can be treated with shrink-resistant or durablepress finishes, which form cross-links between parallel polymer chains and help the polymers withstand the stress of manufacturing and keep them from relaxing during washing. Wool sometimes undergoes a shrink-proofing treatment that uses chlorine to lessen the profile of the scales. It also coats the fibers with a resin to smooth them out.

"¢ Buy clothes made from natural-synthetic blends. Polyester doesn't absorb as much water as cotton does, so it doesn't take on as much bond-breaking energy and shrinkage is limited.

"¢ Prewashed or preshrunk clothing has already been washed by the manufacturer several times. The tension in the fibers has already been released and shouldn't shrink anymore when you wash the clothing again.

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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