Clothes Encounters of the Worst Kind Why slips slip, pants shine and underwear creeps

January 07, 1993|By Valli Herman | Valli Herman,Dallas Morning News

Positively perplexing. How is it that perfectly functional, simply sensational garments mutate -- sometimes with a mere washing or wearing -- into baggy, saggy, rumpled bits of ill-fitting apparel? Maybe wearing clothing is more brutal and destructive than we once thought.

Or maybe they just don't make 'em like they used to.

Whatever the case, it's time someone asked why things go wrong with the clothes we buy.

Unnatural underwear

Judging by the panty line showing through your clingy knit dress, those sure are high-cut undies you've got there. Problem is, they didn't start out that way. Underwear that slides off your bottom and into the uncomfortable zone is a pain.

Finding the right fit is your first step toward a solution, says Linda Campbell, who develops fabrics for intimate apparel for the DuPont Co. So why does your underwear take a hike?

"A lot of it has to do with the way the garment is cut and the way it fits," Ms. Campbell says. "A lot of women buy panties that are too small for them."

Specialists at Fruit of the Loom have studied the problem as well.

Metaphorically speaking, "A lot of people are trying to squeeze 6 pounds into a 4-pound sack," says David Hardy, a quality-control specialist for Fruit of the Loom. "You can't design underwear for every body shape."

However, several manufacturers are adding spandex to cotton underwear to give it better clinging power, which may help some hard-to-fit figures.

Even then, she says, your particular gait may create the sort of tension that causes underwear to ratchet up your backside. Some experts suggest trying a fuller cut, such as a hipster instead of a bikini, or boxers instead of briefs.

Twisting T-shirts

That T-shirt you bought at the concert looks great -- at least through the drum solo. But when it's washed, the thing keeps on rocking and rolling. Its side seams have twisted sideways, and now you can't fold the seams square with the rest of the shirt.

"That's because it's probably knitted on a circular knitting machine -- which is less expensive to operate than a flat knitting machine. Each row is not truly parallel; it's more like a Slinky," explains Dr. Cindy Istook, who has a doctorate in textiles and is a former instructor at the University of North Texas in nearby Denton, Texas.

The shirt's natural spiral shape can be masked.

"When they create it, they can iron it flat and square. But when you wash it, the fibers relax and return to their natural form," says Dr. Istook.

The T-shirt twist can be straightened by restretching the damp garment and applying heat to set it -- but the effect lasts only until the next laundry day.

Iron-on shine

If you thought any idiot can iron, then how come you make those shiny streaks along your jeans, wool pants and brushed cotton shirts?

Take a lesson in textile science.

Wools and cotton are made from fairly short uneven fibers woven together into yarn. Silks and polyesters are made of longer, smooth-surface fibers and don't have so many little fiber stubs sticking up above the surface. Just picture the difference between a woman's smooth-shaven leg and a man's hairy leg.

Men are wool.

When you smooth the surface stubble on a fabric, light reflects more evenly, creating shine. Ironing, especially when you hit the raised and irregular surface of seams and cuffs, flattens the fibers and makes them more mirror-smooth.

Dr. Istook says wools and brushed-surface garments should be ironed from the wrong side, covered with a pressing cloth or steam-pressed without touching the surface.

If you're stuck with a shiny wool surface, the Wool Bureau suggests patting it with a cloth moistened with vinegar. If vinegar doesn't work, try a blast of steam to raise the fibers. Also, check to see that your too-hot iron hasn't just melted the synthetic fibers in your wool-blend fabric.

Baggy and saggy

It's obvious why the elbows in cotton sweaters and knees in leggings bag out after wearing. It's the pressure from movement that stretches the yarns. But why does washing restore the shape. What's water got to do with it?

Cottons are smarter than you think. They have a memory, says Norma Keyes, manager of the textile services laboratory for Cotton Inc., a research and promotional firm for the cotton industry.

"Water allows the alignment of the fibers and yarn to return to their original length and width relationships. Water lets them slide and realign themselves," she says. The woven or knitted fabric "grid" acts as a frame to keep the yarns in place.

Water isn't always necessary to aid the realignment, says Albert Grunfeld, a product development engineer at DuPont.

"The tumbling action (in laundering) allows the yarns to come back to their original configuration. A cotton sweater tumbled in a cool dryer will recover quite a bit, too," he says.

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